Friday, 10 April 2009

Flat Earth News - Nick Davies

Read: January 2008

“Journalist used to question the reasons for war and expose abuse of power. Now, like toothless babies, they suckle on the sugary teat of misinformation and poop it into the diaper we call the six o’clock news.”
Kent Brockman, TV Newsreader, The Simpsons

Watching the BBC news last week I was confronted with an example of outrageously lazy journalism. In a report about mistreatment of horses and farming for horsemeat a reporter spent the first minute or so traipsing through the field with a horse, introducing it, grooming it. Then he said: “Of course, this horse wasn’t farmed for meat, but he might have been!” or words to that effect.

I mean, what sort of pathetic, pointless, lazy journalism is that? What state has our media got to when this didn’t even surprise me; just elicited a brief snort of derision. That it is a cartoon newsreader on The Simpsons who enunciates the abysmal state of our media most effectively demonstrates what a farcical situation we are in. For humour is the only way to really tell a sad story. Flat Earth News seeks to tackle this very issue, and it is timely indeed.

Award-winning journalist Nick Davies has worked in the media for over twenty years, but following the debacle of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq story, he decided to turn his skills to his own profession, to discover just how so many people could have been so very wrong. The result is Flat Earth News, a damning indictment of the state of our media.

There are some dramatic revelations. Notably the prestigious Sunday newspaper which allowed the CIA and MI6 to plant fiction in its columns and the newspapers who pay cash bribes to bent detectives. But away from these dramatic headlines and the exposé’s which will steal all the column inches, there is a more worrying analysis, an intrinsic weakness in the structure and culture of journalism. It is not that there is a government conspiracy, or big business planting stories in the papers, or journalists deliberately misleading the public, it is far less deliberate than that, an insidious inherent production floor which prevents the functions of journalism working as they should. News factories operating like sweatshops with a focus on speed and profitability above all else, particularly journalistic integrity.

This focus on profits has led to a dramatic decline in the number of journalistic employees, with the result that fewer and fewer journalists are being asked to write an ever greater number of stories more quickly than ever before. So facts are not checked as they should be, questions are not asked, investigation not undertaken. Research found that of the big five, (supposedly) respectable newspapers (Times, Telegraph, Mail, Guardian, Independent) only 12% of their stories in a given fortnight were their own work and that only 12% of their key facts were being checked. So essentially, the basic background was being undertaken on less that one in eight stories. Increasingly journalists are using news agencies and merely paraphrasing them into reports without once subjecting their contents to the rigours of truth.

And what is the problem with this I hear you say? News agencies do not have claims to journalism, they exist to report what is said accurately and without questioning whether the person saying something has any qualifications to be saying it or whether what they are saying is even correct. As such, they do only a small aspect of a reporters duty. And if no-one is doing the other aspects, then the result is unlikely to be very accurate. Still going to buy your ‘newspaper’ tomorrow?

Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, the conjecture of his argument is that the media is becoming a vast gossip column. It seeks to be the biggest, the fastest, the most up to date with whatever is happening in the world, but in doing so it pays less attention to being the truest. In the rush to get its conjecture out and fill the airwaves or papers with comment on breaking news stories, any old idea is thrust out there, the more controversial the better. And when the dust has settled and the time for in depth analysis has come, those original conjectures have become so embedded in the public psyche that almost nothing can be done to challenge their perceived truthfulness.

“This is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”
"The Earth is flat."
Anybody, anywhere, until somebody checked.

Examples of this kind of news story are many, the Millenium Bug, ‘Get Tough’ policing, nuclear power, heroin; in each of these the perceived notions of fact are actually far from the truth. The Millennium Bug, for instance, began life with one scientist trying to bring the issue to the attention of his local media, but within a year it had been picked up across the world, with few journalists attempting to discover the actual scale of the threat, a threat which was, in reality, far over predicted. Any competent media system could have identified it as only semi-credible, and yet it built up from a few press releases to such hysteria that it was heralded by many as a potential apocalypse. And once news gets to this size, it becomes impossible to contradict, because the fallacy is so much more powerful than the non-event truth ever could be.

It is a similar story with New York’s fabled ‘get tough’ policing during the 1980’s. Despite rampant public perception that New York was cleaned up due to a series of hard policies and putting more policemen on patrol, this was, in fact, only a small aspect of it. Indeed, Davies argues that almost all evidence suggests that putting ‘bobby’s on the beat’ is the least productive of all policing methods. Yet to suggest this in the modern climate amounts to heresy.

And it is not just right-wing ideas which are attacked. Davies argues that the left has seriously misreported the threat of nuclear power, particularly the environmental and health results of a meltdown. In fact, far from the catastrophic wasteland Chernobyl has been heralded as, it is suggested that the actual scale of disease in its residents, even fifteen years later, was but a tiny fraction of the absurd estimates some commentators use. That without arguing Chernobul to be anything other than a disaster, the disaster was predominantly caused by the explosion itself, its very immediate aftermath, and the worldwide fear it produced, rather than the long lasting radiation which is but a fraction of the threat to health it has been reported as. Because although it appears to be similar to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the level of radiation produced in the creation of nuclear power is actually only a fraction of its destructive equivalent. Indeed, it is argued that coal miners and pilots are exposed to more radiation than your average nuclear power worker. As Nick Davies says; “I found this very difficult to accept.” Yet accept he does, for all the evidence points in that direction.

“This is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.”

This is Flat Earth news, and a whole swathe of people talking as though they are experts about things they know next to nothing about, reporting the dramatic, the exciting, not the factual. And after all this, what does Nick Davies think can be done to arrest this worrying trend? Precisely nothing.

“I’m afraid that I think the truth is that, in trying to expose the weakness of the media, I am taking a snapshot of a cancer. Maybe it helps a little to be able to see the illness. At least that way we know in theory what the cure might be. Bit I fear the illness is terminal.”

I did not need any reason to distrust our media more. I don’t watch the news or read newspapers precisely because I find it impossible to trust anything they say. Watching the news is like watching a film, only without the time and effort spent on doing it well. It is nice to have the facts to back this notion up but to think that the illness is so deeply routed and insidious makes me both very worried and very angry.

Still going to buy your newspaper tomorrow morning? Still going to turn on the six o’clock news tonight? If so, just remember, there is probably as much fact in your bedside novel as there is in that news story. Because at least fiction seeks only to convey the general impression, the idea of something, the experience of it. Whereas what is news without truth? Kent Brockman, over to you:

“Journalist used to question the reasons for war and expose abuse of power. Now, like toothless babies, they suckle on the sugary teat of misinformation and poop it into the diaper we call the six o’clock news.”

Well said, Kent. Well said.

7.5 out of 10

No comments: