The strange case of Giles Hattersley’s Wikipedia article

8 February 2009

An interesting story broke this morning. The Times journalist Giles Hattersley wrote, in an article about the inaccuracies of Wikipedia:

My entry features at least two errors, one libellous (unless my mother has been keeping a dark secret, I am not Roy Hattersley?s son).

Interesting because, at the time, Giles Hattersley did not have an article about him on Wikipedia. As the Telegraph’s Shane Richmond pointed out:

Yet I can’t find an entry for Giles Hattersley in Wikipedia. And, as Martin Belam points out, it doesn’t look like there has ever been one.

I can confirm this quite easily – I’m a Wikipedia administator and so I can examine the entire article history – available here. I can quite authoritatively say no article on Giles Hattersley existed on Wikipedia before 1507 on February 8th – which was after Hattersley wrote his article and Shane Richmond had picked it up. “So far, so what?”, you might ask – journalists have long been used to making erroneous or exagerrated claims about Wikipedia – such as Petronella Wyatt in 2007. But then it all got a bit weird.

At 2048 tonight, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, unilaterally decided to delete the article, even though it does not meet the criteria for speedy deletion. If you want to judge for yourself, a copy of the last revision before deletion is available here – it is fairly neutral and with citations from reliable sources, I hope you’d agree (disclosure – I edited this article once, but only a minor one, adding the word ‘falsely’ in the first sentence third paragraph)

While Hattersley’s Times piece was undoubtedly a motivation to create the article, his job as a journalist for a national newspaper and former editor of ARENA make him probably notable enough for a Wikipedia article in the first place; Wikipedia’s objective philosophy makes clear that it is the content of an article, not the motivation behind its creation, is what counts towards its inclusion. Any article that does not meet the speedy delete criteria should have its deletion first discussed, according to Wikipedia policy. This was not considered here.

So what happened? The reasons given for deletion are not very clear:

I have temporarily deleted this article, and kindly request that no one restore it until we’ve sorted out all the facts. Giano has been blocked for 24 hours by me for incivility related to this entry. Jay and I are already aware of the situation and I am reaching out to the newspaper for further clarification.

There is certainly no question of libel (or else the Telegraph’s lawyers should be worried about Shane Richmond’s article) – and there were appropriate citations given. Reaching out to the newspaper (presumably the Times) is also a strange thing to mention – as the article deals with Hattersley personally and not his employers. Jimmy Wales’s reasons for deleting the article certainly transcend the usual policies towards controversial articles. The involvement of Giano, an editor who has come into frequent conflicts with other editors before, adds another intriguing dimension to further confuse matters.

Finally, this is not the first editing controversy Jimmy Wales has gotten into. It brings to mind past stories of him editing entries against policy, for seemingly personal reasons – even as petty as editing his own date of birth on his Wikipedia article.

No-one comes off well in this. The Wikipedia community doesn’t, for creating a vindictive article about Hattersley (I must confess I joked about doing so but did not carry it through). Jimmy Wales doesn’t, for not going through established Wikipedia policies, in a community whose philosophy and outlook he is meant to not just adhere to but defend. Giles Hattersley comes off pretty badly as well – the most charitable interpretation of his Wikipedia claim one could give is that it was sloppy journalism (Update: or as later clarified, it could alternatively be blamed on sloppy editing).

There is further, ugly implication from all this. Much of journalists’ research is done from the Internet these days – nothing wrong with that, as long as it considers the veracity of sources in mind. But bad journalists and pressing deadlines can mean sometimes journalists cross the boundary from legitimate research to outright plagiarism or falling for hoaxes. Yet the newspapers these journalists write for are considered by Wikipedia as reliable sources – so there easily lies a vicious circle where misinformation can become ‘fact’ by being picked up by a lazy or incompetent writer.

But the answer to this isn’t by using your website to vindictively attacking the mainstream media and its employees just to settle a grudge. The answer is a tightening not just of editorial standards but of ethics – the philosophy and approach you take to what you write and say.

Journalists need to learn to appreciate Wikipedia’s strengths and weakenesses, as well as realising how much harder it is for mistakes to go unnoticed in this world today. Wikipedians need to learn to stick to the policies they’ve agreed on and not to use the site as means of exacting vendettas upon others. If both sides fail to raise their game, trust in both will crumble in the long term.

Update: More in the comments – basically he has blamed it on an errant subeditor, and that the error existed not in his article but elsewhere on Wikipedia, “one or two years ago”, but he’s not sure where. No-one can find such an error. The lack of basic fact-checking doesn’t exactly do his reputation as a journalist any favours.

Further update: The Times corrected the article (and a less inflammatory headline) on Monday afternoon, although the claim that there was any sort of error on Wikipedia has still not been fully substantiated.

3 Responses

I’m a bit surprised at how lots of people’s reactions to the initial false claim seem to have been approximately in the “so what?” camp. It may be just weariness on the part of Wikipedia’s defenders, having seen it before, but it still feels like selling themselves a bit short – unnecessarily ceding the ground that Wikipedia will always have flatly untrue things written about it. If the claim had instead been, for example, that a rival newspaper had published an erroneous, libellous article about him – when no such article had ever been published – I can’t see people shrugging it off as just one of those things. I feel there would likely have been a good deal more anger; lawyers would surely have been invoked.

(It’s worth noting that, seemingly, Hattersley is now claiming the error was as a result of sub-editing. That’s certainly plausible; you can see how it could have happened, although it would be a truly dreadful bit of subbing, deserving of a full Giles Coren. Regardless, it’s hardly against WP policy to assume that words published under someone’s name are indeed their own words, at least until contrary evidence emerges.)

Of course, Wales has now ensured that the issue everyone will be talking about instead is his apparent belief that Wikipedia’s overriding policy is the little-known “WP:Make Jimmy Wales’ Life Easier”. So, hey ho.

It’s worth noting that no-one can find the offending error anywhere on Wikipedia, including Roy Hattersley’s article. Furthermore, it would have to be a truly appalling piece of subbing to willingly edit an accusation of libel against someone without checking with the author.

This doesn’t exactly reflect better on Hattersley’s journalism skills either. He states: “The mistake pointed out in the piece, was pointed out to me a year or two ago in some corresponding page where my name cropped up – either Roy Hattersley’s entry, or a third party’s page. I’m glad to hear it no longer exists!” – it shows he was relying on hearsay, and failed to do even the most basic research to see whether it was true. If he had, he would have found out Wikipedia’s ability to self-correct itself so quickly is actually a good thing, but that wouldn’t have fitted into the narrative of his article.

Speaking of which, while Wikipedia has now sorted this affair out (with not inconsiderable fuss), the original piece on the Times website remains unchanged.

[...] Times journo writes scatching article on Wikipedia page about him. Except. There never was a page. [...]