back to article Copying Wikipedia's lies is not just for hacks, right Lord Leveson?

Last week, the judge tasked with cleaning up the British press was caught indulging in one of its filthiest habits: copying unreliable factoids from Wikipedia, the “encyclopedia anyone can edit”. Lord Justice Leveson’s report on UK press ethics last week featured the statement: The Independent [newspaper] was founded in 1986 …

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  1. Babbit55
    Facepalm

    Basic Facts

    So if they get the basic facts about this totally wrong, how can they expect the real meat of the inquest to be accurate and correct too?

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Basic Facts

      Should have linked to it I guess.

      But if this makes his report wrong we can shut the press down right away for being a lot worse.

    2. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Stop

      Re: Basic Facts

      How many commentards actually checked what Andrew claims it says in the Levesden Report is actually in there?

      Or did the great majority make the same mistake of simply believing whatever they read?

      1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

        Re: Re: Basic Facts

        Search for Straub [PDF]

        C.

      2. Babbit55
        FAIL

        Re: Basic Facts

        Not sure where my downvotes came from, as for reading it please see point 8.5 within the History section

        "The Independent was founded in 1986 by the journalists Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen

        Glover and Brett Straub, and was published by Newspaper Publishing plc. The creation of the

        new paper took place against the background of the Wapping disputes. It launched with the

        advertising slogan, “It is. Are you?” making play of the independence of the newspaper from

        the influence of a powerful proprietor."

  2. Piro
    FAIL

    Genius.

    He couldn't, say, just call the paper and confirm, or something as simple as that, right? I mean, fuck it, it's only a high profile enquiry, why not copy and paste any old thing from Wikipedia.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Well, I, as a taxpayer, am very pleased we're not being handed an extortionate bill for double-checking every bit of minutia in a several thousand page long report. If something important were wrong then I would care, but if this is the biggest flaw in the Leveson report then the quality control was plenty good enough.

      1. The FunkeyGibbon
        Thumb Down

        Missing the point much?

        If Leveson is asking the press to put it's house in order and stop printing factual inaccuracies by producing a report with factual inaccuracies in it, doesn't that rather undermine the point he is trying to make. It let's journalists say "See, not as easy as you thought is it?".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Missing the point much?

          @The FunkeyGibbon - There is a teensy weensy difference between getting a fact wrong and knowingly and willfully printing lies which have ruined people's lives.

          See if you can tell the difference between these two statements:

          Three guys were involved in setting up a newspaper, it turns out one of them wasn't.

          The parents of a kidnapped child actually killed her and tried to dispose of the body without anyone finding out.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Err...

      I'm sure that a law Lord investigating a newspaper would not be criticised in any way for just calling up a newspaper to check a couple of facts.

      Also: Do you think he wrote all of the, three thousand pages (IIRC) himself and personally fact checked it all?

    3. dajames Silver badge
      Trollface

      Well ...

      He couldn't, say, just call the paper and confirm, or something as simple as that, right?

      How do you know that he (or his assistant) didn't do that, and got through to some junior editorial person who hadn't a clue and looked it up on Wikipedia?

  3. nuked
    1. ukgnome
      Facepalm

      You included an extra / in your link - hope you don't work in IT, as the irony would finish you off.

  4. tkioz
    Pint

    I really don't get the full on hate for Wikipedia, of course it's not something you should totally rely on without a second, more reputable source. but honestly it's a good general resource.

    1. jai

      I think the full on hatred is a good thing - it keeps in mind the fact that you shouldn't rely on it for serious use. Without being aware that people hate it so much (evidently Lord Leveson is ignorant of such) then people will attribute far too much trust in it as an indisputable source of fact. And the thought of society getting to that point is quite scary.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I second that.

      For all its flaws, Wikipedia is often the quickest way to get a rough answer to a query and a list of links to more reputable sources. It's very valuable, provided that you don't trust it entirely.

      1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
        Flame

        Wiki warnings...

        For all its flaws, Wikipedia is often the quickest way to get a rough answer to a query and a list of links to more reputable sources....

        It's almost ALWAYS the quickest way to get a quite detailed answer to a query - which, in part, is the danger.

        What should be stressed is that MUCH of the data on the wiki is fairly accurate and balanced. But in areas where there is any controversy, the wiki entry will almost certainly be representing one side alone. Occasionally you will find an entry changing as a war occurs, but usually one side is vanquished and is erased.

        The problem is that people generally want to know about controversial issues. These are the ones where the wiki will be used, which is why activists spend so much time fighting for their point of view on it.

        And do read the references thoroughly. Look at the wiki entry for 'background radiation'. You will find a comment:

        "...Epidemiological studies are underway to identify health effects associated with the high radiation levels in Ramsar. It is much too early to draw statistically significant conclusions,[20] but so far radiation hormesis has not been observed, and data from Ramsar does not provide justification to relax existing regulatory dose limits.[21].."

        but if you read the paper referenced (^ Ghiassi-nejad, M; Mortazavi, SM; Cameron, JR; Niroomand-rad, A; Karam, PA (2002 Jan). "Very high background radiation areas of Ramsar, Iran: preliminary biological studies". Health physics 82 (1): 87–93.), you will find that it says (and I paraphrase)

        " We did not look for evidence of radiation hormesis. The data from Ramsar indicates that existing regulatory does limits should be relaxed, but more evidence should be gathered before making such a major step. "

        which is not the same thing as the wiki claims it says at all. Activists are skilled at putting partial sets of views down....

    3. Bakunin
      Thumb Up

      It's a launch pad

      I agree. It's a very good starting point for getting an overview of a subject and I find it's generally correct. However, it should only really be viewed as a launch pad into other sources of information. Always be very wary of any fact without an external citation.

      Why the hate of Wikipedia? Those who make their living out of producing content love to point out any errors/pranks as evidence that unpaid content doesn't work.

      The sad thing is it's a great, if imperfect, achievement that gets bashed far more often than praised. However, if there's one lasting legacy of Wikipedia it's that it has hopefully taught people to be more critical about the source of their knowledge.

      1. TeeCee Gold badge
        Facepalm

        Re: It's a launch pad

        ...if there's one lasting legacy of Wikipedia it's that it has hopefully taught people to be more critical about the source of their knowledge.

        No. What it's taught us is that some people will believe anything if it's written down in black and white. But we knew that already.

        1. Bakunin
          Coat

          Re: It's a launch pad

          "No. What it's taught us is that some people will believe anything if it's written down in black and white. But we knew that already."

          Should I just believe that or do you have a citation?

          1. Alan Dougherty
            Windows

            Re: It's a launch pad

            @Bakunin

            “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible.”

            Stuart Chase.

            To argue with people that will believe whatever they are presented with is pointless, because they have already made their minds up. This is why 419 scams are (deliberately) badly written. Those that still reply to them are worth the effort to chase, because they WILL believe anything.

    4. TeeCee Gold badge

      If you're thinking of using Wikifacts(tm) anywhere important, check the edits and discussions associated with the page. If there's a flame war going on in there, take it with a pinch of salt.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @tkioz

      "I really don't get the full on hate for Wikipedia, of course it's not something you should totally rely on without a second, more reputable source. but honestly it's a good general resource".

      I agree. Moreover, the less recent, fashionable, and controversial a subject is the more reliable Wikipedia is likely to be. I would guess that its treatment of group theory, the history of ancient China, or astrophysics is much more reliable than that of the Indescribablyboring newspaper..

      Moreover, as any educated person should understand, no source whatsoever is worthy of absolute trust. Just because someone is a well-respected professor, with prizes and endowments up the wazoo, doesn't mean his (or her) book doesn't contain serious errors or even highly slanted explanations. And just because almost everyone believes something, that doesn't make it true.

      "The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion". - Bertrand Russell (and yes, you will find that quotation on Wikipedia. Nevertheless, it is genuine).

    6. Tom Melly

      One of the problems with wikipedia - and relevant to this issue - is that the inaccuracy is now verifiable - the article can cite the levenson report (citation is more important than truth).

      It's a constant problem with wikipedia - an incorrect or unverified fact is lifted from wikipedia by a lazy journo, and the journo's article then becomes the verification.

      See http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/15/tom_melly_wikipedia_comment/ for an example (and for added irony, note that the reg article has become one of the citations).

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Leverson is not the first judge to believe everything he reads in Wikipedia; according to David Irving the English historian in his book, "Banged Up", available online;

    " More disturbing to me when I glanced much later at the document—I

    labour under a profound distaste of all such judicial papers—was what I

    found tagged on at the end: here were four print-outs of newspaper arti-

    cles privately downloaded by Judge Liebetreu in the days before the trial,

    all from distinctly left-wing sources: he had even printed out the lengthy

    and very unfriendly entry about me in the German Wikipedia, the in-

    formal Internet encyclopedia, blissfully ignoring that while it referenced

    a dozen other websites attacking me, it dared not give even the address of

    my own website, as it unashamedly stated, “for legal reasons.”

    According to David Irving, his Wikipedia page contains libelous statements and he is unable to correct them because they have been locked. Pranks are one thing, but using Wikipedia as a means of character assassination for political reasons is rather darker. Judges or anyone else who use Wikipedia, professionally, as a reliable source should be fired.

    1. Not That Andrew
      FAIL

      I'm sure there are far better examples of people who's lives have been blighted by lies and errors on Wackypedia. I find it hard to feel sorry for a Nazi apologist and find it hard to take you seriously because you apparently feel indignation for him.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Not That Andrew

        "I'm sure there are far better examples of people who's lives have been blighted by lies and errors on Wackypedia. I find it hard to feel sorry for a Nazi apologist and find it hard to take you seriously because you apparently feel indignation for him".

        The choice of example may be tactless, but David Irving's right not to be lied about is just as good as anyone else's. When will people understand that legal, or even ethical, rights do not depend on the goodness of the individual concerned? As Shakespeare elegantly put it,

        "Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty!.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "all from distinctly left-wing sources"

      Left from David Irving covers a lot of ground.

      1. Jemma

        Covers alot of ground...

        Most of Europe and Russia for a start...

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Hmmm, are we really supposed to believe Irving over Wikipedia? It might be a dodgy source, but dodgyness is surely relative...

      1. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge
        FAIL

        If I may...

        ..claim to speak with some experience in dodgyness?

        Many things are dodgy, but the most dodgy of all are those things which are wrong, but which everyone accepts as true because of the social pressures to do so. This leads us into the dangerous position of saying that, because I disagree with David Irving's politics or his books, then nothing he says can ever be true.

        Humanity has a long record of manias, where normal people apparently go out of their minds due to social pressure. We used to burn witches - we are teetering on the brink of burning those accused of pedophilia at the moment. The only way to retain sanity is to examine any accusation or statement on its own merits, and work hard at thrusting any preconceived notions out of our minds.

        But that won't happen in my lifetime...

        1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

          Re: If I may...

          Thanks, Mr Geezer. I was going to have to post the same sentiment if you hadn't got there first.

          David Irving spent a lot of time doing a lot of research on his topic. By all means criticise his research and use of data, but the legal equivalent of ad hominem should not have been used to silence him.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Err?

      As it's David Irving, it's more than likely that there are no links to his web site and lots of links to sites which attack him because he is a Holocaust Denier.

    5. Mage Silver badge
      Coffee/keyboard

      David Irving the Historian?

      Never heard of him.

      I do know of one that is a Neo-Nazi Apologist. The real Nazis probably would have sent him to a camp. They didn't lie as much about the "cleansing" of Gypsies, Homosexuals, Mentally subnormal, Religious "Fanatics" and Jews.

    6. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      It's David Irving thinks Wikipedia has defamed him

      he should try suing for libel.

  6. James Pickett

    I think anything that shows up lazy journalism/PR/excuses-to-start-wars is a Good Thing. Shame Leveson tripped over it, but if even he's not paying attention...

  7. The Serpent

    I agree that Wikipedia is to be treated with skepticism by default. However to put the problem in context, the world is full of reference material originating from experts in their field which was published as hard fact at the time and which has gone on to be proved wrong.

    Potentially you only need an original edition of some previously venerated tome to be put straight back in the same position as a lazy researcher using Shittypedia - the only difference being your original intentions were better than theirs. Plus books aren't usually prone to deliberate sabotage.

    Personally I'm still waiting to hear where all the eternally correct facts are kept.

    1. jai

      But also, books don't have an easily checkable history of changes. If you're going to use data from wikipedia in an official document, common sense suggests that you check if anyone has been mucking around with the bit you're copying, and if they have, you do a little extra research to verify the "facts"

    2. Euchrid

      Sabotage

      “Plus books aren't usually prone to deliberate sabotage.”

      True and there was shock when it was discovered that a Oxford English Dictionary editor secretly deleted words - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/26/former-oed-editor-deleted-words

      It’s not just that Wikipedia is prone to deliberate sabotage, but just how easy it is to commit that sabotage and how depressingly readily people will take it at face value without any cross-referencing.

      The Normal Wisdom example that Andrew gave is a good one – when it was first reported that he co-wrote (There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover, I thought it was unlikely as the song was written too early and it would be better known if he did. One would have thought that hacks writing obituaries would have twigged the song was written several years before when they were claiming Wisdom became an entertainer. Although I suppose it wasn’t impossible, a quick web search would bring up a huge number of sources crediting it to the actual writers and the only ones credited Wisdom were the Wikipedia entry and his obituaries.

      There was another one about a European football team (Croatia, I think) where one paper used Wikipedia to report that the fans wear bizarre shaped hats fashioned from old football boots and quoted a supporters song with strange lyrics… all made good copy and all was completely made up by (IIRC) an experienced Wikipedia vandal.

      Also, worth remembering there are cases where articles are tampered for other reasons – e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Hari#Wikipedia_editing

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't get it

    It's "the encyclopedia anyone can edit", right?

    So why can't I get the entry crediting Fred Flintstone* as the inventor of bowling to stay up?

    * some say it was Barney, but Wikipedia clearly states that he only came up with the three fingered ball grip.

  9. dotdavid
    Holmes

    As Sir Isaac Newton once famously said...

    ...you should take with a pinch of salt any fact found on the internet.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As Sir Isaac Newton once famously said...

      You need to check your facts... the 'pinch of salt' thing was said by Abraham Lincoln; Sir Isaac Newton hadn't even heard of salt.

      1. dajames Silver badge
        Alert

        Re: As Sir Isaac Newton once famously said...

        You need to check your facts... the 'pinch of salt' thing was said by Abraham Lincoln; Sir Isaac Newton hadn't even heard of salt.

        Newton was (among other things) an Alchemist ... of course he'd heard of salt! The key to making stuff up is to make it plausible.

        No, no, the "'pinch of salt' thing" was said by Bernard of Chartres. Newton got it from him. Probably from his blog.

        [Need icon of face with sticking-out tongue]

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: As Sir Isaac Newton once famously said...

      "...you should take with a pinch of salt any fact found on the internet".

      ... including the unreliability of Wikipedia, or the idea that "anyone can edit it".

  10. yoinkster
    Happy

    It's what I'd do when needing to write a long report. No-one needs to check the filler as it's not important, he just needs to make sure that when he says "someone should be in jail for doing X,Y,Z" that he's got those bits correct.

    Still, brought a smile to my face. I remember reading Bob Hoskins wiki page just after Bob Holness died and it had been recently edited to say he was part of the Bob duo who had hosted Blockbusters at some point. More chuckling.

  11. jacobbe
    FAIL

    Hopefully there will be a proper full page printed grovelling apology and hefty fine for this woeful lack of double checking sources.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It is what it is...

    Wikipedia gets a lot of bad press in these pages and elsewhere. It is what it is - a fantastic place to track down that trivia you can't find anywhere else. The fact that anyone can edit it is what makes it so up to date and far ranging. The people who who treat it as incontrovertible fact and use it in court (or in other places where they risk looking foolish) without checking other sources get what they deserv

  13. The Serpent

    I think I recall a caption on a photo of Eugene Cernan which claimed he was only accepted to the Apollo programme as he promised to kick his addiction to cheese sandwiches

  14. adam payne

    How much was spent on this report?

    Can we the tax payer have our money back please?

    1. Jemma

      Wow, someone who actually paid their taxes! Your surname isnt Vimes by any chance?

  15. EvilGav 1
    FAIL

    Oh for the love of . . .

    Has everyone taken stupid pills? Does everyone truly believe that Leveson actually sat down and typed all of this out or, far more likely, dictated this for someone else to type?

    The latter being the most likely, would mean the dictation would have stated "Guardian newspaper, insert founders names here, blah blah blah".

    1. frank ly
      Happy

      Re: Oh for the love of . . .

      I wasn't the founders of the Guardian newspaper, it was the Independent. Try looking stuff up in Wikipedia to improve your fact checking abilities. It's bound to be in there somewhere.

    2. deshepherd
      Thumb Up

      Re: Oh for the love of . . .

      Does everyone truly believe that Leveson actually sat down and typed all of this out or, far more likely, dictated this for someone else to type?

      I'm sure Lord Leveson had no knowledge of the use of Wikipedia and it is down to one rogue secretary working on their own!

  16. cnapan
    Pint

    Catholics for dummies?

    I think I need that. Never did quite understand the 3 in 1 god who was his own son....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Catholics for dummies?

      And yet (assuming you have some level of scientific education) you have no problem believing in wave-particle duality (when in fact it's likely photons are neither), schrodinger's cat, heisenburg's uncertainty principle or the notion of chaos, dark matter, string theory and the list goes on.

      Physics inside our Universe is pretty whacky, outside I'd bet a penny to a pound it's orders of magnitude strangers: so why not a being that is 3 in 1 and his own son?

      1. Ed_UK

        Re: Catholics for dummies?

        "And yet (assuming you have some level of scientific education) you have no problem believing in wave-particle duality (when in fact it's likely photons are neither), schrodinger's cat, heisenburg's uncertainty principle or the notion of chaos, dark matter, string theory and the list goes on."

        Can't let that go un-corrected. You list a number of scientific models for explaining how stuff works. These models may be tested or completely disproved by suitable experiment and observation. There are many experiments yet to be devised. Catholicism (or Christianity in general) is just one of the many takes on a bronze-age myth. It explains nothing about the real world, it cannot be proved or disproved and puts itself above criticism. Your analogy fails.

        To quote xkcd: "Science. It works, bitches."

        1. Ed_UK

          Re: Catholics for dummies?

          Oh, and nobody is likely to be tortured or executed for possessing a physics textbook in any language other than Latin.

        2. daveeff
          Angel

          Re: Catholics for dummies?

          > 3 in 1 god who was his own son.

          Er, maybe that's a model? Most people who believe in (any) god by definition take the god to be bigger and more complex than they are and accept that any understanding of him/her/it will be an imperfect model.

          Taking Christianity as an example, the Old Testament is big on not making images of god, the new testament is full of god is LIKE this, some parable thingy.

          It is true that stupid/lazy/ill informed people confuse the model with the truth but that is true of science as well of religion.

          Most of the time that works, now which button do I press to get the imp to carry this message to the magic interweb box?

          Dave

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dangerous

    Imagine if you relied on it and someone though they would have a but of a joke with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rm_(Unix)

    Anyone with Mac might want to experiment with Unix, some serious harm could result.

  18. TeeCee Gold badge
    Stop

    Ronnie Hazlehurst

    "....emerging from retirement to write a club hit."

    ISTR that the actual spurious credit given was for an S Club 7 hit. There is a subtle difference I believe.

    Maybe you should have have checked this on, er, Wikipedia?

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Ronnie Hazlehurst

      You're both right! If you click on the link in Andrew's story, Ronnie was incorrectly credited with writing the hit for S Club 7.

      C.

  19. badger31
    Happy

    But this is why I love Wikipedia

    I remember during my college years researching a dreary assignment on wide area networks. I looked at the wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wide_area_network to discover that wide area networks were invented in 1976 by Gok Wan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gok_Wan). Made my day, that did.

  20. disgruntled yank Silver badge

    ymmv

    That authoritative source The New York Times the other day glossed "Afrikaner" as " a member of South Africa’s German-descended white ruling group" in the obituary of Arthur Chaskalson, once chief justice of South Africa. It has since amended "German" to "European". No word on whether they originally traced the descent via Wikipedia.

  21. Parax
    Thumb Up

    Seb 'Bellend' Blatter

    My favorite wiki failSeb 'Bellend' Blatter

  22. walatam

    The first rule of the Internet ...

    Wow. Much used information source is not accurate / has been corrupted / does not tell the truth. Just like us human beings really, only on a much, much larger scale.

    Wow again. Document contains factual inaccuracy.

    Double wow. Researcher does not check every "fact".

    Does this mistake in the report materially affect the main points being made? If it does for you then I humbly suggest that you may be missing the point of the whole debate.

  23. a cynic writes...

    At risk of asking the bleeding obvious...

    Bugger accuracy, why put the damn thing in the report in the first place...did we pay this man by the word?

  24. Jim Birch
    Megaphone

    This report is great recreational outrage material: There's also a missing comma on page 2,358.

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