From the Millennium Bug to the existence of WMD in Iraq, used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the media has not told the truth and engaged in what Davies calls “Flat Earth News”. This is when “a story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.” It seems that the media’s role in the build-up to war in 2003 is what compelled Davies to write this book and investigate why truth telling has disintegrated into the way it has. He is aided by a specially commissioned team of researchers from Cardiff University.
What has led to falling standards in the media over the years? Why are journalists today failing to perform the basic functions in their profession such as fact checking and instead recycling second-hand wire copy and PR material? The author traces this trend to the 1960s when the new corporate owners began taking over newspapers and imposing their commercial logic on the industry. The “grocers” as the author likes to call them, such as Rupert Murdoch, cut costs and more costs over time to improve their profits, and at the same time increased the content of newspapers, which resulted in less fact checking and more “churnalism”.
It is not just British newspapers but newspapers across the world that have suffered the same plight as their British counterparts. This means that Flat Earth News has gone global. The fall in quality has made it easier for PR companies and the covert world of intelligence agencies to infiltrate the media. He cites the case of the “NatWest Three” as an example of PR at work. A very successful PR campaign transformed the image of three very corrupt employees of NatWest Bank, who were involved in a scam, into poor innocent victims of American law when faced with the prospect of extradition to the US. There is a whole chapter dealing with the production of propaganda in the media, which is nothing new but seems to have grown significantly since 9/11 without much public debate. Davies is careful to point out, however, that much of the distortion is done by feeding unsuspecting journalists than through directly controlled assets.
The various unwritten rules of news production are laid bare: prefer cheap safe stories, especially with statements from official sources, to tricky expensive ones; avoid the electric fence of the Official Secrets Act and, to a larger extent, libel law; fit the surrounding consensus and give them what they want to hear even if it’s not true; always give both sides of the story just as a safety net; go along with moral panic; and run stories which are being widely published elsewhere (“Ninja Turtle Symdrome”). When journalists don’t toe the line they can face the consequences – as Andrew Gilligan found out when his story attacked the government for its handling of the intelligence on Iraqi weapons.
Nick Davies is credited for his part in exposing the phone hacking scandal and he touches upon it here in a chapter on the “dark arts”. From bribing police officers and civil servants to using private investigators, the author gives a disturbing insight into the world of the dark arts. It is true that the dividing line as to what is legal and illegal is ill defined, but the greater problem is the greed of newspapers for wanting to make money out of confidential and salacious information.
For those people who have long suspected some falsehood and distortion in the media, this book gives adequate credence to that view. It is not so much that journalists deliberately set out to tell lies, but more the case that circumstances, driven by commercial interests, have led to the current state of affairs. With less time to file their stories, less resources at their disposal and the pressure to adhere to the production rules, truth telling has suffered. Davies doesn’t finish on an optimistic note and I share his pessimism. Everything he has described in the book, he confesses, seems to be symptoms of a disease that has set in and just seems to be getting worse. The book is both an illuminating and depressing account of our global media.