Ignorance is at the root of media failure. Most of the time most journalists do not know what they are talking about. Their stories may be right, or they may be wrong: they don't know. [...] They work in structures which positively prevent them from discovering the truth. The ethic of honesty has been overwhelmed by the mass production of ignorance.
Ah, the curse of procrastination. When I finished reading Nick Davies' Flat Earth News (2010) in June last year, it could not have felt more timely. Here was the story behind the headlines: a meticulous but highly readable discussion of the systemic pressures and chronic weaknesses that made something like the News of the World's phone-hacking scandal essentially inevitable. I would write about it soon, I promised myself. Very soon.
Yes. I know.
In the meantime, the subject hasn't exactly become less relevant - the daily feeds from the Leveson enquiry bring ever more fascinating and disturbing details to light, and with each passing week Murdoch's grip on things looks shakier - but it has certainly lost something of its urgency. (I include a link to a Telegraph piece partly because the Torygraph criticising incestuous ties between business and government is always funny, but also for this priceless comment, in which one reader opines that "Corruption and bribery have risen in this country at the same rate that we have allowed in Third World immigrants" - it's like this country's entire quota of stupid in beautiful, horrible microcosm.)
Anyway. Davies combines a number of case studies of when the Press goes bad - including the baseless Y2K panic, climate change denialism, the Observer's support for the Iraq war, the Daily Mail's, well, standard operating procedures - with an authoritative overarching analysis that explains how and why such things happen. He draws on a wide range of insider testimonies, together with quantitative research carried out for him by the Journalism department at Cardiff University, to piece together the steps of his stories. Along the way, he tackles various myths and shibboleths of modern discourse regarding The News: the notion that neutrality is the same thing as objectivity, for example, such that all 'views' on an issue must be given equal weight - even when some of those views are utterly loony fringe narratives (as tackled on a regular basis by the likes of Ben Goldacre), or created out of whole cloth by paid PR firms. Journalists, he explains, have largely abdicated their responsibility to distinguish and discriminate between different versions of events, between reality and its distortion; most of the time, they no longer chase down the truth, or even check facts.
The cause of this is not malice or mendacity on the part of individual journalists (although in some cases that comes into it). Rather, it is about a series of industry-wide shifts in the way reporting is commissioned, edited, financed and presented, together with a downward circulation spiral - which, in turn, threatens the real revenue stream, advertising - that looks unlikely to be arrested. The logic of commerce, of course, is profit for shareholders; and, where revenues are in decline, costs must be cut. In the media, this cost-cutting has seen staffing budgets slashed further and further - even as the space to be filled with copy has tripled. Quality, inevitably, is sacrificed: the complex, multi-faceted stories are pushed out by the celebrity puff-pieces; the long-term investigations make way for near verbatim accounts of speeches a politician will deliver that day, courtesy of the party's press office; local and specialist reporters are laid off in droves, with things like science reporting and stories that take place outside London left to generalists at the centre without the skills, knowledge or contacts to do them justice, if they are written at all.
One example given of the latter is a police raid on a house in Lancashire in October 2006, which uncovered, according to Davies "what was believed to be the largest collection of chemical explosives ever found in the UK". One of two men arrested had strong links to the British National Party. The story was barely seen in national press, however, because the police chose not to do a press release about it - thus offering no ready-made copy to be recycled - and the national papers had no local reporters on the ground. Only one person wrote about it: Wendy Barlow, a freelance court reporter, for the Lancashire Telegraph. The BBC made a vague effort to follow up her story, but lacked the resources to back up such an effort, and soon gave up in favour of items within closer reach.
The central problem, argues Davies, is that the media's apparent neutrality only cloaks other selection processes - processes driven by profit margins and propaganda - that give us a far from objective account of the world. Financial pressures mean that journalism has been progressively "deskilled". Chasing the news has become a "luxury", and a generation of reporters are now largely reduced to "churnalism" - that is, to processing copy pre-prepared for them by the news wire services (themselves subject to the same financial restrictions) and the myriad public relations firms attached to businesses, politicians, celebrities and the like. Davies notes that "on the best available estimates, Britain now has more PR people (47,800) than journalists (45,000)". Research carried out on his behalf at Cardiff University drives home this point. Researchers analysed a sample of two weeks of reporting, chosen at random, in five national newspapers: the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Times, the Independent, and the Daily Mail. Their figures are striking. Of 2207 pieces on domestic news, 60% were found to consist wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material; 20% had clear elements of same; 8% were difficult to identify; and only 12% - twelve percent of all the news stories about events in the UK - were wholly written by a given newspaper's own reporters.
A great many of these stories that are fed to the newspapers are run unverified; another cost-cutting measure has been to vastly reduce the manpower and manhours given to fact checking. What we are getting is not neutrality, but propaganda and groupthink: a shill for the views of whoever has the time and money to put out a press release.
Some of these things are, individually, relatively harmless. These are the non-stories created for businesses by PR firms, usually involving an online survey whose results are trumpeted in a press release as 'The Nation's Favourite X'. Another version of this is the utterly bogus mathematical formula. You've almost certainly seen or heard news coverage given over the revelation that a 'scientist' has determined the most depressing day of the year; originally a faux-story dreamed up by a travel agent, Sky Travel, looking to boost sales of package holidays by convincing people they're really sad, this tall tale still turns up in the press with, frankly, depressing regularity. Here's the Guardian joining in the chorus about it yet again last year, followed by a slightly embarrassed arse-covering version a week later, after commenters on the earlier story pointed out that Ben Goldacre had snarked about the phenomenon in its own pages two years earlier. Silly space-fillers, perhaps, but collectively they suck the oxygen out of real news stories, because they're so much easier and cheaper to use, however baseless:
On a single Monday in November 2005, the Guardian ran nine different survey stories on its news pages, and the Sun ran nine others. Some of them are statistically baseless. One PR outfit, acting for a company who wanted to set up a service for finding lost mobile phones, informed the media that 63,000 mobile phones had been left in London taxis over the previous six months. The real figure, according to the Public Carriage Office, was 779. The survey, it turned out, was based on talking to precisely 131 out of the 24,000 cabbies in London. Still, the story got used.
On a larger scale, though, this sort of practice results in non-stories turning into government-convulsing panics, like the so-called 'Millennium Bug', in which the journalistic echo chamber - fed by vested interests benefitting from the money that was poured into solving the imaginary problem, and legions of commentators who lacked the expertise or the time to find out whether there was any substance in it whatsoever (there wasn't) - turned a rumour into a worldwide, rock-solid catastrophe-in-the-making:
This is Flat Earth News. A story that appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true - even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.
In this, as in almost everything else, supply has come to dictate demand. The easy story - the one generating the reams of accessible coverage - goes to the head of the queue day after day, getting the columns inches and the photo spreads that it would otherwise be prohibitively costly and time-consuming to fill.
Sometimes, though, the smokescreen is calculated rather than systemic. Davies devotes a fascinating chapter to the intelligence agency meddling that infects press coverage of Iraq, focusing in particular on the controversial figure of the Jordanian rival of Usama bin Laden, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. US and Jordanian intelligence repeatedly tried to link al-Zarqawi with bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, even to the extent of apparently forging a letter supposedly written by al-Zarqawi - filled with complaints that the insurgents were losing the war due to the heroic efforts of US security forces ("Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By God, this is suffocation!") - and then 'leaking' it to the media. Some of the press release-fuelled stories coming out of Iraq detailed here really are hilariously stupid; my favourite is one concocted in support of the assault on Fallujah:
One, which was widely used, scored an important point for the legitimacy of the assault by reporting that US troops had found Zarqawi's headquarters in Fallujah. This was described as "an imposing building with concrete columns and a sign in Arabic on the wall reading 'al-Qaeda organisation'. Most reporters simply failed to comment on the profundly surprising idea that the most hunted terrorist group in the world would advertise its presence as though it were a branch of Woolworths (and the worrying fact that, in spite of this open declaration of its whereabouts, this imposing building had failed to be targeted by any of the US Air Force's 'precision strikes').
And sometimes, too, the newspapers are not the semi-innocent victims of evil press releases, but practitioners of outright mendacity themselves. Further commentary on Rupert Murdoch ("He uses his media outlets as tools to secure political favours, and he uses those political favours to advance his business") and his empire is probably unnecessary at this stage. But what Davies has to say about the Daily Mail is quite breathtaking. Not so much in terms of the naked bigotry of the paper's chief concerns - a quick skim of its website makes that clear enough - but of the "spiteful aggression" and bloody-minded, deliberate falsehoods with which it pursues that agenda.
The Mail is the only major newspaper in this country that still comfortably turns a profit - think about that for a moment, and weep - and this enables it to cushion its reporters (/'reporters') from the effects of an editorial strategy that sees Press Complaints Commission investigations against the Mail upheld three times more than the national average. The litany of hate-mongering, political policy-shaping campaigns against anything and everything that threatens lower middle class 'values' - immigration, uppity women, celebrities who refuse to play ball, people who aren't white breathing respectable English air with impunity - really has to be read in full to be believed. One short anecdote will have to suffice, to end this post:
I spoke to a man who had worked for the Daily Mail for some years as a senior news reporter. He said: "They phoned me early one morning and told me to drive about three hundred miles to cover a murder. It was a woman and her two children who'd been killed. I got an hour and a half into the journey, and the news desk called me on my mobile and said, 'Come back.' I said, 'Why's that?' They said, 'They're black.'"