Monday, 8 August 2011

Flat Earth News, Nick Davies

How sure can we be that we know what we think we know about the world?  Not very sure at all, if we rely on the media and Nick Davies' account of modern journalism is to be believed.


I

Not many people today spend much time thinking about the Millennium Bug.  This modern myth first saw the light of day in Canada in 1993, and it had reached global proportions by the turn of the millennium.  IT consultants and others deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by the bug, and their doomsaying was endlessly parroted by journalists who simply didn't know what they were talking about.  As it happens, the world didn't end.  The countries which spent hundreds of billions of pounds on fixing the problem fared no better than countries like Russia and China which hadn't taken it seriously at all.  We had all been taken for a ride - and no-one in the media appears to have said sorry.

How did the world come to believe that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction?  The notion ultimately derived from information known about Iraq from the 1990s supplemented by later intelligence reports, but we now know that the raw intelligence on Iraq's WMDs was, in the words of the Butler review, "limited, sporadic and patchy".  The problem was that the imperfect, and ultimately incorrect, intelligence dug up by the spooks was readily taken up by actors who had their own agendas and eagerly amplified by the world's media in a largely uncritical fashion.  The journalists who participated in this enterprise weren't (in most cases) hardline neocons who wanted to push the West into war.  Their failings were more basic.  They didn't know what they were talking about and they didn't try hard enough to find out.

Among the British press, Davies singles out the left-leaning Observer as being particularly guilty of allowing itself to go along with the drift towards war.  He also draws attention to an interesting postlude.  The case of the missing WMDs was the biggest story of 2003, if not one of the biggest of the decade.  Yet the attention of the British media was diverted by Alastair Campbell's decision to have a very public hissy fit over Andrew Gilligan's unwisely exaggerated claims about the government's WMD dossier.  Journalists went for the decoy, and spin turned to tragedy with the suicide of Dr David Kelly and the subsequent Hutton report.


II

The moral of these stories is that you can't trust much of what you see or hear in the media.  For the most part, according to Davies, journalists literally don't know what they're talking about.  An academic study that he commissioned found that 60% of reports in a series of respected national newspapers (we're not talking about the Sun or the Mirror here) were lifted mostly or entirely from wire reports or press releases.  Only 12% - 12%! - could be shown to have been created entirely by the papers' own journalists.  A comparably low proportion of stories had been fact-checked.

If journalists are not digging up stories, where are they coming from?  Davies follows the supply chain further, showing that the sources of journalists' information are themselves tainted.  Wire agencies - the Press Association in particular - are inadequate and overstretched, and see it as their business to pass on information rather than to check its accuracy.  As for the PR industry, not much really needs to be said.  There must be few people who trust would trust PR material to provide a credible and objective view of the world if it were presented outside the pages of a newspaper.  As Davies reminds us, the bias and inaccuracy of PR can be assumed to be reliably consistent, whether it emanates from (say) climate change deniers in the oil industry or from (say) Greenpeace.

Perhaps the most disreputable sources of all are government propaganda and psyops, which come into their own during episodes like the Iraq War.  Davies refers specifically in this context to the story of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a small-time freelance terrorist whom the US military found it convenient to spin into a major al-Qaeda commander.  More broadly, MI6 and the CIA can be shown to have maintained international networks of friendly media contacts since the Cold War.  None of this is very reassuring, though conspiracy theorists might derive some comfort from the fact that the defence and intelligence communities are themselves riven by internal turf wars and arguments about what they ought to be doing in terms of information warfare and how.

The upshot of all this is that journalists end up repeating what they are told by unreliable or biased sources without checking the facts properly - a process which Davies refers to as "churnalism".  Meanwhile, by accident or design, interesting and newsworthy stories are being missed.

Why is this happening?  Most theories about media distortion, particularly from the left, tend to revolve around the twin propositions of interference from proprietors and pressure from advertisers.  But Davies suggests that these sources account for only a small part of the problem.  The influence of advertisers on the editorial policies of major national newspapers and TV channels is generally very limited (though the case is different with smaller and local outlets).  As for proprietors, there are no real modern equivalents of the Northcliffes and Rothermeres of yesterday.  Today's media owners tend not to micromanage their employees' journalism, and when they do intervene it tends to be to advance their own business interests rather than to push a broader political agenda for its own sake.  There are some exceptions to this, such as the Murdoch empire's partisan support for the Iraq War, but even the Dirty Digger is no Beaverbrook.  He is a hard-headed businessman before he is a right-wing ideologue: in this country, the Sun has notoriously switched political sides several times over the last few decades.  The proprietors are not the real problem.  As Davies puts it, you could replace Rupert Murdoch with Rupert Bear and his outlets would still churn out rubbish.


III

The basic problem, according to Davies, is a structural one.  In essence, reporters are being required to produce vastly increasing quantities of copy, faster, as levels of staffing and resources steadily decline.  In the process, standards and accuracy get squeezed out.  Some corners of the larger outlets are still quite well resourced - the Daily Mail is singled out for special mention here, though the Mail does not, as Davies explores in some detail, make the most constructive use of its relatively generous resources.  In general, time and money are scarce.  Things are particularly tough for local news outlets and agencies.  The nationals have traditionally depended on these for much of their news-gathering, but, like the wire agencies, the networks of provincial journalism have been gutted.  Much the same is happening in other English-speaking countries - the US, Canada, Australia - while in the international arena Reuters and the Associated Press play much the same wholesaling role as the Press Association plays at home.

The result is that news coverage tends to conform to Davies' ten "rules of production":

1.  Run cheap stories.  Nothing too time-consuming and nothing too foreign.  There is an exception for foreign stories which generate plentiful text and images (like the OJ Simpson trial, an event otherwise irrelevant to the UK).

2.  Select safe facts.  Go with official sources, or at least don't lightly contradict them.  This is how the story of Saddam's WMDs got going.

3.  Avoid the electic fence.  This is the reverse side of the previous principle.  Don't libel someone who has the money to sue you.  Don't take on the Israeli government.  It's not worth it.

4.  Select safe ideas.  Don't go in for radical social criticism.  Don't attack prevailing orthodoxies.

5.  Always give both sides of the story.  Coming down off the fence can be risky.  Whether the article is about the resignation of a chief executive, WMDs or global warming, it's often best to bang a couple of opposing quotes onto the end of it.

6.  Give them what they want.  Stories about soldiers getting killed are just depressing.  If there's something around about David Beckham, lead with that instead.

7.  The "bias against truth".  Background and detail are boring.  So is prosaic good news.

8.  Give them what they want to believe in.  Papers pander to their readers' prejudices.  A tabloid that starts printing heartwarming, soft-focus stories about asylum seekers is unlikely to see its circulation rise.

9.  Go with the moral panic.  This can include exaggerated coverage of genuine episodes of heightened emotion (the death of Princess Diana) or manufacturing a heightened emotional climate where one has failed to form spontaneously (the deaths of the Queen Mother and Pope John Paul II).

10.  "Ninja Turtle syndrome".  If all else fails, print what everyone else is printing.

In general, these biases favour the powerful and vested interests.  They militate in favour of a offering up a view of the world to media consumers that is conservative with a small "c".  This is not because they are the product of a conspiracy of capitalist power-brokers - they would be much easier to overturn if they were.  They are simply the product of the logic of the modern media marketplace, which demands large quantities of cheap, low-risk copy.


IV

I was inspired to re-read this book by the current phone hacking scandal, but it is very apparent from Davies' writing that sharp practice of the sort that has recently been in the news is neither very exceptional nor particularly new.  Journalists have been getting information from bent policemen, dodgy private dicks and the like for years.  For example, in 2005, a private investigator called Steve Whittamore was convicted of breaching the Data Protection Act.  The Information Commissioner found that 305 journalists had hired Whittamore over a three-year period to obtain 13,343 different pieces of information.  Of these jobs, a staggering 11,345 were found to be very probably or definitely illegal.  Whittamore may have ended up in the dock, but no journalists were ever charged and the story went almost completely unreported.

This is a fascinating book, and one which created quite a stir when it came out.  Davies' work has not escaped criticism.  It has been pointed out that there was never a golden age of journalism in which the reporters of the old Fleet Street had the time and ability to right wrongs and tell unpopular truths (Davies pays lip service to this recognition, but there is nonetheless a distinct vein of golden-ageism in his writing).  There has been some disagreement with Davies' statistics.  It has also been noted that he seems to be using the book to settle scores with some professional rivals.

In all, though, this is a very important and sobering book.  It deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in public debate, or who is tempted to believe what they read in the papers.