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Journalism, truth and scepticism

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Reg Rumney's picture

I approach writing that finds news media fallen from grace into the gutter with deep suspicion. There never was a golden age of journalism, and each generation feels its problems to be unique.

A new book by UK journalist and documentary-maker Nick Davies book about the defects of global news media has some of this, to be sure, but it differs not only in that it is an insider’s view and in the thoroughness of his argument.

Passionately presented, it also stands out as the work of a journalist with the courage to unsettle deeply held beliefs in areas other than the news media.

Coming from a Guardian background, Davies could be expected to be “left-wing”, “radical” in a conventional sense. But anyone who can argue quite convincingly, and he does, that heroin is harmless and that Chernobyl was no big deal and radiation isn’t the bogey it’s held out to be doesn’t fit into any neat category.

His underlying philosophy is one that I wholeheartedly support as a simple ethical framework for journalists, one that goes beyond the hackneyed “watchdog” metaphor.

“You could argue that every profession has its defining value. For carpenters, it might be accuracy: a carpenter who isn't accurate shouldn't be a carpenter. For diplomats, it might be loyalty: they can lie and spy and cheat and do all sorts of dirty tricks, and as long as they are loyal to their government, they are doing their job. For journalists, the defining value is honesty - the attempt to tell the truth. That is our primary purpose. All that we do - and all that is said about us - must flow from the single source of truth-telling.”

So why are the global news media outlets stopping journalists doing this job? Many readers will find in Davies’ book confirmation of their beliefs that global news media is “riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda”. For this is Davies’ view, though he quickly points out his point of departure is different from many who try to make sense of media failure.

He thinks the mainstream of media criticism is itself “badly polluted with misunderstanding” He admits the very real meddling of the media barons like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black, and acknowledges the threats to free news media from formal censorship of various forms by the State, which is now mainly in the past in the developed world.

He proposes, however, that the world is “deep into a third age of falsehood and distortion, in which the primary obstacles to truth-telling lie inside the newsrooms, with the internal mechanics of and industry which has been badly damaged.”

Whereas previous threats have come at point of publication, the problem now arises during the very act of gathering the news and testing the raw information that makes up the news.

What Davies fingers is the rampant commercial pressures which have led to the all-too familiar “churnalism” as journalists are pressured to produce more and more with less and less. Out of the window goes many or all of the time-honoured practices of the profession, those that involve the time needed to produce quality, such as actually leaving the office and generating own stories rather than quickly and cheaply absorbing and regurgitating “safe” information from whatever sources offer it.

Complicit in this are PR agents “spinning” news with increasing sophistication and cynicism, understaffed conveyor-belt news agencies, and secretive government agencies, intelligence departments and military units spewing propaganda.

Davies is deeply pessimistic about the possibility of “bringing the media back on track” as he puts it. He raises the possibility of the Internet counteracting the commercial pressures that have led to the present mess, but isn’t hopeful.

I don’t really know if the news media ever was completely on track, and if it was it must have been for a brief time. The impact in the 1930s of a now almost forgotten roneoed newssheet called The Week, published by the notoriously irreverent leftwing muckraker Claud Cockburn, would not have been as great were it not for the inadequacies of the newspapers of the time. The Week was a news media event in its time, using the new technology of the time, the mimeograph, to great effect.

Still, it’s good to see exposed a long list of recent news media (mainly what used to be Fleet Street) fudging, half-lies, outright lies, gullibility, incestuous repeating of the same bullshit, illegal information-gathering, and so on, along with some alarming close-up examinations of particular papers like London’s Daily Mail.

But what I take from his book is simply an argument for greater scepticism, a lesson implicit in his main example of Flat Earth News, the famous, mythical Millennium Bug. Many individuals, organisations, firms and governments fell for that particular myth, spending needless billions.

The Italian government was one exception. In the face of much criticism, it did nothing to combat the Millennium Bug, without any inconvenience at all to Italy when 2000 rolled around. I remember Zimbabwe being ridiculed for the same omission. These, however, may have been happy accidents rather than considered judgments.

My own bugbear is the simple faith ordinary people have in forecasts and computer models, when they clearly have just contributed to the most severe recession the world has seen in decades.

I personally believe it is incumbent on all intelligent people to be a lot more sceptical about what they accept as fact. But for journalists scepticism – not cynicism, mind – is a sine qua non, and should be right up there with truth-telling as basic precept of the profession.

Flat Earth News, And award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, London