Between the lines: Nick Davies – Flat Earth News
The problem with students reading newspapers is the brigade of self-righteous pundits, myself shamefully included, who manage to sneer at the unreliability of every single story before its second paragraph. Everything except the shrine of war correspondence (ironically the most censored form) is cheap, insipid and blown way out of the water for the screaming hoardes of intellectually-challenged rubber-neckers.
Yet Nick Davies, a prominent journalist himself, was hardly going to turn the irate yet highly studious eye of Flat Earth News on the thought patterns of ‘slimy’ reporters. Instead, we are given a dense and detailed look at modern journalism that devotes as many pages as possible to the supposedly-noble Big Five – the BBC, Telegraph, Guardian, Times and Independent (and their Sunday counterparts) – and focuses on the larger forces that send stories into the newsroom as tangles of lies and loose threads before drawing them out again, too often, in pretty much the same form.
The result is a heavy study so packed with details and specifics that it reads rather like a four hundred page issue of Private Eye (though mercifully with larger print).
The details, however, are fascinating. There’s the story of how the Millennium Bug started as a vague warning by a Canadian consultant in May 1993, and ballooned into the biggest non-story of our lifetime just because said consultant exaggerated to make sure people knew about it.
Or there’s the emergence in the 1920s of the claim that heroin was highly toxic, designed as a bargaining chip in the war on drugs in the US, which still permeates the global anti-drugs mindset today.
Clear throughout the book is a perhaps short-sighted hearkening back to ‘old style’ reporting. Tighter budgets and the juggling of ‘New Media’, according to Davies, have resulted in what he calls the “churnalism” of trainee local reporters on £15k, covering patches hundreds of miles wide completely alone, writing 48 stories a week and relying on rewritten copy from inherently biased press releases.
The most shocking chapter, though, is that on government propaganda. It will always be a blow to learn the sheer Orwellian extent to which governments unfalteringly lie to their populace, and in this sense, the book is a rallying call to ‘real’ journalism, the type that liberates ‘the people’ from the lies of ‘the establishment’. The lies he exposes are ornate, sophisticated and propelled, he shows, by terrifyingly clear motivations.
However, the book puts its faith in an assumed impartial truth which, of course, is problematic. It is practically impossible for most journalists to unveil ‘the truth’ and know it at the time, no matter how many awards they may have won – Davies’ loud praise for the journalistic martyrs who cried out against the consensus on Iraqi WMDs is only justified by the fact that they didn’t exist after all.
There is no mention of countless conspiracy theories that are stifled by editors, and later turn out to have been based on dodgy sources with vested interests. Meanwhile, his mantra that any source “designed to serve an interest” is unreliable means that the scope of Flat Earth News is ridiculously huge: from PR and ad-men to corporations and government to corrupt editors dealing in personal favours.
Yet Davies is not trying to posit a solution to this crisis. It is enough for him to point out the industry’s defects and walk away, as he admits in his prologue, “in embarrassment at [his] own naivety”, as the effect is the same on everybody else.
The book is essential reading for anybody with more than a vague interest in how journalism works, and is careful to make points that any amateur could understand.
Davies’s distinction between ‘accuracy’ and ‘truth’ is particularly engaging – he argues that the truth behind stories is undermined by the effort to ensure accuracy by giving both sides an equal say (a controversial line, until he brings up an array of obvious propagandists who have been given disproportionate airtime).
If you’re going into journalism, reading a newspaper, or, to be honest, hearing anybody speak about anything, then stop, read this book, and then follow back from where you left off. You’ll arrive back with a changed – and of course, even more vastly cynical – view of the world.