I have forgotten many things in my time – appointments, my wife’s birthday (just the once, that would be) and most of my O Level grades. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that I have not forgotten being in a helicopter over Iraq when brought down by enemy fire. Unless I had lived a life of more or less constant near-death experiences, I like to think that I would still have the intellectual reserves to distinguish between being shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade (no completely forgettable small-arms fire here, you understand) and, say, not being shot down at all.
And I say that as one who has actually been in a plane crash. An imminently ex-friend once contrived to prang her borrowed light aircraft quite comprehensively with me in it without any assistance from people on the ground at all. That was probably 20 years ago at least, but, well, I find that these things tend to stay with you, yes?
So what should employer NBC do with celebrated US journalist and news anchor Brian Williams after his repeated statements that he was in the downed aircraft when in fact he was not? He claims that “the fog of memory over 12 years” plus repeated viewing of his own video of the crash site had led him to “make a mistake in recalling events“.
NBC has a choice, as has the employer of any public figure found out in a bad case of “mis-speaking”. First, it could conclude that Mr Williams is really telling the truth about his inability after 12 years to distinguish between fact and a good story. It might (though probably wouldn’t) wish to look again at his 2005 claim to have contracted dysentery when reporting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Alternatively, it could conclude on the facts that the line between a genuine error of recollection and flat-out lying for effect is simply too thin to be credible. It might then be tempted to reach the obvious conclusion as to what either of these outcomes does to that most essential attribute of a journalist and news anchor, his authority and integrity. To say that he has taken a lot of flak is no exaggeration (except by Mr Williams, obviously). Latest news from BBC Online is that he has been suspended without pay for 6 months by NBC, though quite how this addresses the basic credibility problem is unclear.
If the circumstances were replicated in the UK, would they justify Mr Williams’ dismissal? In my view, clearly yes. There is a point where the explanation of “the fog of memory” is so insulting to the viewer that it would surely be less damaging to him and his employer for him just to admit to making it up to emphasise a point or sway opinion. Clearly that sits more comfortably in professions other than high-end journalism, but as the US Daily Beast reported on the matter, seemingly without irony, “the standards of veracity and accuracy demanded of a network news anchorman are much higher than those expected of a politician“. Here is an illuminating corroboration http://www.employmentlawworldview.com/running-for-office-would-you-hire-this-man/.
Retaining the trust and respect of the public may be optional, relatively speaking, for politicians. However, in a role where your employee’s whole function depends on his doing so, it should be a deal-breaker. The test of relevance of the employee’s conduct to the employment is clearly satisfied, not least because all these statements were made in Mr Williams’ capacity as NBC lead. Even if he could get it off the ground at all, therefore, I cannot see any Employment Tribunal in the UK giving a claim by a hypothetical Mr Williams any real air-time, enormous fun though his cross-examination would unquestionably be.