Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media - Nick Davies

Flat Earth News is a really important book on a really important subject - how our news media is systematically undermined by the systems it employs and why that happens. It is also a deeply ironic book in that in critiquing journalism whilst using a journalistic register it falls into a number of traps that show the weaknesses that befall journalism even at its best. It is a book that you should definitely read if you read any form of journalism, and when it is on form it is incredibly powerful and illuminating, but it has to be read with the very set of skills with which it is trying to teach you to read.

The major problems are ones of judicious omission and accuracy. Davies decides, straight up, to ignore tabloid journalism as, he claims, no one believes it anyway. The problem here is that people do believe it, and in vast numbers, and even when they don't (a lot of Sun readers refer to it as a comic) it has a huge effect on how people perceive the world. Ignoring tabloid journalism is essentially a classist statement that says only the educated (middle class) constructed reality (and he talks a lot about concepts of constructed reality, even if he doesn't use that term, preferring to differentiate between a mass perception and an underlying reality) is of importance.

Except then he does talk about tabloids, because when you talk about the newspaper industry you cannot avoid talking about tabloids. The commercial structures Davies lambasts, Murdoch's and Maxwell's and so on, are all built around the tabloid business model. The history of the first decade of the 21st century newspaper industry is the death of the broadsheet as a physical object. Tabloids are unavoidable and Davies talks about them whenever he needs to, but just maintains that they aren't a part of the story when he doesn't want them to be. This is a journalistic tic.

Other journalistic tics surface in the very fabric of the writing; in the language used. Journalism as a mode, and in many ways when it is at its best, salts important information with enough flavour to make it easy to read. This flavour comes from the nice turns of phrase and the human interest and the mixing of nuggets of detail amongst the facts of the matter. This can be great; the feature article that introduces you to individuals before covering statistics both grounds and humanises the story. It can also be terrible; the Guardian style Guide has a joke about being so desperate for humanising synonyms that a write resorts to calling a carrot 'the popular orange vegetable.'

In Flat Earth news this surfaces as meaningless details that nevertheless distort the text: Charles Drudge of the Drudge Report is described as an ex Sales Clerk, which implies without being explicit a whole lot of assumptions about his suitability as a journalistic source. The fact is, he was making things up, but as he admits it was because journalists let him do it - not because of what he did before. Again, there is an implicit classism and a certain level of circling the wagon on Davies' part; he repeatedly claims that he will not let journalists off the hook, and yet also repeatedly finds ways of blaming people who aren't journalists for their mistakes. Earlier Davies describes a lone reporter as 'sitting alone in a darkened room' in a section about staff cuts. It's a very evocative, and easy to write, image but it is also patently untrue. He may have been sitting alone but why in a darkened room? How could Davies know? Are the evil owners even skimping on electricity bills now? This is over salting your prose, and it can be as much a mechanism of misinformation, although not as pernicious, as outright falsehood.

These may seem like small quibbles, but they extend, unfortunately, to the very core of Davies' thesis. Flat Earth News, in Davie's formulation, is news that spreads around the world because it seems right until it gets checked, and the problem is that the media is failing in its job of checking. He calls it this based on the idea that everyone thought the Earth was flat until someone checked. The big problem with this is that the belief that everyone thought the world was flat is itself Flat Earth News in Davies' formulation - it is an overstated belief that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Meanwhile, the majority of Flat Earth stories Davies talks about  are not things that seemed correct but, as he himself attests, stories that were actively pushed into a media machine that was known to be faulty by people with agendas. The mechanism is the same, but the culpability is slightly different. Which is why the book is important even as it obfuscates some of it's own importance.

Flat Earth News tells a story of a noble journalism destroyed by 'grocers', a term repeatedly used, after an admittedly nicely written turn of phrase, as a more dramatic placeholder for capitalist economic theory. It doesn't help the divisiveness and implicit classism of the book that no grocer worth their salt would operate in the way that the newspaper owners have done, because grocers sell produce while newspaper owners have effectively stopped selling down (to consumers) but instead sell a content delivery system to advertisers. But, regardless, the argument Davies employs is that the capitalists, who it is important to note have done some incredibly destructive things to news and to journalism as a career option, are inherently worse in the way that they skew coverage than the old-style propagandist owners and that this is fundamentally because at least the propagandists cared about journalists. Even if part of that caring was telling them exactly what to write and when to write it.

Again, the points being made are important, valid and pertinent ones, but there is also an untold story. Alongside the history of closed newsrooms, sacked journalists and squeezed production lines is an untold, parallel version. This is a story of a union that failed its members, and of anti-union journalists who failed to see that they were no different the workers they were demonising when the eyes of industry turned upon them. It is a story of editors, journalists themselves, selling out as soon as they hit management positions and chucking those coming after them under the bus; or even worse, failing to stand up for good practise and capitulating to the demands of senior management even when they know that they are unworkable. It's these stories, along with the genuinely nasty, normative side of journalism - the side that wants there to be an underlying truth even when there isn't one or where exposing it would cause only pain, that is protected and I find it a shame. For every time Davies admits that journalism is not  blameless he then spends pages identifying why it isn't really journalists fault.