It was close to the end of a two-day gathering in Argentina of the world’s leading fact-checking organisations, when, in one corner of the room, the conversation turned to referees’ role in football.
More specifically, it turned to the accusations of bias that so often follow those who referee the “beautiful game”, as followers such as myself like to call it.
Partisans in a crowd always do, and always will question those who referee a match. So is there anything that we fact-checking organisations could learn from what referees do in refereeing public debate?
The answer we agreed was to establish our version of the referee’s rulebook, a fact-checkers’ code of principles, that we could all sign up to. And in doing so, create a mechanism to allow you, our readers, to judge our performance by those standards.
Partisan groups hijack fact-checking
The sort of independent fact-checking that organisations such as Politifact in the United States, Chequeado in Argentina, Full Fact in the UK and Africa Check all do is still a relatively new phenomenon in journalism.
And as the number of genuinely independent non-partisan fact-checking organisations has grown in recent years, so various partisan and special-interest groups have started hijacking the term, giving an appearance of impartiality to their more selective interpretations of current affairs.
The question of how we should operate, and how our own work should be policed, is thus an important one.
(It is also a very old one. In July 2015, the premier of South Africa’s Western Cape province, Helen Zille, turned to the question posed in the 2nd century AD by Roman poet Juvenal to ask: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” Or: “Who guards the guardians”?)
Code of principles adopted
To start to answer that question, 35 fact-checking organisations from around the world – including Africa Check – signed up to a code of principles last week. We are committing ourselves to:
- Non-partisanship and fairness,
- Transparency about sources,
- Transparency about funding and organisation,
- Transparency about methodology, and
- Open and honest corrections.
In a series of calls over the past three months, I joined half a dozen senior fact-checking colleagues around the world to agree how to make this work.
What do we mean by non-partisanship and fairness? How can that be measured? Can fact-checkers who work under authoritarian regimes commit to transparency about the sources they quote? Above all, how can we ensure that you, our readers, can judge our work against these standards, and hold us to account?
The answers to the first questions are set out in the text beneath each of the five principles.
Who checks the fact-checkers?
The key, though, to making this work, is the mechanism explained at the foot of the page which will enable you to hold us to account.
As it says, each of the 35 organisations signing up to the code so far have agreed, by doing so, to produce – within a year of the code’s launch on 15 September 2016, a public report “indicating how they have lived up to each of the five principles” and to repeat this once a year thereafter.
For Africa Check, this report will be displayed on our website, and also on the website of the International Fact-Checking Network. And it will, as the IFCN says “allow readers and others to judge to what extent the fact-checker is respecting the code of principles.”
As a football follower myself, I know that having a clear rulebook helps everyone understand what is going on in the game.
Opening ourselves up to scrutiny like this will also hopefully help to answer the question first posed by Roman poet Juvenal. Who guards the guardians? Now more than ever, you do.
Peter Cunliffe-Jones is the Executive Director of Africa Check.