Yet every journalist who has been in the profession for any length of time will have had the unpleasant experience of having the phrase flung at them because a story they wrote displeased the source. To misquote is to attribute a statement or idea to someone who either did not actually say it in that form or words, or did not say it at all. There are many instances in global politics and commerce when politicians and other prominent figures took umbrage with journalists for allegedly putting words in their mouths, often resulting in litigation or newspapers being forced to publish embarrassing retractions of their stories.
There are many varied reasons and circumstances under which people misquote others or get misquoted and this is not, by any means, unique to the media. Politicians, celebrities and other prominent individuals who constitute the largest group of people frequently claiming to be misquoted also enjoy, in equal measure, the benefits of media exposure. Therein lies the love-hate relationship between journalists and prominent people because the politicians want to use journalists to secure the publicity they crave to build their political careers, while the journalists view the work and lives of politicians and prominent people as matters of public interest.
In this intricate relationship which, for lack of a better term, is akin to mutual adversity, politicians seek to get their own views across packaged as concern for the national interest, while journalists, in pursuing the objectives of educating, entertaining and informing, will attempt to find the grain from the chaff. It is during this complex process of interaction, with each side focused on what they consider to be of critical importance, that the phenomenon of misquoting occurs.
“Crisis, what crisis” attributed to then British Prime Minister James Callaghan was the headline in The Sun newspaper of January 11 1979. Callaghan had been asked what his policy was in view of the “mounting chaos” in the country, and he replied, “I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you’re taking a rather parochial view at the moment. I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” Amazed at what seemed like a gratuitous misrepresentation of the Prime Minister’s statement, some people concluded that the The Sun may have mischievously taken the phrase from the title of an album by music band, Supertramp, released in 1975.
Part of the reason why journalism is such a tricky business is probably because we do not pay our news sources, and those who volunteer information to reporters usually have an ulterior motive. Only in very exceptional cases is this motive philanthropic or magnanimous; in a majority of cases people volunteer information to the press to advance personal agendas which may not necessarily be for public good. It is precisely for this reason that the practice of journalism remains a legal minefield in that it is not always easy to fathom the motives of those who provide information to the media.
As a young rookie reporter on the Zambia Daily Mail way back, I had my first rude awakening to the phrase “I was misquoted” after writing a scoop that I thought would earn me the kudos and a place in the journalism hall of fame but instead all I got were brick bats, and a near sack, for my troubles.
It all started one newsless Sunday afternoon, with the news editor lamenting the dire consequences of our failure to find a lead story for the following day’s edition. Every journalist who has worked in a newsroom knows the state of panic that can result from not having a suitable lead story to captivate its readers. This was the state of emergency in the Daily Mail newsroom on this day, when I suddenly had a brainstorm.
While perusing through old newspapers I had noted that there had been an increasing number of cases of serving police officers getting arrested and convicted on various charges including armed robbery, theft and fraud. The then Zambian Police Inspector General, Fabiano Chela, the equivalent of Zimbabwe Police Commissioner – general, was an ebullient down-to-earth serviceman whose son Peter, had been a class mate at high school. I had been introduced to him when he came visiting his son and had spoken to him on several occasions before. So I phoned his home and put to him the question: “There has been numerous reports of police officers getting arrested for various crimes including theft and armed robbery. Does this mean there are criminals in the police force, perhaps recruited unknowingly.”
“Of course, young man,” he responded without hesitation. He then went on to explain that it was possible for criminally inclined persons to be recruited as police officers as long as they had no known criminal record. After that admission, my story was made — and with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter who has just stumbled on a scoop, I was no longer keen to continue the conversation with the police chief fearing he could say something that would “kill” my story.
“THERE ARE CRIMINALS IN THE POLICE, RECRUITED UNKNOWINGLY,” was the screaming headline on the lead story of the following morning. Expecting compliments all round for the scoop, I hurried to the office the following morning; but if I had known what awaited me, I might have decided instead, to jump under the wheels of a speeding bus. Pacing the floor of the newsroom like the headmaster waiting to administer corporal punishment on an errant pupil was the news editor, and I immediately knew something was terribly wrong.
To cut a long story short, an angry police chief summoned me and my editor to his office to declare “I was misquoted” and demanded a retraction the following day in the same prominent position as a lead story stating “THERE ARE NO CRIMINALS IN THE POLICE FORCE.” We did humour the police chief by carrying a page three clarification that only criminals who could evade the rigorous vetting process of the Criminal Records Office found themselves attested into the police ranks. Not exactly the same thing as admitting to misquoting the police chief.
So next time you hear a politician exclaim “I was misquoted”, remember, there is always more to it than meets the eye.