Friday, August 19, 2011

Nick Davies: Flat Earth News

Nick Davies, Flat Earth News, one of my holiday reads. Although it’s essential reading it is, to be honest, more of a battering than a read; a relentless and disheartening exposé of the woeful decline in journalistic standards across the world's media with particular reference to the British press.

He starts with the Millennium Bug 'hoax'; the idea that the world was going to crash and burn at the turn of the millennium because of a bug in the clock code of all the worlds computers. This is a story that should never have happened and could easily have been fact-checked out of existence. But the volume of PR, the fact that the story sold newspapers and lucrative maintenance contracts to the IT industry meant that it wouldn't go away.

There is a substantial review of the media's failures around the invasion of Iraq and the the swallowing, hook line and sinker, of the WMD myth. No-one is spared. Even the Observer gets excoriated for toeing the new labour line on the invasion of Iraq.

The Mail gets a particularly well written chapter on its bullying and aggressive tactics and it cavalier attitude to the truth if it is onto a story that it thinks its readers will like. The Sunday Times and Murdoch get a going over for they way they marginalised true investigative journalism as practised by the Insight Team to the extent that it became known as the 'Hindsight Team' in the business. The PCC is characterised as the sham that it is.

Nick Davies was of course at the forefront of the Guardian’s coverage of Hackgate 2011, it’s a story that he has followed for a long time and but for his doggedness, supported by Guardian, may never have come to light.

The central argument of the book is that the new breed of proprietors like Conrad Black and Murdoch, in putting profit before quality journalism, have presided over the rise and eventual victory of 'churnalism' - the blind reproduction of unchecked spin and PR - and have undermined everything that journalism should stand for because its cheaper to do so.

According to Davies 80% of all articles in the serious press betray an unhealthy reliance on press releases; some are reproduced unchanged, others partially. The PR industry has completely outmanoeuvred journalism and can get almost any story they want into the press or media with little fear of being called on it.

It's a depressing story because it rings so true. We cling onto the hope that papers like the Guardian will continue to produce quality journalism and that the BBC will resist becoming a political football under the paranoid Tories. The Telegraph is showing signs of growing some recently which is not a phrase I thought I would every see myself type.

The future does look very bleak for the mainstream press though. The fundamental role of the press to tell the truth has been compromised, possibly fatally. We will have to look elsewhere for our truth-tellers in the not too distant future, they will pebbly be on the internet and hopefully The Guardian for one will be among them.

It does make it hard to feel any sympathy for the press and their whining about how internet has undermined their business model. Of course it has but their business model was broken long before the internet came along. You can't peddle half-truths and nonsense and expect people to stick with you - they will devalue your proposition in their mind and eventually in their purses and you will lose. If you get it really wrong, you might go to jail.