This book about the corruption and dishonesty of the British press is brave and timely. Brave because not many journalists are prepared to discuss openly what many of us know about our own trade. And brave because Davies must have known he was going to annoy a lot of people.
The former editor of the Observer, Roger Alton, in an interview in Press Gazette, the journalists’ trade paper, threatened to “punch his [Davies’s] face in” if the book impugned the integrity of the Observer’s former political editor, Kamal Ahmed. Flat Earth News tells how Ahmed came to rely heavily on one contact – Alastair Campbell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s press secretary. A colleague described Ahmed as “Alastair’s jug” because “Alastair poured stuff into him, and he poured it out into the Observer”. None of this would have mattered much if not for Iraq. Davies alleges that the Obs bigged up the case for war while ignoring stories undermining the government line, such as a well-sourced one, more than six months before the invasion, that the CIA knew Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Integrity impugned? I’ll say. But so far Davies remains unpunched.
Then there is the Daily Mail, a paper which champions “law and order” while its hacks, according to FEN, bribe policemen, civil servants and others to supply people’s personal details such as medical records and credit card statements. A senior figure there has decreed, according to 8’s sources, that Davies “deserves a good kicking”.
He has been threatened with libel proceedings by solicitors acting for David Leppard, a Sunday Times reporter who, according to FEN, some colleagues “dismiss… as a ruthless charlatan who cheats his sources and makes up stories”. I could not possibly comment.
Senior figures at the BBC, the Press Association and broadsheet newspapers have denounced the book (but Davies has had scores of supportive emails from front-line journalists). There is plenty in the final “case study” chapters that will enrage those hacks named and shamed therein. But just as interesting are the sections on the everyday nuts and bolts of how the press works, and how it came to be in the state it is today.
We learn how commercial pressures have given rise to “churnalism” – how underpaid and overworked youngsters, particularly in the regional press and on websites, have no time to check whether the stories they recycle are true; and how PR persons operating on behalf of business and government take advantage of this to shape the “news” we read.
Nick Davies started in journalism on 6 September 1976, on the Mirror Group’s former graduate training scheme in Plymouth – the same day as me. I remember an idealistic young man, inspired by the film All the President’s Men, about how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the truth about Watergate and brought down President Nixon. Davies believed journalism could be used to achieve a better world. Since then he has written many brilliant stories, mostly for the Guardian, exposing miscarriages of justice, investigating the criminal underworld and unpicking accepted wisdoms on subjects as diverse as drugs, education and the criminal justice system. Alas, the world has not changed for the better, and one senses the idealistic young man of 30 years ago is tired, sickened by his “corrupted profession”.
If journalists like Nick Davies really are becoming an endangered species, then the world is going to become an even darker and more dangerous place.