Book Review – Flat Earth News
This book review will critically evaluate a 2009 paperback print of Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News. It will discuss his findings and how in the years following the book’s publication, his predictions have largely been proven correct.
Flat Earth News was originally published in February 2008 and written by the recently retired and multi award winning political and investigative journalist, Nick Davies. In the prologue, Davies, a scribe of forty years experience, says that he has “finally been forced to admit that he was working in a corrupted profession” (Davies, 2009: 13). The raison d’etre of the book is to expand the aforementioned corrupt custom and practice, which he believes is widespread through British journalism. Davies says, “Our job as journalists is to tell the truth, but repeatedly we fail. We serve up stories which are no better than the idea that the earth is flat” (Davies, 2008).
In part, Flat Earth News is an anthology, albeit with added updates, of articles he had been writing in The Guardian over the previous decade. A lament on the media coverage of ‘the war on drugs’ as well as other damning articles of the general media coverage of government education policy and Chernobyl (amongst many other things) cast doubt on nearly everything a popular newspaper would report to be as news.
Davies believes that the increasing pressure on journalists to quickly report on stories not only compromises on journalistic diligence, but actually fits to an ideological agenda, dependent on the organ that the journalist/writer is producing their content for. For this phenomena, newspapers produce what former BBC journalist Waseem Zakir called ‘churnalism’ (Harkup, 2014: 53) and throughout Flat Earth News, the author forensically dismantles many widely believed stories which he shows to be a product of churnalism. Davies asserts that due to time pressures, press releases are being regurgitated, in some cases verbatim, to satisfy editorial demand for content to be produced immediately. The very thing that journalism is not supposed to be.
Flat Earth News is written in a classic journalistic style with a very accessible narrative which is simultaneously informative, but not overwhelming, which some academic texts can be. The author rigorously investigates the modus operandi of the popular national press and clearly explains in plain language the cultural malaise that has infected the popular media.
The writing of the book was part funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust. Through this donation, the author was helped considerably in his research by a cohort of students and lecturers from the journalism school at Cardiff University. Thw students “found that when they tried to trace the origins of their ‘facts’, only 12% of the stories were of material researched by reporters, 8% they could not be sure of and 80%, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material (Davies, 2008).
For methodology, Davies had two core rules in writing the book. One was not to draw on his knowledge of the private lives of the journalists he was writing about and the second was to use what he called a “blank sheet” (Davies, 2009: 3). This is where he decided to broaden his investigation away from the organs he had previously worked for, such as the Sunday People, Daily Mirror and London Evening Standard (amongst others) and look for print journalism malpractice across the entire industry. Even allowing for the honourable stance that Davies had made, he knew he was breaking one of the great unwritten laws of Fleet Street, which was “we dig wherever we like, but not in our back garden” (Davies, 2009: 3). The working practices of the printed media were themselves about to be exposed, the great Fleet Street omerta broken and by writing this book, Davies knew he was about to do alienate some long standing friends and colleagues, even if he mostly protected them in his writing.
Whilst some people see the internet as the main factor in the decline of newspaper and media standards (and indeed sales), Flat Earth News shows that while the ethical and diligent side of the mainstream media could be in terminal decline, and the internet be a significant factor in that status, the malpractice itself is not a new phenomenon. Davies reveals an attempted proprietorial editorial interference in The Sunday Times, one of the world’s most celebrated and respected newspapers. In 1981, whilst attempting to persuade Parliament to allow him to buy The Sunday Times, Rupert Murdoch made a pledge in front of a parliamentary committee to protect the editorial line from political interference (Evans, 1983: 1). Davies alleges that Murdoch flouted this promise during Michael Heseltine’s leadership challenge on Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. The paper’s editor, Andrew Neil, was broadly in support for Heseltine, whilst Murdoch was famously loyal to Thatcher. Murdoch attempted to coerce Neil into supporting Thatcher but Neil, in a show of defiance that few editors in Murdoch’s employ would dare try, refused to acquiesce.
It is very difficult to view the future of journalism as anything other than dystopian. Journalism’s original core purposes of providing an information service, fearlessly seeking the truth and holding power to account look to have been compromised in favour of the bottom line. Since Flat Earth News’ initial publication in 2008, there has been a significant reduction in journalists and sub-editors at established newspapers. In May 2015, the Birmingham Mail, part of the Trinity Mirror stable, announced that it could “no longer report on everything happening on its patch” (Sharman, 2015). Earlier in 2015, Peter Oborne announced his resignation as a columnist from the Daily Telegraph after he claimed that their non-coverage of the HSBC tax revelations was to protect the substantial advertising revenue that the bank pays the newspaper.
In both of these instances, Flat Earth News showed that these practices were nothing new, but Oborne’s resignation and Trinity Mirror’s remarkable declaration added further credence to Davies’ findings. The fact that a local paper can blithely claim to no longer cover their remit and a journalist of Oborne’s integrity can resign from a globally respected newspaper due to their prioritising of advertising revenue over readership, suggests that what Davies was warning about in Flat Earth News has now become overt and accepted media policy.
Davies, Nick Flat Earth News (2009) London: Vintage Books
Davies, Nick; Hack Attack: How The Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch (2014) London: Penguin
Evans, Harold; Good Times, Bad Times (1983) London: Bedford Square Books
Harkup, Tony Dictionary of Journalism, A (2014) Oxford: Oxford University Press
Davies, Nick; Our Media Have Become Mass Producers Of Distortion https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/feb/04/comment.pressandpublishing (2008) – Retrieved 21.36 hours, 20th November 2016
Davies, Nick; Churnalism Has Taken The Place Of what We Should Be Doing: Telling The Truth http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/nick-davies-churnalism-has-taken-the-place-of-what-we-should-be-doing-telling-the-truth-40117/ (2008) – Retrieved 11.50 hours, 16th November 2016
Sharman, David; “City daily is no longer ‘paper of record’ admits publisher” http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2015/news/daily-no-longer-its-citys-paper-of-record-admits-regional-publisher/ (2015) Retrieved 21.27 hours, 18th November 2016