A telling new book on the methods of modern journalism.
The business of reporting the truth has been slowly subverted by the mass production of ignorance. Award-winning Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ scintillating exposé of the corruption of much of what today passes as journalism begins with this stark warning. It continues at a rapid pace, describing the descent of modern journalism into ‘churnalism’ – the repackaging of largely unchecked second-hand material, much of it designed to service the political or commercial interests of those who provide it.
This book is a must for all IRR News readers. For one thing, Davies reminds all of us working in, or subscribing to, alternative news sources of the vital importance of such work in an era when the global media fails in its professional task to speak truth to power. This book deals with big subjects – the massive changes in news production, the subversive influence of PR companies, the rise of ‘the dark arts’ (the trade in confidential information obtained via an information black market which involves journalists buying their way into confidential databases through the use of private detectives). It deals with shameful journalistic episodes – the demonisation of Winston Silcott for the killing of PC Blakelock, the betrayal of Israeli whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu by the Sunday Times, the Observer‘s support for the war in Iraq, the Daily Mail‘s hounding of migrants and asylum seekers – but all the time giving us fresh insights. And by so doing, Davies proves ‘the impact of all this on a world where consumers believe a mass of stories which, in truth, are as false as the idea that the Earth is flat’.
The rot, according to Davies, started in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch conquered Fleet Street, broke the print unions and removed the final obstacle to the rule of corporate owners (herein known as the ‘grocers’).That process released a chain of internal changes which have had a devastating effect on truth-telling journalism. The new corporate owners’ commercial logic (cut costs, increase revenue) when applied to news has cut out human contact and with it the possibility of finding stories; cutting down time and with it the possibility of checking; thus producing stories in greater numbers at greater speed and of much worse quality. By the mid-1990s, the ‘grocers’ who had broken through at Wapping were sweeping through the provinces, leading to the takeover of local newspapers. This had disastrous consequences for journalists on national quality newspapers who have always relied on a network of local journalists to gather the raw material from which their stories are built. Specialist court-reporting agencies went the same way as local newspapers and finally the supply line from local broadcasters was broken too.
Without doubt, Flat Earth News is one of the most important accounts written to date of the falsehoods, distortion and propaganda inherent in today’s global media. But there are a few occasions when Davies falls short of the high ethical standards he sets himself. Davies’ scathing critique of Observer journalist David Rose’s series of aggressive and highly-misleading articles, written in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and based on false information provided by the CIA, is entirely justified. But his character assassination of David Rose – who later issued a retraction in which he spoke of his shame about being duped by ‘a calculated set-up, devised to foster the propaganda case for war’ – is not. This was the same David Rose who championed Winston Silcott (when other journalists were quite happy to leave him to rot in prison), who wrote some of the best reports on the Brixton and Tottenham uprisings, and who took up issues of racial violence (when it was not fashionable). Davies fails to mention this, nor the fact that since his retraction, Rose has returned to the fold of truth-telling journalism – exposing US lies and the human cost of the war on terror, not least at Guantánamo Bay and in Palestine. At the same time, Davies presents other journalists – like Andrew Gilligan (now master of the ‘dark arts’ on the Evening Standard) and Martin Bright (whose various TV documentaries on Ken Livingstone and the Muslim Council of Britain could well be described as ‘McCarthyite’) as though they are on the side of the angels. Will Bright and Gilligan express shame, retract? I think not.