Dot writes: you really, really can’t, or at least you should look jolly carefully at who wrote any given news story and who they’re quoting and what the unspoken assumptions are. I’ve just read Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies (published 2008 – how up to the minute we are chez Ken and Dot!) and it is fascinating but depressing stuff. We got onto it through a review by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, which happens to be available online, so I won’t give an extensive account of the book, but the core argument is as follows.
As a result of newspapers being bought up by corporate owners concerned only to maximise profit, newspapers have got longer while the number of journalists has been cut and cut again. The result is that journalists simply don’t have time, most of the time, to research their own stories or to check that the stories they are given are actually true. There is heavy reliance on wire copy, but the agencies that supply it – notably, in Britain, the Press Association, and for international news Reuters – are also dreadfully understaffed; and in any case they see their job not as uncovering the truth but as reporting accurately what people have said e.g. in press releases or official statements. The papers and other media all obsessively monitor and report each other. The result is that inaccurate stories flourish and reproduce as papers all circulate each others’ reports without adequate checking. A high proportion of news has its origins as PR material: press releases, surveys designed to push particular products or viewpoints, publicity stunts and the like. The media is painfully vulnerable to propaganda. At the same time, there is pressure to report ‘safe’ news – news that people want to read, that confirms their prejudices, conforms to their moral panics and doesn’t depress or puzzle them; news that won’t annoy the government or anyone with the money to sue. This woeful state of affairs applies not just to papers but to TV, radio and the internet. Even the BBC is in the game of producing more reports in more formats as fast as possible, at the expense of taking time and resources to find and check stories. Even our own beloved Guardian is not immune (Nick Davies writes for the Guardian).
The main thing I have to say about this book is: go and read it. It’s not only important, given the central place the media play in political life, it’s hugely readable. It takes an extremely intelligent and moral approach to what journalism ought to do. I was particularly struck by the distinction Davies makes between objectivity and neutrality. The habit these days is to show ‘balance’ by always giving a voice to both sides, however unevenly evidence or justice may be distributed between them; for example, reports on global warming always seem to give space to a climate change denier. For Davies, however, the journalist’s responsibility is to try to tell the truth, and that means adjudicating between such contradictory voices. This is different from being biased, which involves distortion of the evidence. There’s a chapter on the Daily Mail that gives some pretty disgusting examples of such distortion. In a strange way I found it comforting, because I do at least find the kind of flagrant prejudice the DM pedals quite easy to spot. What is so very frightening about this book is the feeling that the papers I trust can’t be trusted.
I was left wondering what the situation is with the Irish press. Davies concentrates on the British press, with a secondary focus on the USA and glances at selected other countries, especially Australia. Who owns the Irish Times and what kind of a network of reporters do they have? I’d be surprised if they weren’t under similar pressures to the British Press, but the Irish Times has a slightly old fashioned feel that is, perhaps spuriously, reassuring.