By Nick Davies, for further information see http://www.flatearthnews.net/
This is a really valuable book for socialists. Ironically its
strength, as well as its weakness, is that it’s not written from a ‘political’
Nick Davies is an established and excellent investigative
reporter. He writes from the point of view of a practitioner defending
professional standards, seeking to explain, within those terms, why so much
British journalism is so wrong.
Davies begins with the tale of the media’s massive millennium
story, the Y2K computer bug that never happened, and ends with a chapter
exposing the methods of the ‘Daily Mail’. A lot of his material is not directly
political, which contains an important political lesson in itself.
Marxists spend a lot of our time reading the media inside
out – picking out and reconfiguring what we take as hard information within the
stew of bourgeois ideology. And sometimes it is clearly possible to simply
reverse the message.
When the news reports a strike we simply reverse the meaning
from bad to good. From ‘scandalous disruption of normal business’ to ‘workers
defend themselves’. No problem. We know for instance that pro-capitalist
commentators will always emphasise the good economic news, there are a host of
pressures on them to do so. So when the bad news reaches the front page we feel
confident that it’s true – and probably worse than they admit.
There is no shortage of debating and agitating material
here, especially on the Iraq
war. My favourite is a brilliant chapter on how the usually liberalish ‘Observer’
was turned into Alistair Campbell’s personal newsletter. It is especially
apposite given the then Editor, Roger Alton, has just been appointed Editor of
the anti-war ‘Independent’.
That doubly journalistic expose however captures some of the
limitedness of Nick Davies’ approach. There was no comparable comedy double act
at sister liberal paper ‘The Guardian’. But unless my ageing memory deceives
me, that august journal also supported Blair’s disastrous Iraq adventure.
As they did the right wing’s wrecking gang of SDP four in splitting to sabotage
a leftward moving Labour Party in the early 1980s. Moreover, ‘The Guardian’ is
not a conventional private or public company driven by profit or share price.
There is something more going on here.
Most of the reviews have concentrated on Davies’ clever new
word to describe contemporary news reporting – Churnalism. His description of
the cost cutting, corner cutting methods imposed on journalists by rampant big
business helps explain why, whenever you know the inside story personally, the
reporting is invariably inaccurate for no obvious reason.
Davies’ argument is that the basics of honest accurate
reporting have been destroyed by commercial pressures. This has allowed the
flood of partisan press releases and public relations companies to poison the
well of accurate news. Internationally, the same cost cutting means that a
handful of press agencies provide the mass of international news from a tiny
number of reporters so that is equally partial, partisan and inaccurate.
Overall, the basic journalistic practices of fact-checking and double-sourcing
have been undermined or abandoned.
A chapter on ‘The Rules of Production’, with headings like
‘Run cheap stories’, ‘Select safe ideas’ and ‘Give them what they want’
generalizes his theme somewhat. It is all valuable in giving socialists a much
better grasp of the mechanics by which the news media distort and misrepresent.
But he also invokes a ‘good old days’ which, in my view, is dangerously
Good as this book is; maybe not eighteen quid’s worth but
definitely a must buy in paperback; it
lacks both a theoretical
foundation and a programme for change. I think Marxism already provides the
basics for both. But we should honestly admit that there is work to be done.
And Nick Davies has made a valuable contribution, which we can make much use