Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies

Read all about it? Not likely

Reviewed,Deborah Orr
Friday 15 February 2008 01:00 GMT

In his wide-ranging investigation of the shortcomings of the global and British media, the distinguished reporter Nick Davies contends that journalists have become adept at creating what he calls "pseudo-events". It is therefore a self-prophesying pity that the publication of Flat Earth News may be, to some extent, turned into a pseudo-event in itself. Already the signs are that it will, largely, go the way of all high-profile critiques of the media.

Journalists have lined up to say what an important book this is, and how essential it is that attention must be paid to it, sometimes within the very newspaper groups that are most roundly criticised. This, in itself, is good for business. It makes newspapers seem impartial, open to self-examination, and lacking in self-censorship. The individuals who are most troubled by the book have their say, and this offers an indication that the press, for all its faults, is still free. Yet as Davies himself points out, for all that there are still many journalists of integrity working within the system, it is the system itself that is corrupt – however many mea culpas it utters.

Although his book has been billed as breaking the first rule of journalism, that "dog doesn't eat dog", Davies has been sparing in his criticism of individual journalists. That is not to say that he names no names. Some of the people whose stories he has attacked, notably Jo Ann Goodwin of the Daily Mail, will have experienced the unpleasant sensation of being comprehensively snapped and snarled at in print for the first time. Many sins of the other named miscreants, however, are already in the public domain, from Andrew Neil's part in the affair of Mordechai Vanunu (kidnapped then jailed for 18 years), who was unwise enough to choose Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times as the outlet for his inside information on Israel's secret nuclear weapons programme, to David Rose's pre-Iraq War reports in The Observer, which he has already admitted were based on propaganda fed to him by the security services.

More generally, Davies is at pains to emphasise that it is journalists themselves who are the primary victims of the changes he documents so fastidiously. He suggests that the problem with the media is that they prioritise corporate needs rather than public duty. Focusing on news-gathering, Davies paints a portrait of an industry that is institutionally geared towards making the seeking-out of real news very difficult.

In the "news factory", he says, reporters are tied to their desks by lack of budget and lack of time. They are forced by circumstances to rely on "the suppliers" for their leads, recycling information placed in the public domain by others and producing not journalism but "churnalism".

Davies instigated a programme of research at Cardiff University which found that, although staffing levels in "Fleet Street" were slightly lower than in 1985, the journalists were filling three times as much editorial space. The research found also that in the news pages of the main quality papers, plus the Daily Mail, an average of 70 per cent of the copy used, in whole or in part, was taken from the news agencies, usually in the form of wire copy from the Press Association.

This wire copy, he illustrates with some chilling examples, can be far from reliable. He shows how easy it is for public relations agencies to place their "pseudo-events" on the wires, and how adept the Western security services have become at introducing the material they want to appear, whether there is any truth in it or not. Davies's examination of the part these agencies played in the orchestration of the run-up to the Iraq War, and in the course of its execution, is utterly damning.

When these techniques were combined with a virtually in-built bias towards "official sources", the media became decisive patsies in the promotion of the war and the shape that it took, and continues to take. Much has been made of the fact that, although he works for its sister paper The Guardian, Davies chose to offer machinations at The Observer as his case study of how such a combination of pressures plays out. Although it has been denied that the contents of the book played a part in the resignation of its then editor, Roger Alton, it is difficult to understand how this could really have been the case.

Less central to the chilling business of the manufacture of bloody history, but ghastly nonetheless, is Davies's exploration of the ease with which controversial "issues" can be inserted into the media by public relations companies. When three businessmen implicated in the Enron affair suddenly because a cause célèbre in the British press, I found the cross-media indignation that these British citizens should be extradited to the US for trial to be mystifying. Davies explains how all of it was orchestrated by the three men themselves, via the costly ministrations of a savvy PR agency called Bell Yard. Happily, the campaign was unsuccessful, though this was in no part due to any failure of the British press to be utterly manipulated.

Davies also points out that in the rush to churn, many traditional sources of news have been neglected. Significant here is not just the shrinking attention paid to what is said in parliamentary debates, and the hunger the press displays for government leaks, but also the lack of appetite for the simple discipline of court reporting. We all understand that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. It is hard to believe that the failure of the fourth estate to provide the latter component in our criminal justice system is not itself a factor in widespread confusion about it, and lack of confidence in it. Our press, in this respect and in so many others, does not serve the country.

Davies, careful, brilliant and instinctive reporter as he is, could no more have found himself ignoring this huge story than he could have found himself stepping over a body thrown into his path by Jack the Ripper. Whether there is meaningful life left in the victim of his investigations remains to be seen.

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