Book reviews – ‘Flat Earth News’ by Nick Davies
We asked six Bristol Festival of Ideas fans to review some of the books shortlisted for this year’s Book Prize. Here are their responses to Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News:
Review by Dimitris Christopoulos:
Nick Davies reviews the news production industry and finds it wanting. One cannot but feel sympathy for a journalist dedicated to truth and objectivity discovering that there are systemic failures to the delivery of everyday news. His conclusions and his analysis have far reaching implications for the nature of our political system, the functioning of our civic space and the health of our societies.
Davies utilises academic and journalistic inquiry diligently and rigorously. He exposes how the content of print and broadcast media is predominantly based on pre-packaged copy generated by media agencies like the Associated Press or Reuters and public affairs professionals. He therefore derides the ‘churnalism´ to which anything up to 90% of print depends-on. Churnalism is seen to wait on events, while it lacks moral values by unquestioningly reproducing news items provided by the agencies and PR departments of big corporate and public actors.
Tracing editorial power he identifies media barons of the nineteenth century predominantly concerned with promoting their political platforms while conglomerates of today appear more concerned with corporate profits. The contemporary picture is also complicated by the dominant presence of vested interests. He takes-on targets such as the PR machine of the Israeli lobby and the corruption of public office through collusion with large media conglomerates. He identifies the CIA as one of the largest media organisations and the manufacture of public discourse as an integral part of the propaganda machines of contemporary states. Propagandising by controlling media inputs has been an inevitable side-effect of citizen enfranchisement. In his analysis Davies laments the ‘natural selectivity of ignorance’, what we can see as a regression to an ignorant lowest common denominator. This explains in part the barrage of non-events into media content, including the everyday lives of manufactured celebrities and the obsessive coverage of professional sport.
Although impressive, this account of a global malaise focuses more on the symptoms than the causes. It can be argued that a sign of good journalism is asking the right questions. A facile example of a dominant theme is Saddam’s WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] during coverage of the Iraq war. It is astonishing that it is rarely pointed-out how this may indeed be an irrelevant question.
In this polemic, while chastising the lack of principles in most, Davies also provides celebrated examples of good journalism which has criticised bad government, sensitised us to social injustice or defended the misrepresented. And yet it is hard not to lament the banality of bad journalism since it seems to be the rule rather than the exception. On the weight of this evidence Davies takes a dim view of the future of journalism. Yet, an upbeat note may be offered as new electronic media alters the way that information is disseminated but more importantly the way that we credit analysis. Trust of media content depends on reputation. The web may be full of noise but it is also a space were reputation determines the resonance of the message.
Overall, Davies offers a thought-provoking and powerful account. Anyone who wants to understand how the commercialisation and manipulation of media affects our society should read this book.
Review by Hilary Finch:
This book is Nick Davies’ extensive research into the increasingly bad practices of the ‘most prestigious and trusted of media outlets’ as he puts it. Coming at this as a one time newspaper reporter myself in the 1960s I was disappointed to find out how utterly shabbier the business has become. Once again the long and damaging finger of corporate values, money first, truth and quality virtually at the bottom of the list, makes for gloomy but eye-opening reading.
The author is a Guardian man, an award winning reporter with extensive experience in the media world. He fills endless pages with reports of public relations releases accepted at face value as news; bad research as journalists are put under pressure from corporate bosses to churn out more copy without the time to develop contacts and pursue the truth. Stories that are skewed to help political parties, governments or corporations. Grizzly stuff. He looks under all the garbage lids, the selling of private information, the massive invasion of privacy and the impotence of journalists now to develop truth and a host of other demeaning ways that journalists are forced to use if they want to keep working.
It seems to me the truth of what Nick Davies writes is yet another aspect of the global collapse. The cynical overtaking of the media companies by people who never were in the newspaper business and have no care for research, developing contacts but just feeding the machine with whatever comes off news wires and PR firms. This all leads to misinformation and is another example of making money for money’s sake.
There is much much more to this book. It is packed with facts and figures, horror stories behind the news gathering and a huge critique of global bad behaviour at all levels of society that feed the news stories. I found it a long and difficult read due to the constant fresh supply of grim tales Nick has to tell with the help of his researchers. The information is a constant barrage because he and his team have dug and dug through the modern mire that is our supposed trusted papers of the day. It’s not funny. It’s not light reading. It is a necessary book.
Review by Charles Freeman:
Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News provides an exceptionally articulate analysis of what has gone wrong with newsgathering. The demands of instant news force reporters into relying on PR generated propaganda and stories that are repeatedly recycled without any effective checking. However, towards the end of the book, Davies’ tone becomes less detached as he lays into Andrew Neil and Paul Dacre of the Mail and his short conclusion seemed weak in comparison to the quality of his earlier argument.
Review by Barry Ramshaw:
Man bites hacks horror shock!
The world of journalism was today ROCKED by reporter Nick Davies, who accused his desk-bound colleagues of CHURNALISM – a failure to check facts, an over-reliance on dodgy PR handouts, and even unquestioning acceptance of CIA planted stories.
Nick Davies ate my integrity!
Although blonde, pouting Davies (17) was careful to explain that journalists, due to cost cutting and understaffing, are doing a difficult job under impossible circumstances, he names enough names to ensure that he’ll be SHUNNED for years!
Phew, what a scorcher!!!
Flame haired stunna Nicky (19) has written a well researched, balanced and courageous expose of an industry he argues has been corrupted by cynicism and the pursuit of profit at the expense of both truth and journalistic ethics. Read this book and you will NEVER read your newspaper in the same way again!
Big Pharma ‘doc’ says magic pill will cure all known disease!
(see press release masquerading as news, page 7)…
Review by Gina Sargunar:
This is the kind of book that once read, changes forever your perception of the ‘truth’.
If a free and independent press is vital to democracy and freedom and justice, we are in trouble. It appears that we are closer to Orwell’s fears about manipulation and propaganda than ever we suspected. There are no investigations, scoops or uncoverings. Instead, we are sheep, being fed a diet of manufactured and homogenised rubbish, our thoughts and ideas controlled by once-revered institutions.
This book should be prescribed reading for everyone: teachers, students, parents, and especially politicians.
Review by Mark Tyler:
I am not the type of person who has regularly bought a certain paper or indeed purchased any papers on a regular occurrence at all. After reading Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News I feel I can rest assured that my money has probably been far better spent elsewhere.
Newspapers, it would seem, need to be read and digested along with a fairly hefty pinch of salt and despite the fact that I was aware of this prior to reading Flat Earth News, I was certainly not aware of the degree to which this applied. The book is a brutal and direct stripping down of the UK, and at times, world news media and Nick Davies does not seem to pull any punches.
What disturbed me the most whilst reading Flat Earth News was the realisation that these papers have the capacity to sway public opinion one way or the other on so many issues and that this awesome power is so often abused by those with the final word.
‘Churnalism’, a term used frequently throughout the book, conjures up images of an industrial factory machine spewing out a mass produced product. Unfortunately according to Davies this is what is consumed by the public whilst reading their chosen paper; one hardly different to another content-wise. Isn’t it strange how this consumerist attitude is apparent in so many other areas of our lives, be it purchasing furniture from IKEA or buying your shopping from Tesco? The scary thing is at least in using a high street store we have a fairly good idea of what we are letting ourselves in for, whereas with newspapers we innocently open our minds to whatever the current editor sees fit to present to us. Added to this a need to increase profits from any source be it advertising or paper sales and a constant need to reduce expenditure has, Davies explains, resulted in declining original material and a reduction in the staff needed to generate it.
During the course of reading the book I found myself becoming more and more swayed towards independent media, a view point which I will most probably maintain for some time to come.
To conclude (and prevent myself sounding like a complete hypocrite), I feel that the book itself also needs to be read with a pinch of salt as despite the claimed research and ‘industry sources’ at times Davies seems to be piling it all on a bit thick, almost as though he has a personal vendetta. I also feel that occasionally Davies is himself being a hypocrite as at times he does not appear to present both sides of the story.
Click here to read an interview with Nick Davies.
Read more about the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize here.Jump to top 2 Comments »
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