Nick Davies is the Guardian journalist whose investigations into the Murdoch media helped uncover the phone hacking practices, exploding the recent scandal that led to the closure of the News of the World. Here, James Bloodworth reviews his 2008 book Flat Earth News, which aimed to expose “falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media.”
Nick Davies’s first book, Dark Heart, offered a brilliant exposé of the impact of Thatcherism on the lives of working people and their communities across Britain.
Researching the book, Davies spent time with those whose lives were ravaged by the 1980s privatisation drive; people who, for all the aspirational rhetoric of the Thatcher-era, were brutally pushed aside by the culture of “greed is good” and thrown on the scrapheap.
In Flat Earth News, Davies takes on another cosy consensus — that of his own profession, journalism. Flat Earth News is scathing about the way changing media ownership patterns have led to the news-media becoming little more than a cash-cow for ruthless, free-market capitalists. The result of this change has, according to Davies, seen a once proud profession descend into banal “churnalism”, where the regurgitation of press releases supplants the search for real stories by dedicated and passionate reporters. As journalists attempt to turn over as much material as possible at minimal cost to their new bosses, the quality of their output is invariably suffering to the point where, Davies argues, much of what we read in our newspapers is little more than “Flat Earth news”.
From a critical perspective, Davies is somewhat apt to romanticise the journalistic profession of old. Rather than proposing genuinely democratic solutions, he harks back to an imaginary golden era when the media was owned by those who were interested in little more than quality reporting in the name of the public interest. This is of course naive, not to mention ahistorical. The press barons of old may have been more concerned with the principles of good copy than today’s crop of capitalist proprietors, whose only interest is their bottom line, but as Hannen Swaffer (one of the early 20th-century pioneers of British tabloid journalism) put it, long-before the era of Murdoch & Co., “freedom of the press in Britain is the freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to.” In other words, the capitalist press has long had other things in mind than straightforward truth-telling.
It is a simplification, of course, to assume that media barons set the political agenda and journalists simply jump into line; and Davies correctly points this out. For a start, there are many journalists who would refuse to do such a thing, however handsomely they were paid to do so.
What newspapers and television stations do very effectively, however, is reinforce orthodoxy organically through the reproduction of their own economic interests. Should the media accurately report voices of dissent, it may in theory cannibalise itself through a transformation in society’s economic structure.
A genuine plurality of ideas is simply not in the economic interests of a heavily-concentrated mass media. The subsequent narrowing of political debate to the “centre ground”, with most other ideas portrayed not simply as illegitimate, but as disorderly and threatening, reflects economic trends that have become increasingly concentrated in the West over the past 30 years . The resulting “common-sense” assumptions of the media can be understood using a metaphor of a plant: the news may tell you when the first sprout breaks through the surface, but it does not tell you how the seed is germinating in the ground. It may tell you what somebody says is happening to the seed underground. It does not, however, serve to explain the germination process of the seed itself.
Davies does touch on the influence of “common-sense” assumptions in his critique of supposedly impartial media outlets:
“The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces objective truth. It is a classic Flat Earth tale, widely believed and devoid of reality. It has never happened and never will happen because it cannot happen. Reality exists objectively, but any attempt to record the truth about it always and everywhere necessarily involves selection.”
Davies is right to dismiss the goal of an “impartial” media as impossible. The socialist press, of which Solidarity is a part, is not “objective” or “impartial”, and nor does it attempt to be. For us, the key criticism of today’s mass media outlets is not the abstract fact that they are representative of particular social, political and economic interests, but that the interests they represent are those of our class enemy.
While for socialists Davies’s book may seem relatively timid in proposing democratic solutions to the crisis of journalism, it is nonetheless an enjoyable and enlightening read.
The book is worth a look for anyone interested in a competent critique of the modern media, even if, at times, it makes you want to grab Davies by the shoulders and shake him out of his nostalgia for bygone-era that never really existed.