Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Notes: Flat Earth News

Nick Davies set out to deliberately break the unspoken code of honour which exists amongst investigative journalists: he investigated the state of journalism itself! The results should be deeply concerning to anyone who cares about everything from decency to democracy - anything in fact which depends on the pursuit and telling of truth. What is equally amazing is the enormous number of journalists who have queued up to endorse Davies' findings. This adds enormous weight to Davies argument that what he found were not isolated incidents of poor practice, but illustrations of an industry which is structurally flawed at every level.

Davies' examines what he calls "flat earth stories". That is the way in which the media is too lazy to ever question society's assumptions; when simply using stories to play upon those existing assumptions is easier. He examines the way in which the story of the mythical "Millenium Bug" became a flat-earth story, how the press ran with it, despite lack of credible evidence, and caused a stir which influenced individuals, companies and governments. Other examples might include the many articles which assumed that Saddam had WMD's.

The heart of the book however looks at the structure of the media industry, reporting on changes which have occurred over the last thirty years which have left traditional journalism weak, compromised and vulnerable to manipulation. Rather than citing the intervention of politically motivated owners as the key problem Davies' suggest that this is only a small problem. Far bigger is the commercial pressures of the modern marketplace which mean that the average journalist is working under the pressure to produce stories at a breakneck pace. Whereas the traditional journalist check sources, and interviews witnesses and writes investigative reports - the norm today is what Davies calls "Churnalists" who never leave their desks, but simply sit at their desks churning through the incoming information and processing it for publication. Many of these churnalists deeply resent the role into which they are cast - but simply have no choice. Newspaper sales are down, advertising is not growing, and each writer not produces almost ten times the volume of copy that their predecessors did. Some daily papers produce a publication twice the size than they did a quarter of a century ago, but on a fraction of the staff.

Structurally vulnerable, churnalists are very often at the mercy of the PR industry, and overly dependent on a few source of news information, notably the PA and Reuters. These wire services are committed to accurately relaying the opinions of their sources - but are not investigative journalists, committed to exposing falsehood, spin, or dubious claims. If the increasingly sophisticated PR officers who are part of a massive growth industry in information control, can manipulate the news-wire services, they have incredible access to massaging public opinion. Davies' also documents the use of the 'dark arts' that is illegal or immoral tactics used by journalists to gain information, whether political or celebrity gossip - in the absence of the thorough reporting of former days.

He closes his book with three cases. The Sunday Times Insight team, compared in its heydey, with its compromised and wretched condition under Murdoch's proprietorship, in which the profit margin is the only criteria. Interestingly, Andrew Neil's right-wing agenda at the paper is not interpreted as an imposition of Murdoch's personal views; but part of a deal with Thatcher over media de-regulation from which Murdoch stood to gain. The Observer's bizarre endorsement of the invasion of Iraq is also documented, in which inexperienced journalists were easily manipulated by Alastair Campbell's PR machine, to print all manner of falsehoods about Al-Quaeda, WMDs and the whole sorry saga of the dodgy dossier. Finally, the success of the Daily Mail is examined, as a case-in-point of the use of the 'dark arts', shoddy journalistic practice and the final triumph of money over morality.

While some of Davies examples don't quite support the weight he wishes to place upon them, and while one or two of the moral opinions he trumpets are debatable, this is a shocking and convincing book. While he sneers at 'balanced' articles which don't go for the jugular of the relentless pursuit of truth - but take the easy way out; he doesn't always justify how such issues should be identified or how cloudy issues might be handled. Nevertheless, he effectively dissects an industry in disarray, devoid of integrity and exposes the extent to which we the public are subject second-hand, to the manipulation of journalists. He sends up a noble plea to restore investigative journalism to its place as guardians (!) of the public interest, independent of state control or easy prey to conmen, spin-merchants and the information industry.

1 comment:

Kecske said...

Perhaps this system of warning labels could help ;)