Written by Books

Flat Earth News

Nick Davies has written a fascinating book that details exactly how we get our news – and he’s not a happy man. I like to think that I know a little about what goes on in the media and how truths are distorted and the way that newspapers and news broadcasts are put together.
In a previous life I worked for a local newspaper company, and while I didn’t work in the editorial department, I knew a thing or two about how it worked. I’ve got a reasonable idea about how news is put together for bulletins for my current employer.
But despite regularly reading the media pages of The Guardian and The Independent, listening to media podcasts, and always reading the Street of Shame pages of Private Eye, I still had my eyes opened to a lot of what was, and is, going on.
We all now know about the News of the World reporter who was caught intercepting the voicemail messages of members of the Royal Family amongst others, but I hadn’t realised to quite what extent that this kind of activity had been happening further afield, and the extent to which it continues to happen. Davies highlights numerous cases which one way or the other have avoided any kind of prosecution.
His central thesis is that fewer people are now having to produce more and more copy to service additional newspaper sections, 24 hour news channels and websites. There’s less time to find things out, and more time is given over to serving an ever-growing multitude of media. So now you have to get a version up on your newspaper’s website asap. Then when you’re reporting the story, you might need to video or record the story at the same time – perhaps for a vodcast or podcast. All of this is eating up time that you could be using to do more reporting before finally completing the copy in time for the first edition of your newspaper. On top of that, in many cases you’re expected to produce more stories per day than previously.
Not that Davies would have you believe that there ever was a “Golden Age” of journalism. Perhaps in the past people were lazy and spent afternoons in the pub instead of using the time properly. The commercial imperatives of today’s proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch may be different from some of those in the past – with a “give them what they want” and not a “what’s good for them” mentality – but that’s not to say that the proprietorial systems that worked in the past were necessarily better. Running a newspaper has always meant being in a position of power.
But what is clear is that there are far fewer sources of news these days. Smaller local news agencies who once provided copy for many papers have closed down, and today we’re largely left with the Press Association. That may be fine, but it has its own problems. And it essentially means that most of the news is being supplied by a single agency. The same is true internationally with only Associated Press and Reuters offering full international story supplies (and to a lesser extent AFP). So if you’re not picked up by one of those organisations, you’re probably not going to be picked up at all – important stories are left largely undocumented.
And it’s clear too that there are some massive issues with the over-reliance on PR stories. The growth of the PR industry is phenomenal and with government departments and companies churning out stories left right and centre, as editorial budgets decrease, these stories are swallowed and regurgitated wholesale. Newspapers have pages to fill; websites need ‘content’ to drive readers to them. Nobody’s doing much in the way of checking or fresh reporting. They may seek a quote here or there and that’s it.
There are a couple of issues I have with the book. Davies concentrates on the Millennium Bug, and the fact that civilisation did not collapse in the aftermath of the advent of the 21st century. While that is true, and those who created scenarios that would have had us retiring to log cabins in the countryside with copious quantities of bottled water and canned food, were evidently over egging the pudding, I’m not sure that it was quite the non-story that Davies paints it as being.
And at another point, Davies notes a report that mentions fractions of a second differences between stories loading on the BBC News and Sky News websites. Davies seems to think that this is something to do with the undoubted pressures being brought to bear on journalists to get a story onto a newsgathering organisation’s website as quickly as possible. In fact, it’s patently a report into how quickly a page appears for a user – you are less likely to use a site if the server capacity is poor, and pages load slowly.
I’d love to be able to say that I learnt nothing from this book, and knew the kind of duplicity and immoral/illegal behaviour perpetrated by some of these people (it’s important to note that not all journalists and organisations are as venal as some of the stories outlined here), but I was truly amazed by one section. It dealt with the so-called ‘Nat West Three.’ I remember that latter stages of that story as the bankers involved had been extradited to the US to stand trial for some accusations regarding the Enron collapse. The story I’d certainly been left with was that the UK had inadvertently agreed to a terrible set of laws that let these poor innocent middle class men be extradited to face unfair trial in the US. But this was simply PR spin on a colossal scale. And it worked – on me at least – but I think many others. The evidence, in fact, was vast. And although the new law may be unfair (we can’t extradite Americans in the same manner), the fact was that these men would have been extradited anyway. Instead we had marches and a concerted press campaign to support these poor men. It was a fantastically “successful” piece of PR that hooked (or hoodwinked) our press completely – and took me along for the ride.
It’s worth noting that Davies doesn’t even bother getting into the tabloid press. And frankly, if it’s accepted that an intelligent person has a healthy scepticism of the tabloids, it’s still enormously worrying to learn what’s going on in our quality titles.
But really, this is an essential read for anyone who cares about how our news is put together and delivered to us. Although Davies is a Guardian journalist, he’s dished out his distain quite widely, and as well as the venom shown towards targets like Associated Newspapers’ Mail titles, there must be some seriously unhappy people at the Sunday Times and his own sister paper The Observer. They really don’t come out of the book very well.
So please do pick up a copy of this book and spend some time with it. You really won’t regret it.