Riots, Terrorism etc

John Lanchester

  • Flat Earth News by Nick Davies
    Chatto, 408 pp, £17.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 7011 8145 1

‘Important’ is a cant word in book reviewing: it usually means something like ‘slightly above average’, or ‘I was at university with her,’ or ‘I couldn’t be bothered to read it so I’m giving a quote instead.’ Very occasionally it might be stretched to mean ‘a book likely to be referred to in the future by other people who write about the same subject’. Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News, however, is a genuinely important book, one which is likely to change, permanently, the way anyone who reads it looks at the British newspaper industry. Davies’s book explains something easy to notice and complain about but hard to understand: the sense of the increasing thinness and attenuation of the British press. It’s not literal thinness: the papers, physically, are bigger than ever. There just seems to be less in them than there once was: less news, less thought (as opposed to opinion), less density of engagement, less time spent finding things out. Davies looks into all those questions, confirms that the impression of thinness is correct, explains how this came about, and offers no hope that things will improve.

His book starts at the point at which he got interested in the story of what he calls ‘flat earth news’: ‘A story 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.’ That’s flat earth news, and Davies became interested in the phenomenon, via the story of the millennium bug. How on earth did so many papers get sucked into producing so many millions of words of, it turns out, total nonsense about the impending implosion of all government, all commerce, all human activity, by the catastrophe which was going to be caused by the bug? ‘National Health Service patients could die’ (Telegraph); ‘Banks could collapse’ (Guardian); ‘Riots, terrorism and a health crisis’ (Sunday Mirror); ‘Pensions contributions could be wiped out’ (Independent); ‘Nato alert over Russian missile millennium bug’ (Times). The British government spent a figure variously reported as £396 million, £430 million and £788 million. And then, on the big night, a tide gauge failed in Portsmouth harbour. That was pretty much it. Countries which had spent next to nothing – Russia, for instance, whose government of 140 million citizens spent less on the bug than British Airways – had no problems.

There are several ways of looking at this story, which has some of the aspects of a panic and some of those of a hoax or job-creation scheme.[*] Davies chooses to focus on the fact that of the millions of words written about the bug, all of them were written by journalists who had no idea whether what they were writing was true. They simply didn’t know. Flat Earth News makes a great deal of this. The most basic function of journalism, in Davies’s view, is to check facts. Journalists don’t just pass on what they’re told without making an effort to check it first. At least, in theory they don’t. In practice, contemporary journalism has been corrupted by an endemic failure to verify facts and stories in a manner so fundamental that it almost defies belief. The consequences of that are pervasive and systemic.

Nick Davies is an unusual figure in British journalism, mainly because he has persisted in holding the admirable belief that reporting is the central task of the trade. Journalists report much less than they used to, and much less than they should, as the papers have switched over to a reliance on columnists and opinion. Back in the day, an ambitious young toad going into journalism would have seen All the President’s Men once too often, and would dream of bringing down governments with a single scoop. Good luck to them. Davies was like that. Today the equivalent ambitious young toad would dream of having a column with their picture at the top, as a precursor to a well-timed move to TV or politics or some other form of showbiz.

Davies, however, is still a believer in legwork and in getting the story first-hand. This led him to recruit researchers at Cardiff University’s school of journalism to quantify what was happening in the British press. The result is illuminating and grim. The team looked at a fortnight’s production from the posh papers and the Daily Mail, and analysed in the process 2207 UK news pieces. They focused on two things: the number of stories that were derived directly from press releases; and the number that were taken straight from the main British news agency, the Press Association. The results were amazing, and not in a good way.

They found that a massive 60 per cent of these quality-print stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material, and a further 20 per cent contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR to which more or less other material had been added. With 8 per cent of the stories, they were unable to be sure about their source. That left only 12 per cent of stories where the researchers could say that all the material was generated by the reporters themselves. The highest quota proved to be in the Times, where 69 per cent of news stories were wholly or mainly wire copy and/or PR … The researchers went on to look at those stories which relied on a specific statement of fact and found that with a staggering 70 per cent of them, the claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. Only 12 per cent of these stories showed evidence that the central statement had been thoroughly checked.

So only 12 per cent of what is in the papers consists of a story that a reporter has found out and pursued on her own initiative; and only 12 per cent of key facts are checked. The rest is all rewritten wire copy and PR. This remaining 88 per cent is, in Davies’s stinging coinage, ‘churnalism’. No wonder the papers feel a bit thin.

As for the wire copy, most of it comes from the Press Association:

When the queen wants to talk to the world, she gives a statement to the Press Association. When the poet laureate wants to publish a poem, he files it to the Press Association. Every government department, every major corporation, every police service and health trust and education authority delivers its official announcements to the Press Association. It is the primary conveyor belt along which information reaches national media in Britain.

The boffins in Cardiff found that 30 per cent of home news stories are direct rewrites of PA and other news agency copy; another 19 per cent are ‘largely reproduced’ from this copy; another 21 per cent ‘contained elements’ of it. That’s 70 per cent of news stories wholly or in part from wire copy. The general rule in journalism, increasingly honoured more in the breach than the observance, is that a story has to have two sources to be confirmed, but according to BBC guidelines, ‘the Press Association can be treated as a confirmed, single source.’ That practice is widespread.

As a result, it matters deeply what the PA actually does – and here Davies has more grimness to impart. The agency’s network of reporters is stretched increasingly thin, with, for instance, four reporters (including trainees) to cover the whole of Cardiff, South Wales and the Welsh Assembly. The staffers, according to one of them, write an average of ten stories in a single shift: ‘I don’t usually spend more than an hour on a story.’ The emphasis is on catching what people say accurately. As its editor, Jonathan Grun, puts it, ‘our role is attributable journalism – what someone has got to say. What is important is in quote marks.’ If the government says Saddam has WMD, that’s what the PA will report. Because the PA is the basis for such a huge proportion of what’s in the papers, and because its stories tend not to be checked, it is a highly effective way for PRs to plant stories across all the national media simultaneously. ‘It is infinitely preferable logistically to send it to the PA than to try and contact 150 journalists,’ one of Davies’s sources, a PR who works for one of the political parties, told him. ‘And we are rarely subjected to the sort of cross-examination that, say, the Sun or the Times would give us. PA does not do as much of the probing and difficult questions. They are journalists but to some extent they are an information service.’

So we have arrived at a place where ‘the heart of modern journalism’ has become ‘the rapid repackaging of largely unchecked second-hand material, much of it designed to service the political or commercial interests of those who provide it’. In the old days, at this point in the story, it would be time to Name the Guilty Men. They would once have been the evil proprietors, top-hatted cigar-smoking manipulators of public opinion. I don’t agree with the conspiracy theory of the proprietor press, nor does Davies: he thinks that it’s sheer commercial pressure that is to blame. It’s the pressure on costs – to produce more, cheaper copy – that is the ultimate culprit for the state of the modern press.

Flat Earth News breaks down the specific ways in which pressure is exerted on the practice of journalism, on a daily basis. Stories need to be cheap, meaning ‘quick to cover’, ‘safe to publish’; they need to ‘select safe facts’ preferably from official sources; they need to ‘avoid the electric fence’, sources of guaranteed trouble such as the libel laws and the Israel lobby; to be based on ‘safe ideas’ and contradict no loved prevailing wisdoms; to avoid complicated or context-rich problems; and always to ‘give both sides of the story’ (‘balance means never having to say you’re sorry – because you haven’t said anything’). And conversely, there are active pressures to pursue stories that tell people what they want to hear, to give them lots of celebrity and TV-based coverage, and to subscribe to every moral panic. That’s the effect on the texture of journalism, the culture of the newsroom. Of course, the pressure on costs has other, simpler effects too. There is more space to fill – in the British papers, three times as much – but no equivalent expansion of the resources to do the work. Elsewhere, the pressure on resources is just as bad. In 1970, CBS had three full-time correspondents in Rome alone: by 2006, the entire US media, print and broadcast, was supporting only 141 foreign correspondents to cover the whole world.

As the pressures on journalism have increased, so the PR industry has come along with what appears to be a solution. Want news? We’ll give it to you. Britain now has 47,800 PR people to 45,000 journalists. It isn’t the case that PRs just beg for coverage for their clients: they’re much more cunning than that. Once one grows alert to the question, you can see PR influence almost everywhere in the press. The greatly missed Auberon Waugh used to say that behind any claim in any way interesting, striking or surprising in the news, there was either someone demanding more government money or a press release. That is truer than ever, only these days the press release will announce the result of a survey (a favourite PR tactic) or a ‘release’ statement from a phoney pressure group, such as one of the many set up to create uncertainty over the question of climate change. These pressure groups are known as ‘astroturf’ in the PR industry, because their grass-roots are fake, but that doesn’t stop their statements and surveys from getting on the news.

PR is not exactly the villain of the piece, but Davies is persuasive about its all-pervading nature in modern journalism, and also about the increasing sophistication of its techniques. He cites the way the ‘NatWest Three’, the British bankers involved in the Enron frauds, managed to have themselves depicted as victims of the American legal system, with businessmen, civil rights pressure groups and MPs all campaigning on their behalf, when, in truth, they were total crooks. There are plenty of other examples in Flat Earth News. Davies, informed by his knowledge of PR, even has a fresh angle on Alastair Campbell and the Kelly affair. In his account, ‘Campbell used it as a decoy to distract attention from a highly embarrassing story, which was emerging slowly in May and June 2003, that the long-debated Iraqi weapons of mass destruction did not exist.’ Four weeks after the broadcast of Andrew Gilligan’s Today story, Campbell had not asked for an apology for it specifically, had not referred it to the BBC complaints department, and had not mentioned it at lunch with Gilligan’s boss, Richard Sambrook. But he then made ‘three key moves’: on 25 June he denounced Gilligan’s story to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs (‘Until the BBC acknowledges that is a lie, I will keep banging on’); on 26 June he wrote to Sambrook demanding a reply that same day, and released his own letter to the press; on 27 June he more or less invited himself onto Channel Four News to attack the BBC, live. Davies observes: ‘This move finally established the decoy story as the main media line. The original questions about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were shunted into the sidings. Several political reporters wrote at the time that this looked like a diversionary tactic. Nonetheless, all of them agreed to be diverted. PR works.’ This explains what Campbell meant, as recorded in his diary for 25 June: ‘Flank opened on the BBC.’

Davies adds a few chapters of detail on the ways in which the papers have gone astray: the industry-wide use of bent private detectives, the culture of error at the Daily Mail, the ease with which the government co-opted the Observer to make the case for war in Iraq. These chapters aren’t really necessary for the central thrust of the book, even though Davies’s specifics are uncheering. For instance, in Britain only the rich can sue for libel; everyone else has to seek remedy via the Press Complaints Commission, set up by the industry to regulate itself. But the PCC rejects 90.2 per cent of all complaints on technical grounds without investigation. Of the 28,227 complaints received by the commission over ten years, 197 were upheld by a PCC adjudication: 0.69 per cent. The one or two points at which Davies disses fellow investigative journalists have a strangely ad hominem feel; there are moments when it seems old grudges are playing a role. This has in turn led to something of a backlash in early reviews of Flat Earth News, including a bizarrely hostile (as opposed to merely negative) review by Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, Davies’s paper, from 1975 to 1995. Preston had a number of harsh things to say about ‘Saint Nick’, one of which had some traction: that he exaggerates the extent to which there was once a golden age of the British press. True. But all these details are less shocking than the more general data about the broad trend towards churnalism.

So this is Davies’s ultra-bleak portrait. The British news media are crushed by commercial pressure, squeezed by the need for speed, corrupted by PR, indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts, systematically lied to by commercial interests and governments, and in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth. There is a growing, industry-wide failure to be sufficiently interested in reality. I would add a couple of details to the indictment, to do with the way in which the papers have succumbed to their own internal celebrity culture of columnists, most of whom make no attempt to report on the world, in favour of sermonising about it. I would also add – borrowing a point from a journalist I spoke to, who was in depressed and reluctant agreement with Flat Earth News – that the collapse in news leads to a huge knock-on in the rest of the papers. Most columns and features are hung on a news-related peg, so if the news isn’t fulfilling its basic function to report and to check, then nor is anything else. Davies doesn’t mention that, but it doesn’t matter much, since his portrait of the British media could scarcely be any darker, or more convincing. His conclusion is in the same key as the rest of the book. ‘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 might know in theory what the cure might be. But I fear the illness is terminal.’

[*] As a nerd, I feel a duty to point out that computers do sometimes have these problems. Nasa has never had a space shuttle in the air at the end of a year, over the transition from 31 December to 1 January, precisely because it’s not confident about the onboard software coping with the switch. (Nasa’s annual budget is $16 billion.) The truth, according to Davies, seems to be that the bug, while theoretically a problem, would only occur in computers which fitted all the following conditions: they a. had internal clocks (most big, ‘embedded’ systems don’t), b. had clocks which calculated time using an internal calendar, rather than just by measuring the gap between dates, c. used two rather than four digits to calculate the date and d. were in use by programmes which were calculating dates across that boundary. The number of computers that ticked all those boxes turned out to be vanishingly small.