Nick Davies, a former investigative reporter with The Guardian, has just published “Flat Earth News” (Vintage, www.flatearthnews.net), probably the most important book about hackery for decades.
Davies pictures a profession on its deathbed, fading thanks to several related illnesses. Journalists, he says, are being forced to work too hard for too little money; newspaper proprietors are greedy and prone to encourage management by the ledger-book rather than by news editors; and the all-pervasive influence of press officers and PR agencies has (he says) led to a reduction in the quality of stories to be found in newspapers, as hacks take stories straight from PRs without even the most cursory of checks, starved of the time they used to enjoy to undertake proper research into background and detail.
It’s hard to disagree with anything Davies writes; this is an important, courageous and incisive piece of work that should be read by anyone with even a passing interest in the media. Indeed, the thesis of this book looks set to define the coming years for journalism – in the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen a cut of 20% in editorial staff at News International UK. Here in Scotland where I live, the editors of two national newspapers have walked out of their jobs and further cuts are in the offing.
And yet something rankles in Davies’ book. Perhaps it is his apparent blindness when it comes to exposing the vanity, egotism and taste for wild imbalance that have infested journalism for far too long. In decrying the state of contemporary media, Davies looks backwards in his imagination to a better, vanished time (the 1960s) when (he argues) journalists had the time and money to dig away at the truth, then expose it fearlessly.
As if. Famous examples and individuals apart, journalism has always had its fair share of those for whom seeing their own byline photo was the biggest attraction. And if getting your name on the leader page means disregarding half of the facts, ruining lives, simplifying the complex and exaggerating one side of the story, then as that bastion of fair play Napoleon himself put it – c’est la guerre.
Listening to a journalist bemoan the disappearance of truth from journalism is like listening to a banker moan about disappearing bonuses. A quick examination of too many journalist’s methods suggests that they deserved their position as society’s unelected arbiters no more than most bankers deserved hundreds of thousands just for showing up and doing their jobs. If the current crisis forces journalism to reassess its role, then so much the better. And if the challenge of financial solvency encourages titles to drop their relentlessly partisan positions and various biases both moral and political, then so much the better.