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SRB: The Book that's Got the Hacks Yacking

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies
Chatto & Windus, $60cover.jpg
Few books have generated as much comment from the world's journalists as Nick Davies' Flat Earth News. The Scoop Review of Books is happy to be able to add to that commentary with reviews by Wellington journalist Karl du Fresne and Auckland journalist Andrea Jutson.

REVIEW 1 By Karl de Fresne

Any book about the news media that gets rave reviews from journalists as ideologically opposed as John Pilger and Peter Oborne deserves our attention. Pilger is an impassioned leftist crusader, the scourge of supposedly imperialistic western powers and a trenchant critic of “mainstream” journalism; Oborne is a contributor to the right-wing Spectator and an uncompromising conservative.

It’s unlikely there are many issues on which these two agree, but if the blurb on the dust jacket for Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News is to be believed, Pilger described it as a “brilliant” book, “ruthless in its honesty” while Oborne said of it: “This is an exceptionally important book which should be read, re-read and inwardly digested by all reporters, editors and proprietors”.

Clearly, Davies is on to something.

Flat Earth News is a 400-page exposé of shonky practices by the British media – and not just the scurrilous London tabloids, which would surprise no one, but by some of the so-called “quality” broadsheets as well, including Davies’ own paper, The Guardian (though it must be said The Guardian emerges looking a little purer than some of its competitors).

Davies takes as his starting point the blizzard of misinformation disseminated by the media over Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and the failure of journalists to dig beneath the propaganda. He says he started out trying to explain “how we had managed to do so badly in covering what is probably the single biggest story of our era”. He goes on: “The more I looked, the more I found falsehood, distortion and propaganda running through the outlets of an industry which is supposed to be dedicated to the very opposite, i.e. to telling the truth.”

He develops several themes, among them:

The increasing influence of PR firms, spin doctors and pressure groups in manipulating the news agenda, and the media’s complicity in the process;

The advent of what he calls “churnalism”, in which credulous and/or overworked journalists unquestioningly process wrong, misleading or second-hand information;

The steady reduction in the number of journalists reporting unglamorous but important local news such as court proceedings and council meetings (I loved Davies’ line that judges in London courts are as likely to see a zebra as a reporter);

The emergence of a new type of newspaper owner whose papers are run according to the “logic of pure commerce” rather than by any commitment to journalism values, for which Davies largely blames (I believe unfairly) Rupert Murdoch;

The increasing pressure, in the digital era, to turn news around fast, without adequate checking and verification;

The willingness of the British press, including supposedly respectable titles such as the Sunday Times, to use a wide repertoire of sleazy, underhand and sometimes illegal means to get stories – including bribing police officers, paying private investigators for illegally obtained information and setting up elaborate traps in the hope of catching corrupt politicians, even where there is no evidence of misbehaviour.

It’s an assiduously researched book, jam-packed with detail and well-written, as you might expect of an award-winning Guardian journalist. Davies forcefully reminds us of one of the most important journalistic values: question everything and accept nothing at face value.

But he’s not entirely consistent. Davies tries hard to be fair – he’s tough on Greenpeace and its alarmist stunts, and he acknowledges a bad error of his own that was based on an ideological assumption – but his own personal preoccupations and political leanings intrude from time to time. At times one senses the familiar anguished cry of the idealistic leftie who’s frustrated because the media are ignoring the stories he thinks are important.

He’s not fond of Christians, Margaret Thatcher or Israel, and it might or might not be significant that all the unreported scandals he uncovers, for which he excoriates the media, are ones that reflect unfavourably on what might loosely be called “the establishment”.

At one point he describes, without criticism, a disgraceful act of deception in 1988 by Roy Greenslade, then managing editor for news at the Sunday Times. Perhaps Greenslade escaped Davies’ censure because of the former’s sainted status as a media commentator for the Guardian.

Davies also suffers from an occupational disorder, common among British journalists, that I call Rupertaphobia. Like many Brits, he seems never to have adjusted to the idea that a colonial upstart could take over so much of the British media. Never mind that it was largely through Rupert Murdoch that the British newspaper industry, which had long had been held hostage by greedy unions, was eventually liberated from primitive 19th century technology and disgraceful union rorts.

Ironically, Davies is fashionably dismissive of the notion of journalistic objectivity. I say “ironically” because it seems to me that his entire book, with its scathing indictments of secret agendas, distortion and manipulation, is a powerful argument for fair, neutral reporting uncontaminated by covert interests and biases.

None of the book’s failings should detract from the fact that Flat Earth News is an important, cautionary tale, and one that will shake people’s faith in British journalism. But British journalism has always been about extremes of good and bad: the scurrilous tactics of the Sun and Daily Mail (for which Davies reserves special contempt) on one hand and bold, resourceful journalism uncovering corruption and abuse of power (such as the Sunday Times’ exposure of the cash-for-peerages scandal) on the other.

And how much of this, if any, is applicable to New Zealand? Certainly, New Zealand journalists will nod in recognition at some of the trends Davies describes: the baleful influence of PR and spin, the pressure on newspapers to do more with fewer staff, the gradual attenuation of the grassroots-level journalism (such as courts and council meetings) that was once the meat and drink of the daily press. Older New Zealand journalists probably also lament, as Davies does, the passing of an older generation of newspaper proprietors who, for all their stuffy conservatism, had a strong newspaper ethos, although we shouldn’t get too dewy eyed over some mythical golden era.

On the really crucial stuff relating to ethics, however, the New Zealand media have kept their noses admirably clean. Ethical corners are most likely to be cut where multiple media outlets are competing toe-to-toe, as in the case of Fleet St (metaphorical home, at least, to 14 daily titles and 10 Sundays). In New Zealand, that sort of intense competition really exists only between the two major TV networks, the trashy women’s magazines and the Sunday papers. It’s in those branches of the media that journalists are most likely to be ethically compromised in the chase for the exclusive story, but even there it’s relatively rare. Let’s hope it stays that way.

REVIEW 2 by Andrea Jutson

I am ashamed to be a journalist. On public opinion polls we always fall somewhere just above politicians and biological waste, but this book will change all that. Weasel turds will beat us hands down.

Here’s a quote from Britain’s Press Complaints Commission that appears near the end: ‘I realise that the council feels that the newspapers have reported this case unfairly, but it is not for the PCC to make judgements about fairness’.

Flat Earth News is a real whizzbanger of a book. It achieves the unthinkable – a minutely factual analysis of industry practice that manages to be a page-turner. There are heroes – the great journalists who exposed Russian spy Kim Philby – and villains – Alastair Campbell, Rupert Murdoch – and enough conspiracy and espionage to thrill John Le Carre. Reporters will vehemently deny accusations that they just make stuff up. Guardian journalist Davies provides proof that many do.

At almost every page, the average journalist will blush uncomfortably, or find themselves nodding their heads, even as they gasp in horror. It’s like getting a new pair of contact lenses, only to find that the beautiful face you saw in the mirror every morning actually resembles Paul Holmes. No one who reads this book will see the world the same way again.

Chapter by chapter, Davies exposes all the shonky practices of modern newspapers and their partners in broadcasting, which have led to the death of the truth. In this corporate era, most of the independent newspaper barons are gone, replaced by – as Davies would have it – unscrupulous robber barons. Anyone who’s worked in the news for any length of time will know it’s all about the bottom line – being first, making money. It’s not about the truth anymore.

Across the world, cost-cutting has led to a fraction of yesterday’s staff producing ever increasing amounts of churnalism. Facts are regurgitated and given the odd bit of balance by a quick phone call to someone with an opposing point of view, but The Truth rarely features. There’s no time to find out what’s really going on in today’s newsrooms, there’s only time to report what people said. It might be accurate, but it’s not the truth.

Davies uses countless examples to back up his statements, including case studies from American and British newspapers, and whole chapters on the Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Observer. New Zealand even gets a look-in, in an example of how one country can be completely overlooked by the rest of the ignorant world. Skip the passages about events that don’t interest you – there’s a lot about the Gulf Wars – and there’s still plenty of evidence to terrify you. Along the way he makes some rather startling claims, such as that heroin and nuclear fall-out have been unfairly demonised, but as a journalist, this book rings scarily true.
It’s not all our fault, as Davies makes clear. Sometimes it’s time pressures, other times it’s the plethora of spin doctors whose job is to make ours impossible, but the results aren’t good for public knowledge. Remember, says Davies, the Y2K bug, and the weapons of mass destruction? All reported as fact in newspapers across the West. And they simply weren’t there – but we believe them because everyone says so.

We always have doubts about the lies and corruption of politics, and Davies doesn’t pull any punches in proving it. People lie to us. All the time. Today’s newspapers are useless to prevent it. Some of them aren’t even trying.

If Flat Earth News doesn’t convince you, nothing can. But it will make you think twice as you scan the headlines over your coffee.


Flat Earth News homepage
The Independent review
Spectator review

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