Chatto & Windus, 408pp
Nick Davies is the investigative journalist who dug and dug and unearthed the criminal activities of his fellow professionals. He was in court every day during the trial and promptly speaking on television hours after the verdicts. He was forthright on the verdict in the case of the Chief Executive. The case presented by the prosecution was lousy and the evidence scrappy. The jury, he said, had done the right thing. He too, had he been a member, would have done the same.
Flat Earth News is his book of six years ago. The hacking of private phones receives a single paragraph and the instructor of ‘do his phone’ one mention in the index. At the time only one case had taken place, that of the Royal Editor of the late Sunday redtop, along with his private investigator, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Davies revisits Philby and Vanunu, ‘Death on the Rock’ and cash-for-questions. For up-to-date examples of fakery in the news agenda Bad Science, both blog and book are good on media folly and gullibility in reporting medicine. But Nick Davies’ book is potent and passionate, both description and analysis of why we get the news we get.
The Fleet Street of old was dominated by a tiny number of proprietors. ‘I run the paper for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive,’ declared Lord Beaverbrook. Davies identifies a key moment in the development of Britain’s press with the arrival of Canadian Roy Thomson. ‘Instead of an ideologue who saw journalism as a political weapon, here was an apolitical accountant who viewed journalism as a branch of commerce.’ At the time, the 1953 purchase of The Scotsman, the company’s newspapers in the Southern US states supported segregation whereas those in the Northern states opposed it
The term ‘churnalism’ was coined in 2008 and its speed of transmission indicated it was a word well needed. It was to be heard on the platform of Cyfrwng’s conference in Aberystwyth of June 2008 in a fiery condemnation by the Welsh NUJ of Wales’ national newspaper’s City owner. Davies hones in on the manic speed imposed on journalists. A long-term employee of the Press Association is cited. The expectation was once that three stories be written in a day. The number is now ten. A new recruit for a regional newspaper writes a diary of his week for Davies. In a forty-five and a half hour week he spends three hours out of the office. In generating forty-eight stories he speaks to twenty-six people, of those face to face just four.
An editor writes a memo entitled ‘Subject: Speed and Breaking News’. Its instruction is that ‘We should be getting breaking news up within five minutes.’ That means within five minutes the journalist should write the following: a one-line version on the ‘ticker’, an email to the news desk to advise on the story, four paragraphs for the then Ceefax and the corporate website. And checking? The editor does not care.
The editor’s boss demands a regular speed report from his staff and declares with triumph ‘Our site came on top with a load time of 0.85 seconds to beat the likes of Sky and ITN’s 1.63 seconds.’ Davies adds ‘that’s a saving of 0.78 seconds he’s cheering there.’ That in 2005 was how the news panjandrums interpreted their role. The organisation was the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Davies is interested in how a non-story develops. Shyness is a natural and universal human attribute. Its medicalisation in the form of the term ‘social anxiety syndrome’ was invented by a PR company with a drug to sell. In 1997 this eight-syllable term for a natural condition had fifty media references. By 1999 that was over a billion. The drug sales soared.
Davies looks at the genesis of the millennium bug story. This was the belief that the internal clocks of computers contained insufficient digits to register the change of century and would freeze on the stroke of midnight at the turn of the millennium. The headlines were progressively more lurid. NATO, declared The Times, feared a nuclear attack prompted by rogue chips. Some governments prepared, others did not. In Britain the cost of preparation was £396m or £430m or £788m depending on which number the author invented. In the US the number was variously $100bn, $200 bn, $320 bn, $600bn, or $858 bn.
As a coda Davies adds the non-event itself did not even get a mention as a news item. A tide gauge in Portsmouth failed and a computer in a weather station in Aberdeen froze, too trivial to warrant a report. Davies looks into the detail. For years the boundary between centuries had been crossed by scores of organisations. Every mortgage, insurance policy, pension, and capital project had crossed over to the year two thousand. A few old programmes were not up to it but these were identifiable and remediable. Understanding this would have required some old-fashioned journalistic practice like getting on the phone and talking to someone with experience. Cut and paste is cheap, and it is easy.
There are few heroes to be found in Flat Earth News. The then regulator had one remarkable feature. Over ten years it received 28,227 complaints. They covered inaccuracy, harassment, treatment of children and other violations of professional code. From this total the press regulator found reasons not to respond to 25,457. Were lawyers or the NHS to evade a response of any kind to ninety percent of complaints from the public it would be a headline story. Davies cites the journalists halfway down the M1 to the Midlands to cover a murder. Head office learns that the victims are not white and tells them to turn around. A regular source of news is a serial fraudster with a habit of faking friendship with high-profile prisoners for the selling of juicy titbits.
Cardiff University in the form of its School of Journalism does emerge in something of a bright light. The researchers use the tools of scholarship – observation, analysis and measurement. The stories in five broadsheets are enumerated, divided between those generated by PR companies and those not. The two categories are then correlated with news value. The correlation of stories from a PR source with news is low. Over a two-week period of study of broadsheets, 2207 stories in all, twelve percent has been generated by journalists. Intriguingly another study looks at local media and the stories that do not make the national agenda. Although covering a range of topics their common factor is that they puncture a consensus of received opinion.
And yet. Fees at the University of Maastricht are one-sixth that of Britain. Coffee for students at Ghent is one-third of that in Britain – Europe does not fleece its students via coffee through corporate franchises. UCAS, constructed on entirely nationalist and protectionist lines, won’t tell young people. Radio will.
Despite relentless media repetition the world is lightly globalised. Some large-scale manufacturing has cross-continent supply chains but most human activity is state-bound. Broadcasting is tentatively global but watching a channel from Europe is not easy. The media comes to be judged in the absence of knowing no other. A majority of the world’s states has print, but no news – in the sense that anything emerges without the approval of the government. The very existence of Flat Earth News is testimony to a culture of vigorous dialectic. Just to puncture a cosy notion that Nick Davies’ book might be a result of a feisty independent, it is not. The publisher is an imprint of a cross-platform media giant with a staff of one hundred and four thousand.
Much has changed. Itemised phone bills were introduced in 1987 and buyable with ease from company employees. Davies cites the case in July 2002 of an engineer who placed a bug in the junction box near to the home of a television presenter. The police and CPS were not bothered. The employee was disciplined but continued his employment.
Some things change little. Regulation is at an impasse with the Royal Charter versus IPSO and IMPRESS. As for priorities nothing has changed. Calder or Humber can flood and flood and they will get a line or two. But a river that floods where our pals have their country cottages – that is news. The ludicrously massive coverage then wastes the time of ministers and manipulates the priorities of government expenditure. But as the veteran editor, observer and sage from just outside Dolgellau says it is always the same – ‘just follow the money trail.’