Monday, July 23, 2012

Nick Davies - Flat Earth News

In 2001 I was in Genoa, Italy for anti-capitalist protests against the G8. These were marked by extremely violent attacks by the Italian police on protesters. In one of these, a young anarchist activist called Carlo Giuliani was shot dead by an Italian policeman. As a result of this,, the next day saw Genoa swamped by enormous protests. I was one of the press contacts for a British anti-capitalist group in Genoa and I did a number of interviews with the British press. During the course of the day, as it looked that there might be further clashes between police and protesters, I was asked to do regular interviews for a 24 hour news channel. The problem was, I was told by a journalist on the phone from London, that the news organisation had no journalists in Italy. They had been cut to save money.

Similar stories about the changes to the international, but particularly the British media, are a running theme through Nick Davies' book. He charts the decline of journalism and locates the problems not with individual journalists, most of whom he points out are hard-working, underpaid and over-worked. Rather, Nick Davies argues that the systemic changes to the media since the Second World War, and specifically since the 1980s are the root causes. These lie with what Davies describes as a “grocer” mentality, the notion that the sole purpose of the media is to make the maximum possible profits. In order to do this, media workers are increasingly pressured to produce the maximum number of stories, in the shortest possible time with decreasing numbers of staff and resources.

This would be bad enough and Davies demonstrates particularly by looking at local British newspapers, the way that staff are unable to do more than regurgitate press-releases and rehash stories from other media sources. Often this is done by staff without proper training, payment or experienced colleagues. However the problem is exacerbated Davies argues, by new industries that systematically distort stories and shape the news agenda.

The old model, where news editors and reporters selected stories and angles, is in a state of collapse. We have seen how the structure of corporate news has converted journalists from active news-gatherers to passive processors of material – only 12% of which could be shown to be free of the mark of wire agencies and PR consultants.”

These arguments are backed up by some impressive studies, where Davies' researchers systematically analysed newspapers stories and matched them up with press-releases and other coverage. A truly depressing picture of the state of British media is painted. The limitations are further shown, by a shocking figure that Davies highlights, the amount of news reported by Google News. Google News it should be remembered, is not a news agency, it aggregates, or reports the sources of other news outlets – from the BBC and The Guardian, to Socialist Worker. In one day in 2006, Google News offered “access” to some 14,000 stories, “yet on this day they were actually accounts of the same 24 news events”.

While large sections of this book are devoted to exposing the practises of PR agencies and so on, large sections are devoted to a couple of major news events. One of these, the build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, as part of the “War on Terror” and the events of September 11th 2001, probably one of the biggest news stories of the last twenty years. It was also an enormously manipulated story. Everyone from governments to intelligence agencies was involved in creating a story that justified and encouraged the attack on Iraq. In Britain, Tony Blair's government played a particularly shady role in first supporting the US government but then attempting to manipulate public opinion though a series of lies, half-truths and cover-ups. 

They were aided in this, by a number of over-friendly senior figures in the news industry. Davies studies in particular the career during this period of Kamal Ahmed, the political editor of The Observer a newspaper with a previous reputation as left-wing, which had in the past been happy to critique government policy and challenge the status-quo. Instead, despite the reservations (and anti-war position) of many of the journalists, the paper took a pro-war position. This meant that stories against the war, or in one case a serious work of investigative journalism that showed through interviews with senior US intelligence officers that the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” did not exist, were spiked. Links between senior news figures and Downing Street meant that such criticism was hidden at the first hurdle.

Davies shows how changes at newspapers such as reduced numbers of staff and resources mean that journalists are less able or less willing to check facts and stories. In an era of 24 hour news reporting this reduces the ability of the news rooms to find information, simply regurgitating existing stories, or stories that appear to come from reliable sources (such as the Press Association). But it also encourages the journalists themselves to fit a particular political agenda. In this sense news stories are less about explaining a particular situation and more about pushing a “line”. This can mean that work from journalists is distorted or re-written to reflect a certain existing viewpoint. As Davies comments about the Sunday Telegraph (in particular its Insight Team):

When the Insight Team were tasked to look at immigration and asylum, they found that it was true as right-wingers had alleged, that the asylum process was in chaos; but they also found impressive evidence that immigration was good for the country. They were allowed to only write the first part of the story.”

Nick Davies argues convincingly that a key problem is what he calls Flat Earth News. These are the stories that “everyone” knows to be true – immigration is bad, policemen are mostly good, the Iraq War was about ending the terrorist threat and so on. Pressure to conform to these existing ideas limits media investigation and critique.

The structural changes to the media that Nick Davies highlights are part of wider social transformations. The beginnings of the break up of the media, reductions in staffing levels and the switch to stories that would maximise sales of newspapers coincide with the era of neo-liberalism. Many of the stories told in this book have their roots in Margaret Thatchers first government, with its attacks on the power of the unions and the beginnings of the destruction of the welfare state. The same forces were at work in the media industry and the friendship of individuals like Rupert Murdoch with governments since then have accelerated this. This is not a process that is limited to the low-end mass market tabloids either, as Davies comments while discussing the activities of newspapers like The News of the World whose journalists routinely broke the law in pursuit of a story;

Ever so often, one of these stunts would break out into the public domain. The tabloids would deny everything and the post papers would look straight down their noses and write slightly smug, slightly amused pieces about those wild and whacky red-top chaps and their dodgy ways, as if this sort of activity was something entirely alien to them. The truth is, that by the mid-1990s the posh papers were bang at it too – because they were suffering from exactly the same commercial pressures which had corrupted their tabloid colleagues.”

Nick Davies finishes this book on a less than optimistic note. He clearly believes that the era of proper journalism and genuine media is at an end. In part he hopes (with some justification) that the internet can undermine this, but he clearly thinks that the forces of the market have finally destroyed the golden age of the journalist. While the picture painted of the media in Flat Earth News is very depressing, I think that part of the solution lies in ordinary people taking control of their own lives. This might seem far-fetched, but in Greece in the midst of the struggles against austerity, some journalists have taken over their newspaper and written what might be called proper news. On a smaller scale part of an answer must surly lie in the rebuilding of workers organisations at the newspapers, in order to give journalists an opportunity through collective action to stand up to the bullies and editorial lines forced upon them.

Despite this minor disagreement I heartedly encourage people to read this book. Its expose of the realities of the modern media will be eye-opening to everyone, even those who are already deeply cynical about the press. For those of us who have campaigned over the last few decades against war and racism, many of the stories from the news-rooms inside will explain why what we rarely made the headlines. And, for all those who despise the Daily Mail Nick Davies explains the real reasons for its relentless right-wing, scapegoating politics and the lies in its stories (as well as some accounts of its shocking internal racism). Ultimately, the problem with the media lies in a political and economic system that is filled with fear of ordinary people, that needs to divide and rule and which is driven by a hunt for profits at the expense of all else. Nick Davies' book is an extraordinarily fascinating insight into a small, but very very influential part of that world.

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