Caustic polemic on the media

2008-03-26 00:00

Written by Nick Davies, an award-winning investigative reporter with many years of experience in the newspaper industry, Flat Earth News is a scathing indictment on the state of the modern media. If there is a chief villain in it all it is the new breed of corporate owners — typified by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — whose emphasis on profit above all else has led to the steady erosion of traditional journalistic

values.

Davies shows how severe staff cuts, “efficiency saving” exercises and restructuring programmes have severely undermined the ability of most newspapers to fulfil their primay function — to provide news that is accurate and reliable — with journalists finding themselves under such pressure that they are no longer able to research stories properly, develop contacts or even check the accuracy of copy passing over their desks. Instead they have to rely increasingly on news provided by a handful of wire agencies operating under their own budgetary constraints and with their own inherent weaknesses.

It has been estimated, for instance, that only 12% of journalists’ stories are their own work; and only 12% of their key facts are effectively checked. Newsrooms have, in short become little more than copy factories and journalism has made way for “churnalism” — the mindless recycling of news obtained from other sources.

The burgeoning PR industry has been only too happy to step into this information void, deliberately targetting a structurally compromised press to infiltrate material that serves its own political and commercial interests. Davies provides some arresting examples of this growing trend, showing how even the supposed “quality press” can be seduced into publishing stories that are, at best, unproven — at worst, simply wrong (an obvious recent example: the fictional Iraqi weapons of mass destruction crisis).

The relentless commercial agenda has had other unfortunate side-effects. In an effort to beat the opposition and boost sales many newspapers have resorted to what Davies terms “The Dark Arts” — the use of questionable ethical and legal practices to obtain confidential information. In a similar vein there have been countless cases of newspapers deliberately distorting the news and even fabricating stories.

Davies does not mince his words about any of this and while he could be accused of overlooking the good work many newpapers continue to do in often trying circumstances it is

difficult to take issue with the main thrust of his argument. Bristling with caustic comment and sharp insights, Flat Earth News is a superbly

sustained polemic against an industry that all too often fails to live up to the high standards it demands of others.

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