We invited the six shortlisted authors for the first Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize to talk to us about their nominated books. Here, the 2008/09 prizewinner, Nick Davies, talks to us about his bookFlat Earth News:
Why did you write the book?
It struck me as unreasonable, after the invasion of Iraq when it became clear that the famous WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] did not exist that, with very few exceptions, news organisations reported that as though the misinformation were simply a problem of governments and intelligence agencies whereas clearly there was a third party, themselves. Since they failed to acknowledge their role, they failed to ask a very important question: why? And as I started to recognise the scale of falsehood, distortion and propaganda in our news media, that question became more and more important.
What is Flat Earth News?
It’s a news story that everybody has heard and everybody accepts to the point where it can feel heretical to challenge it – and yet, if only the story is properly checked it turns out to be untrue.
You talk about churnalism. What is this?
The current common condition of journalists who, instead of going out and making contacts and finding stories and checking facts, are chained to their keyboards, passively recycling second-hand material from wire agencies and the PR industry, usually without the faintest idea of whether it is true or false.
One year on, is the situation worse for news gathering and reporting??
What was a problem has become a crisis. The book describes the numerous subtle ways in which, during the ‘good years’ when news organisations were highly profitable, the logic of commercialism invaded our newsrooms and usurped the logic of journalism. That process has accelerated alarmingly with the arrival of the credit crisis, which has intensified all of the financial pressures which have been responsible for the decline in the quality of our news.
Is this more of a problem for local journalism, rather than national?
Local journalism certainly has been pushed further downhill than national, though both are sliding in the same direction. Local newspapers and broadcast bulletins (BBC and commercial) are seeing quite terrifying job cuts. Coverage of courts, local authorities, hospitals, schools, police is disintegrating under the pressure. You talk in the introduction about not normally attacking your own profession. What is the reaction now, one year on, from colleagues? In the first month or so, there was some eyewatering hostility from senior Fleet Street figures and also from some of those individuals who come out badly from the book. Since then, however, the book has been supported by thousands of journalists, print and broadcast, local and national in the UK and abroad, who have contacted me to endorse the book’s arguments and who have helped me by writing about the book and inviting me to speak at public meetings.
Apart from Flat Earth News, which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the tectonic culturalshift which has taken place in the developed world in the last three decades in the way in which people think of themselves. The political defeat of socialism has narrowed the spectrum of public debate to the point where masses of people no longer engage in it (or see any reason to do so). In parallel, the world of free markets and globalised capitalism has positively encouraged people to stop identifying themselves as members of any social or political group – “I’m a trade unionist”, “I’m working class” – in favour of conceiving ofthemselves merely as consumers. The impact of this goes beyond the relative collapse of political debate and into a wider disintegration of social connections and/or moral thinking: the dominant values are financial ones.
Which idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I was reading the Art of Loving by Erich Fromm and he pointed out a very simple thing about the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden – that that is, in fact, a really clumsy mistranslation. How could it possibly be a curse on mankind to eat from the Tree of Knowledge? Knowledge is no kind of curse – it’s a peculiarly fine and liberating fruit to consume. Surely, what that Biblical myth was talking about was Consciousness – that humans, unlike other animals, are cursed with a consciousness of themselves and of their past and future. It had a double impact: first, it made me think with unusual clarity about the existential terror of human life; second, it just made me laugh at the absurdity of such a daft misunderstanding running through all those Bibles and all those sermons and RE classes.
What is the most important book/ article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Everybody should read Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections. This is a brilliantly intelligent man who is not afraid to tackle any subject – religion, ethics, human emotions, dreams and the subconscious, personal freedom. He loves mysteries – like the Kenyan tribesmen who wake up each morning, spit on both hands and then hold their palms up to the sun without having any idea of why they do that. He is also a very solid source of inspiration: “Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.” I like that.