Saturday, February 16, 2008

Nick Davies: How “flat earth” news is killing journalism

Speech at the conference “The First Casualty? War, Truth and the Media Today”, London School of Economics, November 17, 2007. Nick Davies is an award-winning investigative reporter who writes regularly for the Guardian.

I’m not an expert on Iran or Iraq. I think I’m here partly because I’ve been a hack, a reporter, not just a journalist but a guy running around with a notebook and a pen, for an extraordinarily, ridiculously long time, but also because in the last couple of years I’ve decided to do something rather weird which is to interrogate my colleagues, which has turned into a book to be published next year called Flat Earth News.

The reason it has that title is that for hundreds of years everyone knew the Earth was flat. Indeed it was a heresy to challenge that statement. Eventually someone, Galileo or Copernicus, bothered to check and discovered they were wrong. But if you look at the way the mass media functions today you’ll see we are riddled with “flat earth” statements.

The most notorious, deadly one of those, or collection of those, was everything we were told in the build up to the invasion of Iraq. It was that in particular which made me want to do this. What I want to try to convey is that we can’t understand what went wrong with the media in the build-up to Iraq unless we understand that what went wrong is part of a much bigger picture in which the media now routinely, consistently convey falsehood, distortion and propaganda. Although this has always happened to some extent, I want to argue that this is now happening on a far greater and destructive scale than it has done previously. Speakers in an earlier session talked about systemic weakness, and that’s what I want to try to explain to you – why we are delivering so much flat earth news.

Remember the Millennium bug story? That’s a classic piece of flat earth news. The global media just consuming falsehood and distortion, pumping out this stuff. It’s wonderful, to look back on the cuttings – utterly unreliable. Most of the scandal surrounding Bill Clinton was, to use the technical term, bollocks. Just pushed out on this huge scale.

And there’s flat earth policy. I’ve done loads of work over the years on criminal justice, drugs policy, education, digging deep down into government policy, looking at the factual foundations on which this policy is built, the evidence. And what do you find? Nothing. Just a black hole of populist misconception and self-serving politics. It’s terrifying. Routine, small stories flowing through the media. The scale of it is huge.

If you say that to people outside the media on the whole they’ll rapidly they’ll sign up to the idea that you can’t believe everything you read, but what worries me is that if you ask them why you tend to get flat earth stories back about the media itself. So for example there’s been quite a bit of talk today about proprietor interference. The likes of Rupert Murdoch do interfere, it’s part of the picture, it’s disgusting and immoral that they do, perhaps even more disgusting and immoral that it’s so easy for them to do so. You’ll hear people talking about corporate advertising influencing the content of the media. Maybe it happens. I’ve really tried to find evidence of them doing that successfully. You find it in local papers, you find it in specialist magazines like fashion mags, but in the national media that ain’t where it is.

Sami Ramadani was really interesting about ideology earlier today. But if you take proprietor influence, advertising and ideology and say those are factors that perniciously influence the media and then ask how much of the total picture are they responsible for I want to argue that it’s 5 or 10 per cent. That isn’t where the problem is. There’s a much, much bigger problem at work here.

Let me try to explain. I raised a lot of money from the Rowntree Foundation and gave it to some academics at Cardiff University. One of the things I got them to do was to go back through the annual reports of every Fleet Street company going back to 1985. 1985 is an important year because in January 1986 Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers into Wapping and broke the print unions. He broke the resistance, such resistance as there was in Fleet Street, to the logic of commercialism, to what those big corporations which had taken all those newspapers over wanted to do.

The academics did two things. Year by year they looked at what happened to the editorial staffing levels of those Fleet Street papers over the next 20 years. The second thing they did was they measured the space which those editorial staff were filling, how many column inches of news. You crunch all those numbers for all these companies and you come up with something that is really important – essentially, your average Fleet Street reporter now is filling three times as much space as he or she was 20 years ago. Turn that round, look at it from the reporter’s point of view: we only have one third of the time to do our job. That’s terribly important.

If you take time away from some processes, like if you’re manufacturing cars and you take time out so you do it quicker you can argue that this improves the process, it makes it cheaper so you can sell more and put more money back into production. But if you take time away from reporters you take away our most important working asset. We cannot do our jobs properly if they won’t give us the time to do it. It’s as simple as that. We’ve been caught in this pincer movement where our staffing levels have been cut, our output has been increased – all the newspapers have extra supplements, you have 24-hour broadcasting – the whole nature of being a reporter and the back-up journalists involved has changed: instead of being active news gatherers we’ve become passive processors. Most reporters nowadays don’t have contacts, we don’t go out and find stories, we don’t check facts.

We did a huge analysis with these Cardiff researchers of the extent to which you can look at factual statements in Fleet Street stories and find evidence of whether or not they’ve been checked. The answer was that there is evidence in 12 per cent of those statements. 12 per cent. It’s pathetic. But that’s the reality. It’s not because the journalists are dishonest. It’s not because they’re being told to do so by advertisers or Rupert Murdoch. It’s because we’re not allowed to do our job. I call this “churnalism”. That’s the first part of the picture.

Nevertheless we’ve got to fill all these supplements, all these 24 hours of broadcasting. Where are we going to get our material from? While we’ve been losing our jobs, somebody else has been getting more and more jobs. Which is the PR industry. There was an invisible moment at some point in the last decade when the number of PR people in this country finally exceeded the number of journalists.

When we’re talking about PR, first it’s the whole magical world of Alastair Campbell in central government, which has flowed down into every local authority in the country, and the police and the health service, every limb of the state now has press officers working for it. Even when I started, 30-odd years ago, it wasn’t like that. When I started on local papers, if you wanted to write a story about a hospital you phoned the hospital you talked to the hospital manager or a doctor. Now you deal with a PR. Across the public sector – and across the private sector. All corporations now defend themselves. And charities and even terrorist groups! Everybody has PR people.

Whereas you should have a system where journalists, working honestly and independently, make what used to be called news judgments and say this story is important, this angle needs to be expressed, this research needs to be done, instead now we sit there passively and those decisions are made by Alastair Campbell and the whole magic world of PR and the public and private and the charity sector and the terrorist groups. They write the press releases and we bung ‘em in.

And it isn’t just about press releases. It’s about deeply manipulative behaviour. So for example, PR companies work very assiduously to set up front groups. These are phony grass-roots groups. There are so many phony grass-roots groups in the US that they have a nice little term for them, they call them Astroturf, because their not real grass.

A classic example of an Astroturf group is the Iraqi National Congress, the INC. The INC didn’t just emerge out of nowhere, it was invented and created by a man called John Rendon, a PR guy who used to work for the Democrats, he ran Jimmy Carter’s PR campaign. And since the American invasion of Panama in 1987 has been working on contract for American intelligence, the State Department and the Pentagon, running PR campaigns to change the way we think and feel about the world. And it’s very easy. Once you’ve reduced journalists to churnalism, all they have to do is feed us stories. So John Rendon says okay, we’re going to change the way the world looks at Iraq, I need a story, I’ve got a huge budget from the State Department, I’ll create the INC, I’ll hire Ahmed Chalabi and all these other guys, we’ll hold conferences in Vienna and London, we’ll invite the hacks, the hacks will write the story, we get them to put it across. It’s easy.

While PR has become so huge and so sophisticated and so successful in effectively writing our stories for us and doing our work for us, alongside that, almost unnoticed since September 11, 2001, there has been a significant increase in old-fashioned propaganda activities. PR on the whole doesn’t deal in fiction. Alastair Campbell and his ilk will lie to you if you put them in a corner, but they don’t really want to lie. Really what it’s about is making our judgments for us, picking which story, which angle, which quote, but often it’s in the realm of truth. Propaganda is about fiction.

There’s always been a threat of propaganda, for years and years going back to Elizabethan times, certainly it was active during the Cold War. That’s got much bigger and institutionalised. The problem with propaganda is that it doesn’t tell the truth about itself. The expression it uses is “strategic communication”, so you find that military, foreign affairs and intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States but also in Britain, France and all the NATO countries, are grouped together in order to manipulate us vulnerable hacks into running stories that are fiction.

There are marvellous examples of it. You can see them running on Iran now. I love the Zarqawi story. Remember Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq? Huge chunks of the Zarqawi story were produced by this strategic communications machine. Absolute bollocks, to use that technical term again. Remember when he first surfaced Zarqawi only had one leg? Then later on when he was on video cutting people’s heads off miraculously he had sprouted a second one. They’d lost their own story line!

If you’re trying to understand what needs to be done to get the media to tell the truth, it’s not just about the traditional explanations about advertising, owners and ideology. They are there, I’m not denying that, and they are pernicious and wrong. But it’s to do with the structural weakness of our profession. Our jobs are being taken away, our output has been increased, we are now almost infinitely vulnerable to being manipulated – and so we are. And that’s why we are seeing the same thing happening about Iran as you earlier saw with Iraq.

In this book that I have written I did a chapter on the Observer. It’s fascinating and scary. It’ was a model of manipulation of a newspaper in the build-up to Iraq where all of this was at work. The PR people, particular from Downing Street, Alastair Campbell’s people working on Kamal Ahmed, the political editor. He resigned a few weeks ago because of the book, he doesn’t want to tell the truth about it. The intelligence agencies producing the anthrax story were working through David Rose. Very interesting. David Rose is actually a very good, experienced reporter, he was completely flipped over on his head, writing absolute crap because he was being manipulated by MI6 and the CIA. And I’ve traced it all. That’s the propaganda element. It’s just scary.

The impact of that was huge, because that’s the paper that’s read by backbench Labour MPs who had to vote in the House of Commons on the Blair resolution. It really mattered. It’s the sickening ease with which it now happens.

If you want to understand what’s going wrong it’s fascinatingly complex.
The internal procedural workings, the operational pressures that incline us towards more falsehood and distortion – it really is interesting how you look at it and find how rotten it is at its core.

The other thing that concerns this meeting is what we can do to improve it. I’m very pessimistic. I think we’ve lost it, I’m afraid we’ve lost the idea of the mass media are anything like a reliable source of information. In an imaginary world I’d like the media to be put through the same sort of regulation as foodstuffs, so that you have to label the content of a newspaper, so you would need some institution to be funded and set up to test the extent to which a particular media outlet produces falsehood and distortion. So the Guardian would have to run its running average – over say the preceding six months, for example, and say, 56 per cent of this newspaper’s output turned out to be not true.

The trouble is that this is an imaginary world. There is no way that I can see that there is anywhere in this country the political power to engineer that kind of change. The question is whether that’s politically possible. I think everyone who has been critical of the Press Complaints Commission is entirely right. I did a huge analysis of their last 10 years of operation and it’s embarrassing to be told as a professional that this organisation is responsible for holding you to standards. It does absolutely nothing. It is an outrage.

Original here

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