Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Why History should not be written by Journalists

Last week, the UK newspapers were full of an amazing new revelation. The Romans wore socks! The newsmen arrived at this earth-shattering conclusion via a convoluted path -- they were supposed to be reporting the excavation of an exciting Roman industrial complex -- and chose to spin their revelation as a new take on the tired stereotype of the "socks and sandals" fashion crime.

There are a number of points that should have caused any reasonably well-educated newspaper editor to rein in his over-enthusiastic minions. After all, the news was the discovery of Roman industrial activity near the site of a known fort at Healam Bridge, North Yorkshire. The opportunity could have been taken to inform the public that many forts are known to have had such manufacturing activity located nearby.

Instead, such venerable newssheets as The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and The Independent chose to emphasize the fact that "rust on a nail from a Roman sandal appears to contain fibres". (How do we know the nail was from a sandal and not a shoe? How do we know the fibres were from inside the putative sandal? What kind of fibres were they, anyway?)

Of course, newspapers are in the business of selling copies, not (necessarily) crafting a well-balanced report. The Independent mis-informs us that this "latest evidence corroborates the socks and sandal theory which first emerged when a Roman copper razor handle was recovered from the Tees near Darlington". No, it was well-known long before that. The Telegraph mistakenly assumes that the find shows "that legionnaires wore socks with sandals". No, legionnaires belong in Algeria, not in a North Yorkshire fort. Best of all, The Guardian's offering shamelessly centers on a reference to the Lost Ninth Legion and their (supposed) military outpost in Yorkshire. But pride of place must be shared with The Mail, speculatively describing the unexcavated Healam Bridge as "ruins which may once have been home to the famous Roman Ninth Hispanic Legion".

It all goes to show that History should not be written by journalists.