REVIEW: Flat Earth News

Riots, terrorism etc

‘Important’ is a cant word in book reviewing: it usually means something like ‘slightly above average’, or ‘I was at university with her,’ or ‘I couldn’t be bothered to read it so I’m giving a quote instead.’ Very occasionally it might be stretched to mean ‘a book likely to be referred to in the future by other people who write about the same subject’. Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News, however, is a genuinely important book, one which is likely to change, permanently, the way anyone who reads it looks at the British newspaper industry. Davies’s book explains something easy to notice and complain about but hard to understand: the sense of the increasing thinness and attenuation of the British press. It’s not literal thinness: the papers, physically, are bigger than ever. There just seems to be less in them than there once was: less news, less thought (as opposed to opinion), less density of engagement, less time spent finding things out. Davies looks into all those questions, confirms that the impression of thinness is correct, explains how this came about, and offers no hope that things will improve.

His book starts at the point at which he got interested in the story of what he calls ‘flat earth news’: ‘A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.’ That’s flat earth news, and Davies became interested in the phenomenon, via the story of the millennium bug. How on earth did so many papers get sucked into producing so many millions of words of, it turns out, total nonsense about the impending implosion of all government, all commerce, all human activity, by the catastrophe which was going to be caused by the bug? ‘National Health Service patients could die’ (Telegraph); ‘Banks could collapse’ (Guardian); ‘Riots, terrorism and a health crisis’ (Sunday Mirror); ‘Pensions contributions could be wiped out’ (Independent); ‘Nato alert over Russian missile millennium bug’ (Times). The British government spent a figure variously reported as £396 million, £430 million and £788 million. And then, on the big night, a tide gauge failed in Portsmouth harbour. That was pretty much it. Countries which had spent next to nothing – Russia, for instance, whose government of 140 million citizens spent less on the bug than British Airways – had no problems.

There are several ways of looking at this story, which has some of the aspects of a panic and some of those of a hoax or job-creation scheme.[*] Davies chooses to focus on the fact that of the millions of words written about the bug, all of them were written by journalists who had no idea whether what they were writing was true. They simply didn’t know. Flat Earth News makes a great deal of this. The most basic function of journalism, in Davies’s view, is to check facts. Journalists don’t just pass on what they’re told without making an effort to check it first. At least, in theory they don’t. In practice, contemporary journalism has been corrupted by an endemic failure to verify facts and stories in a manner so fundamental that it almost defies belief. The consequences of that are pervasive and systemic. [complete article]

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