Whatever we may think of the journalist Nick Davies, we should take his new book seriously. Flat Earth News, published this week, presents a damning picture of a dysfunctional national press which is spoon fed by government and PR agencies, and incorporates wire copy into stories without the most cursory fact checking.
Many journalists will recognise his portrait of editorial resources being stretched ever thinner. Cardiff University, which did research for Mr Davies' book, claims there are fewer journalists working on national newspapers than there were 20 years ago, but they produce three times as many pages. Quality has been sacrificed for quantity.
Mr Davies also contends that most stories in home news pages are mainly made up of PR and/or wire copy. Cardiff University asserts the proportions are 69 per cent in the case of The Times, 68 per cent in the Daily Telegraph, and 66 per cent in the Daily Mail, and so forth. I'm sure his general point is sound, but it is babyish to present exact percentages when the criteria are so subjective.
The author also has a go at the Sunday Times insight team, and at the Daily Mail, many of whose stories he regards as aggressively one-sided. But by far the most damning chapter concerns the collaborative relationship between The Observer and Number 10 in the lead-up to the Iraq war. These allegations are so serious that they surely cannot be allowed to lie on the record unchallenged. They are all the more astonishing given that Mr Davies writes for The Guardian, The Observer's sister paper, and was encouraged in his enterprise by Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian's editor.
As Mr Davies tells it, Roger Alton, editor of The Observer from 1998 until two months ago, was a political dimwit who nonetheless enjoyed being cultivated by Tony Blair. Kamal Ahmed, appointed political editor in April 2000, was also supposedly a political ingénue lacking experience of Westminster. According to Mr Davies, Mr Ahmed compensated by latching on to Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's spin doctor, who responded by feeding him stories. A string of Government-friendly pieces appeared in the paper.
Mr Ahmed was doing what several other political editors did in those heady days when almost everyone loved Tony Blair. The charges only become particularly serious with regard to the months before the Iraq war. The book suggests Number 10 regarded the liberal-left Observer as a key newspaper since it was read by many Labour MPs and others on the Left with instinctive misgivings about war. If it could be persuaded to champion the cause, it would be a useful ally in softening up opinion.
Mr Davies suggests – though he provides no evidence – that Mr Alton lifted chunks from Alastair Campbell's emails to incorporate into The Observer's pro-war leaders. In the autumn of 2002 the paper's American correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, filed a story sourced to a former CIA operative which stated that the CIA did not believe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Mr Vulliamy wrote this in seven different incarnations, but it was never used. Meanwhile Mr Ahmed remained close to Mr Campbell, and allegedly had a sneak preview of the "dodgy dossier" of February 2002, which contained a tissue of fabrications invented by Mr Campbell and his staff. This is the same Mr Campbell who last week lectured the Press on its moral deficiencies.
It is amazing stuff. Mr Davies suggests the editor and the political editor of a great liberal newspaper were suborned by Number 10, and so manipulated that The Observer became a government mouthpiece. Not even The Times's endorsement of Chamberlain's appeasement policy in the 1930s involved the degree of editorial submission to governmental power that Mr Davies alleges in Flat Earth News.
His strong case is not always watertight. For example, his suggestion that Alastair Campbell's reflections found their way into Observer leaders is based on the suspicions of journalists. One also notices that when two newspapers wrote about Mr Davies's book last October, he responded in terms that were virtually misleading. "The hacks who have said that the book accuses Kamal Ahmed of helping to write or edit the dodgy dossier are simply wrong," he remarked.
Well, no, he does not precisely say that, but what he does say is almost as combustible. His response seems disingenuous. Did he fear that the presentation of his book in such controversial terms might harm his relations with Mr Rusbridger? For all his evisceration of the failings of other journalists, Mr Davies is a mortal hack like the rest of us.
Unsurprisingly, plans to run excerpts of Flat Earth News in The Guardian have been abandoned. The Guardian Media Group is behaving as though it would like the controversy to go away. If Mr Davies worked for another newspaper company, would the Guardian Media Group be so easy going? What if he had made similar charges against another newspaper? The Guardian would have then gone nuclear.
There can be no more serious allegations against journalists than those made by Mr Davies. We can get things wrong. We can be spoon-fed by PR agencies or politicians. Newspapers have many faults, as he suggests, though it would be cheering if he remembered their virtues. But there is no greater disgrace for a newspaper than to collaborate with a government in the propagation of a lie that leads to the deaths of many people. That is what Nick Davies is saying.
Reid's rare brilliance will be missed
Stuart Reid is stepping down as deputy editor of The Spectator, possibly having developed an aversion to Andrew Neil's regime, Mr Neil being the magazine's hands-on chief executive and cultural tsar. Stuart is brilliant at editing copy and producing ideas, and ran the show during the not infrequent absences of Boris Johnson when he was editor.
Matthew d'Ancona, the current editor, has rightly praised Mr Reid, but in terms that raise some questions. He has hailed his departing deputy as "a unique and brilliant journalist". Quite – so why is he going? Praise has been poured on Mr Reid, but he has remained silent, possibly having been forbidden to talk by Mr Neil.
Incidentally, the current issue of The Spectator informs us that the bonhomous Mr Neil is hosting a blow-out at Boisdale restaurant in Belgravia on 19 February. Twelve tickets at £295 each. Surely a snip?