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February 20, 2008

Richard D. North asks, has our journalism really got any worse? Flat Earth News - Nick Davies

Posted by Richard D. North

Flat Earth News
by Nick Davies
London: Chatto & Windus, 2008
Hardback, 17.99

The journalist Nick Davies, a long-time Guardian man, believes that journalism - on the wires, in print and broadcast - has been enfeebled. He insists this is because of a commercialisation which treats news as being of no more interest, merit or complexity than entertainment or chips. Being a good liberal, he dates the decline from Rupert Murdoch's move of The Times, Sunday Times and Sun down to Wapping in 1986:

In doing so he broke the print unions and removed the final obstacles to the rule of corporations.
In short, the gospel according to David Hare.

Mr Davies has undertaken a big project, aided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and some specially commissioned research from Cardiff University's School of Journalism, and a team of "young researchers". No wonder the book is bursting at the seams.

Nick Davies' account is at least blinkered. He doesn't note it, but the move to Wapping emboldened a new brand of newspaper entrepreneur, and resulted in The Independent which was under-resourced, but still capable of a fair bit of news gathering and lots of analysis.

Besides, the more Nick Davies worries about big bad capitalists, the more we are drawn to wonder about his material on the poverty of the BBC's news gathering. Mr Davies decries the cost-cutting of firms, and thinks he knows its causes. But what was the BBC's excuse?

Nick Davies' main complaint is that there are too few journalists, and that too many of those that remain are under-trained. They are too busy not to be bamboozled. As Nigel Hawkes, The Times' health editor, told the Cardiff researchers:

We are churning stories today, not writing them.
Actually, people like Hawkes provide an admirable service in exposing as much junk science as they can. They are scam-busters, and crucial.

Still, the picture does indeed seem bleak, and we have had hints of many of Mr Davies' themes from other neater analysts such as Ian Hargreaves, Peter Oborne, John Lloyd, and Andrew Marr.

Nick Davies notes the near-collapse of regional journalism, which used to feed the national news organs with a reliable and comprehensive flow of gritty material. Journalists are under enormous pressure to stick news out on multiple media "platforms". Journos have to cut back on checking stuff, because it needs reformatting instead. This all means that many of them fall prey to the wiles, of say, Downing Street as it doles out titbits in exchange for comfortable coverage.

But there is also what Mr Davies pictures as a dangerous thinning out of staff at the wire services such at PA and Reuters. Well-placed people tell him that they now cannibalise each other and aren't always accurate. Once, agreement between the two services implied a two-fix bearing on the truth - no more, says Mr Davies.

This is one of only two of Mr Davies' criticisms which really matters. Nick Davies doesn't argue, but I do, that as newspapers become viewspapers, and broadcasters chase juiciness, it becomes increasingly important that there are a few unimpeachable seams of real news material. I assume that the wires could and should be that.

So we have a picture, in part accurate, of a paucity of real news and a superfluity of pseudo news, and all of it being chucked into a gaudy multi-media world in which material is recycled and, rebranded to make each outlet appear to have something resembling original journalism.

Nick Davies' strictures - and great leaks - from the BBC's online news system are especially telling, not least because they show a corporation which is over-stretched as it plants its flag on the new digital summits. But the BBC won't let poor quality get in its way.

It is perhaps natural that Mr Davies hates the Daily Mail, though he acknowledges its courage in pursuing the young white men who it is widely assumed killed Stephen Lawrence. He tells a story of the unreconstructed Mail news room having to unwind its usual disdain of blacks in this case. But, he says, only because Paul Dacre, the editor, had met and presumably liked Neville Lawrence, the boy's father, as a plasterer. This is a delicious tale. Nick Davies relishes recounting the many times the paper has had to apologise for its untrue stories, quite often about celebrities.

In another line of inquiry, Mr Davies notes that the broadsheets fail, and probably more importantly. He retails the saga of the Sunday Times' Insight team and the pressure editors put on it to rubbish Roger Bolton's Death On the Rock documentary, broadcast in April 1988 as an examination of the killing of three IRA suspects in Gibraltar.

The Observer, for its part, like the New York Times, rather fell into believing the sullied "evidence" pumped out by the CIA as a warm-up to the second Iraq war. They and others developed a smooth "black arts" machinery. In this case, a single reporter, David Rose, seems to have fallen in love with his informants in the secret services, and has since recanted. If these are sins, they are as old as the printing press.

Nick Davies has a further, rather interesting beef. He thinks there is an increasing strategy of playing it safe. He argues that proprietors don't like the risks of court cases, and are in any case likely to be of the right. Even those that might like to take a pop at the Establishment won't resource the staff to make the argument stick. He also says that a middle of the road conservatism now lurks behind most journalism: anything else is too demanding and risky.

But then he seems to take leave of his senses. Recalling the giddy days of 1968 radicalism, he says:

The years of Reagan and Thatcher demolished that counter-culture and replaced it with a new consensus.
Take any bit of that sentence and see what sense it makes. The bit I think is most silly is the idea that there is now a consensus. On what? The hijab? The Iraq War? The merits of Trevor Phillips? The merits of Gordon Brown? Global warming? Globalization?

There are plenty of radicals selling flat-earth alternativism as though The Levellers were at their elbow. It's the kind of doubt which leads one to question the rest of Mr Davies' gloomy thesis.

We've known for ages that the Sunday papers are desperate attention-seekers and wise people wait to see what rebuttals Monday produces. We've known that our papers are full of pseudo-research from pollsters. We've known that the news is an endless regurgitation of a few stories and a few daily or hourly advances in their evolution. We've known never to trust a news outlet which is claiming to have uncovered some new scandal, at least until several others have endorsed it.

But isn't that the point? There isn't a news monolith and usually one paper's mistakes are corrected by another's delighted expose of its follies.

Are we less well-informed than we used to be? Is it easier for bad people to hide the information we need? Is it easier for propagandists to fill us with nonsense? It's hard to tell, but I rather doubt it. This is partly because so many individuals and organisations now have their own websites, so we can find out what they wanted to say, in their own words. It is relatively easy to get the real news out, even the news that powerful interests would rather were kept quiet.

The internet, in that sense, is a bit like Private Eye on steroids. Besides, being a whistleblower is a sure route to one of the great modern desirables: fame. Many people will risk anything for attention: telling all is becoming increasingly attractive.

What's more, it is possible to overstate the role of journalistic inquiry. A lot of what we know begins with a leak or gossip and then acquires a momentum of its own, not least with official inquiries which reveal much more, and often a paper or email trail. The media naturally market this process as though it were their investigative effort which produced the daylight.

Nick Davies comes across as honest, if unimaginative. He attractively notes that his own prejudices blinded him to the obvious failings in the idea that the nuclear protestor Hilda Murrell was murdered by the state in 1984. It suited lefty paranoia to suppose she'd been bumped off by the security services, and Mr Davies says he ran with that line long after it become absurd to do so. And he is at least as worried by the capture of the Guardian (or anyone else) by Greenpeace and other right-ons as he is by industry's blandishments.

Absurdly, he uses the Millennium Bug as an example of the media's going mad about nonsense, when actually the hypothesis was reported in terms which left plenty of us pretty sanguine. He is dead right about the media's wrong-headed delight in the Chernobyl horror story. The exaggeration of the effects of that disaster ran and ran for 20 years and isn't over yet. (It would have thrilled this writer to have had some acknowledgement of having banged on about this issue for ten years without denting the mainstream. See the Social Affairs Unit's www.chernobyllegacy.com.)

This important book is a bit too big and rambling for its own good. It also jumbles up anecdote and evidence, perhaps in an attempt to seem to be driven along by a lively narrative. Actually, it is as analysis of a series of case studies that the book does its best work.

I have left till last what may be the greatest single scandal which Nick Davies usefully exposes, or at least corrals. He looks at the networks of snoopers employed by hacks to get hold of the personal details of anyone of interest. We know something of this world because of a small rash of prosecutions. According to Mr Davies, the media simply didn't bother to report some of these embarrassments, presumably because they were all up to it.

It is mildly amusing that Andy Coulson, who resigned his editorship of the News of the World in the wake of the paper's snooping practices becoming known, is now at David Cameron's elbow. Does this mean that the poacher has turned gamekeeper? Will our data be safer when the Tories run the show?

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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A generation past, an american broadcaster named eric sevareid warned that massive media conglomerates would stifle free speech. In a nutshell, a corporation owning hundreds of newspapers would stifle anti-establishment reporting in order to protect the political access of its television companies. this is effectively what has happened, and we see examples in the supine relationship between murdoch's empire and blair's government. i do not know a reporter covering afghanistan or iraq who has not complained of serious censorship by publishers/broadcasters eager to pander to political sensitivities. it is a problem not foreseen on the right, and we have yet to pay the full cost.

Posted by: s masty at February 22, 2008 11:03 PM
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