How the global media was duped into blaming two non-existent ‘North African’ suspects for stabbing an Italian policeman
In a matter of hours, two US American students were charged, but it didn't matter. The far-right had already fed their fabrications to the mainstream until it was no longer clear what was true and what was fake
Italian politics got quite strange last weekend. I was first aware of this on Saturday, when my Twitter started twanging to the sound of a far right politician rowing back on some hatred. That is a rare event, and cause for celebration, even if the proximate cause for the froth was appalling human tragedy and a salutary lesson in how irresponsible journalism can foment hate.
It began with the brutal murder of Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old vice-brigadier in the carabinieri, on duty in the Prati district of Rome, in the early hours of 26 July. Within hours – by 9am in most cases – the Italian press had it sorted.
Police were seeking two young men, described variously as “North African” or “Maghrebian” (“magrebini”) in origin. The papers detailed their height, their hairstyle and even their clothes (one wore a black t-shirt: the other wore violet). Twitter – especially far-right Twitter – went wild.
And it had to be true, because pretty much all of the Italian media said so, from mainstream respectable titles like Repubblica to major press agencies AGI and Agenpress.
Within minutes of reports appearing, right-leaning interior minister Matteo Salvini expressed his hopes that the two would soon be caught: his tweet linked to an article in mainstream newspaper Il Messaggero that identified the suspects as North African. Leader of far right Fratelli d'Italia, Giorgia Meloni (of the later-rowed-back tweet) vented her anger at these “two animals, probably Maghrebian”.
Others from her party followed suit. Luca Marsella, a councillor for the even-further-right CasaPound slammed the charities and politicians who saved refugees from drowning, wondering if they had “helped the murderers ashore”. And, ironic twist, even former leftish PM Paolo Gentilone joined in.
But in a matter of hours the police had arrested two suspects – two US American students, not the least bit North African – who quickly confessed and were charged.
The first and obvious lesson is that this sorry tale highlights the dilemma facing media today. Online publishing and its drive for clicks means newsdesks tend to publish articles almost as soon as they have them. If a story is already being reported by what appears to be a reputable source, the instinct to devote time to fact-checking has waned.
That's why, returning to journalism around 15 years ago, I found, my habit of going back to primary sources was regarded as unwelcome, quaint even. It's how the UK press could continue reporting – for years! – that Ian Huntley was transgender on the basis of a single line in one newspaper. And continue to do so until he threatened to sue them.
It might also explain why the journalistic career of one Boris Johnson went from strength to strength, despite it being widely known that he was more than happy to bend the truth – and not just bananas.
But there is scarier stuff at play here. The near-universal attribution of that precise description of the suspects, to “police sources”, for example. According to Il Post, the earliest reference seems to have surfaced on Infodifesa, a “police and security forces portal”, which carries a careful disclaimer that it is NOT journalism within the meaning of the Italian law.
The story gained further momentum with a post on a Facebook group, Puntato, identifying the perpetrators as four individuals, three Moroccan and one Algerian, and including what purported to be a police photo. It was, possibly, a joke in very bad taste. But this was a group for police officers using a traffic app, run by two serving police officers.
That lasted just a few minutes. But it was copied and reposted on another Facebook page, UNITI Saremo TUTTO (“Together we are ALL”) run by a far right poster. There it stayed for several hours, gaining around 5,000 shares.
Adding insult to injury, by the time I got around to tweeting about the story on Saturday, when it was clear that the perpetrators were US citizens and not North African, (far) right news sources had already moved on to cite the Daily Mail from the day previous as “proof” my latest Italian sources were wrong. One thing this clearly implies is that news organisations should be far quicker to take down – or at least annotate – the original stories, in many places still up.
It is all very messy, and not wholly the fault of the press. But they must take some accountability. Because the right are now actively creating news, spinning news, wherever it suits their agenda, then playing back their fabrications into the mainstream until no-one has a clue what is true and what is fake.
In this instance, speedy action by the Italian Police prevented worse. But that will not always be the case. And the time has come for the media – all media – to think far more carefully about how to respond when there are people actively seeking to subvert how news reaches the public.