The Daily Mail has said a decision by Wikipedia editors to ban references to its articles for sourcing entries is a “politically motivated attempt to stifle the free press”.
The Daily Mail and Mail Online publications were the subject of a debate this week among a section of the self-regulating community of voluntary Wikipedia editors, most of whom post under pseudonyms.
It began when one editor, called Hillbillyholiday, proposed a “request for comment” from the editorial community on whether it should “prohibit the use of the Daily Mail as a source”.
They said: “I envisage something just short of blacklisting, whereby its introduction to an article could be accepted only upon there being a demonstrable need to use it instead of other sources.”
The motion passed within 24 hours, supported by 58 out of 84 editors.
It stated: “Consensus has determined that the Daily Mail (including its online version, dailymail.co.uk) is generally unreliable, and its use as a reference is to be generally prohibited, especially when other more reliable sources exist.
“As a result, the Daily Mail should not be used for determining notability, nor should it be used as a source in articles. An edit filter should be put in place going forward to warn editors attempting to use the Daily Mail as a reference.”
Editors said support for the ban “centred on the Daily Mail’s reputation for poor fact checking, sensationalism, and flat-out fabrication” and encouraged volunteers to “review” and “remove/replace” the many thousands of existing citations on Wikipedia referencing Mail stories.
The ban was opposed by some members, with one stating: “There is no justification for the blanket banning of a mass-circulation newspaper as a source. There will be cases where it is a suitable [as a] source.
“The problem with the ‘Mail-related arguments’ mentioned… is just with editors not knowing what appropriate sources to use.”
Mail Online publishes around half a million stories a year. According to Press Gazette analysis the Daily Mail and Mail Online had four adjudications upheld against them each under the first two years of press regulator IPSO (to September 2016).
Anyone can edit a Wikipedia page by simply clicking on the “edit” button along the top of an article and signing up for free. There is no vetting process and only deliberate “vandalism” will invoke arbitration.
A spokesperson for Mail Newspapers said: “It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry at this move by Wikipedia – a website that is notorious for its own inaccuracy and false truths, and which was co-founded by a man who doctored his own biographical entry.
“For the record the Daily Mail, in common with most reputable academic institutions, banned all its journalists from using Wikipedia as a sole source in 2014 because of its unreliability.
“Last year, the Daily Mail and Mail Online together published more than half a million stories and yet received just two upheld adjudications each for inaccuracy from the UK Industry’s regulator IPSO.
“This so-called ban by Wikipedia came at the end of a month-long ‘debate’ – triggered by a clearly obsessive newspaper-hater who hides behind the pseudonym ‘Hillbillyholiday’ – which attracted just 75 votes from Wikipedia’s 30 million anonymous registered editors.
“The debate makes it abundantly plain that the majority of those calling for the Mail to be banned were driven primarily by political motives.
“The so-called ‘vote’ was then endorsed by five anonymous administrators after a secret email exchange and then deliberately leaked to the media.
“All those people who believe in freedom of expression should be profoundly concerned at this cynical politically motivated attempt to stifle the free press.”
The editor behind the motion to ban the Daily Mail as a Wikipedia source, Hillbillyholiday, has since left Wikipedia. A sign on their page, which reveals next to no detail about the individual, states: “Hillbillyholiday is taking a short wikibreak and will be back on Wikipedia soon.”
In one public message from an editor called Bounder, Hillbillyholiday is awarded a merit badge for their “excellent work in opening the RfC on the Daily Mail”. Bounder added of the Mail: “Its presence on what is supposed to be an encyclopaedia is a constant source of embarrassment.”
In response, Hillbillyholiday said: “Thanks, Bounder… really didn’t expect the RfC [Request for Coment] to pass and was beginning to regret using Mail-style tactics of blatant sensationalization [sic] and flagrant misrepresentation of sources; it seemed rather ‘poetic’ at the time.
“Anyway, job’s a good’un, I’m off to hide somewhere where [Daily Mail editor Paul] Dacre won’t find me.”
In a leader column today, the Times said Wikipedia’s ban on the Daily Mail was evidence of a “promiscuous extension of the phrase ‘fake news’ to cover stories and publications that the complainer happens merely to dislike”.
“Newspapers make errors and have the responsibility to correct them. Wikipedia editors’ fastidiousness, however, appears to reflect less a concern for accuracy than dislike of the Daily Mail’s opinions,” the paper said, adding: “It is the duty of legitimate news organisations to reveal real news.”
On the Daily Mail ban, Juliet Barbara, director of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation, said in a statement: “Editors have discussed the reliability of the Daily Mail since at least early 2015.
“In January 2017, an RfC (Request for Comment) discussion was proposed to evaluate the use of the Daily Mail as a reliable source on English Wikipedia. This is one of many community discussions that take place every day about a broad range of issues, including reliable sources.
“In this case, volunteer editors seem to have come to a consensus that the Daily Mail is ‘generally unreliable and its use as a reference is to be generally prohibited, especially when other more reliable sources exist’.
“This means that there is a general recommendation according to this discussion that the Daily Mail not be referenced as a ‘reliable source’ on English Wikipedia or used to demonstrate an article subject’s notability.
“That said, I encourage you to read the comments in the RfC itself. You will find considerable discussion on the topic, including views both for and against the proposal. Wikipedia is a living, breathing ecosystem where volunteers regularly discuss and evolve the norms that guide the encyclopaedia.
“Among Wikipedia’s many policies and guidelines, there is even a policy to ignore all rules. It captures the open spirit of the community: ‘If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.’
“As a general guide to reliable sources, articles on Wikipedia should be based on reliable, third-party, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy. Editors assess the reliability of a source at these levels:
- The piece of work itself (the article, book)
- The creator of the work (the writer, journalist)
- The publisher of the work (for example, Random House or Cambridge University Press)
“They also use a variety of criteria to evaluate reliability within each of these levels. For example, one signal that a news organization engages in fact-checking and has a reputation for accuracy is the publication of corrections.”