I don't have any inside knowledge of the world of journalism. I know how to spot bullshit when I see it, but that's about it. I've pulled a lot of tabloid stories apart since I started - some more successfully than others, it must be said - but there has been one question I've been unable to answer no matter how many stories I've looked at. Do the journalists and their editors who produce such misleading claptrap know they're misleading people, or are they presenting an honest account of their view of the world?
Of course, I had my suspicions (unfavourable ones for the hacks and editors), but now I finally have a much better idea thanks to Nick Davies' 'Flat Earth News' and the research that led to his making the conclusions he did. There's a good review by Roy Greenslade, which includes a neat rundown of what others have been saying about it, and I have to say it's heartening to see so many people with inside knowledge of their own largely agreeing with this book since it does shed such a lot of light into the darker recesses of the press.
The research taken out for the book shows that the same number of journalists now as there were 20 years ago have to do three times the work. At the same time there have been swingeing cutbacks in the funding for the investigative journalism of the past. This has meant that journalists barely have enough time to check facts, let alone uncover their own stories - so they have been forced to rely more and more on ready made stories from news agencies and PR companies, which often get chucked into the paper almost word for word. According to the reasearch, 60% of news articles come pre-packaged from news agencies and 19% were derived mainly or wholly from PR agencies. This, argues Davies, is the result of decades of newspaper owners and editors treating their newspapers merely as moneymaking products without regard to the quality or truthfulness of their content.
News agencies have been suffering from the same problem as newspapers, with several suffering cutback and merges until they're totally incapable of providing newspapers with anything like the service they used to. Fewer reporters stretched across larger areas mean that it's impossible for them to cover the entire country, and fact checking journalism isn't their role anyway, since they mainly report the barest of facts about what people have said without offering conclusions as to their accuracy or truthfulness.
As if it weren't enough that the papers rely on stories from news agencies that aren't entirely reliable, they also tend to favour official sources, leaving them open to regurgitating the most ludicrous propaganda, which Davies illustrates with the Obsever's unquestioning support for the invasion of Iraq. It looks so obvious with hindsight, but at the time the editor's reliance on official government and intelligence sources may not have semed so unreasonable.
All in all, it's a depressing view of the press. Davies uncovers a world of overstretched and sometimes clueless journalists who don't even have the time to check to see whether what they're blithely splashing across the front pages is true. 'Churnalists' whose lack of time and resources lead them to spend money on acquiring intelligence from criminal sources who bribe officials, steal information and wade through bins to get what they're after. Apparently, within hours of the news of Dr David Kelley's death emerging, the Telegraph and the Times had both paid for copies of Kelly's phone bill - not because it might contain anything of special interest to readers but because it provided them with a handy tool for contcting eople for information about Kelly's state of mind.
Until I got as far as the last chapter, the book had confirmed some of the other things I'd read about the American media - the reliance on news agencies and official sources and so on - and I was still wondering whether journalists maliciously spread falsehoods or did so unwittingly because of time constraints and lack of funds over here. Had I been unfairly judging the papers here? The last chapter answered that.
The last chapter is about the Daily Mail - the only tabloid the study and Davies' book examine in detail.
Here's some of what Davies says about the Mail:
The first thing to recognise about the Daily Mail is that it is the most successful and powerful newspaper in Britain.And later:
The second thing to notice about the Mail is that, more than any other newspaper in Britain, it deals in falsehood and distortion.
Sometimes, this is a matter of the Mail taking the truth and distorting it - attacking the BBC by misquoting an internal memo; criticising a High Court Judge by misquoting from a speech he made. In others, the problem is pur falsehood - the prisoner who was falsely said to have been given legal aid to sue because he had missed his breakfast; the man who ws falsely accused of running a feud with his neighbours; the married couple who were falsely described as treating their twelve-year-old daughter so badly that she had run off with a US marine.The Mail, it seems, hadn't suffered from the same kind of pennypinching cutbacks as other papers, since it is the only one of them to consistently grow and increase its profits.
The reason for this is Paul Dacre's uncanny ability to give his readers exactly what they want. As I'vepointed out in 'Dacre's Rant' and more recently, once you decide your paper is for telling its readers one kind of thing over and over again rather than telling them the truth, the truth becomes an optional extra to be discarded wherever it doesn't fit.
This goes further than choosing not to cover evidence that doesn't support the paper's viewpoint, or even lying about it until it seems as though it does. It goes beyond lying about immigration statistics, or unfairly focusing on particular groups. Davies includes several examples of this kind of thing:
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 two children who'd been killed. I got an hour and a half into the journey, and the news desk called me on my mbile and said, "Come back." I said, "Why's that?" They said, "They're black."Plently of people who work or had worked for the Mail apparently had similar stories about sympathetic articles being dropped when it emerged that their subjects were black. Of course, the paper have no qualms about printing stories about black criminals - and that's even with the paper's treatment of Stephen Lawrence.
The chapter pretty much confirms all your worst fears about the Mail. The paper's hacks are so beaten down, and not to mention well paid, that they put up with being bullied by their editor into the kind of falsehood and distortion I've come to know and hate after a couple of years wasting my time here. Apparently, any articles that go against the accepted line can be spiked, sometimes by the editor slapping a headline on that goes against the entire article. Which explains why sometimes headline and article don't match.
Since the Mail is the one paper that can afford to follow stories so doggedly over such a long period, they ofte get picked up by the 'churnalists' at other papers and repeated, making them look more convincing than they actually are.
This is an excellent book, which everyone who reads newspapers should read. I have criticisms (Davies says corporations who advertise in papers have little power over what they report - and yet uses the example later in the book of the Observer losing a couple of advertisers after breaking with the government line over the Suez crisis - he goes with the idea of Dacre only supporting Stephen Lawrence because his father had done some work for him, which I've rad conflicting accounts about), but I've found it especially helpful in letting me know more of what's going on behind the scenes to make the papers so full of rubbish.
Davies is pessimistic about what we can do to right the situation. I am too. There's little if anything anyone can do to stop the rot.
As far as carrying on with this blog is concerned - if only a handful of people read something I've written here and stop believing what they read in the Mail or the Sun or the Express, or even look at it in a different way, it will be enough.
Expect more whingeing, swearing and boring coverage of figures in the future.