I’ve been putting off writing this review for a little while now. It’s a difficult one for me. I only read Flat Earth News because so many people had recommended it, and most of them are people whose views I tend to agree with. But I’m afraid I didn’t really like it.
Flat Earth News is Nick Davies’s “exposé” of the practices of the media. Nick is, of course, a brilliant Guardian journalist, and is perhaps the journalist most responsible for the eventual uncovering of the widespread use of phone hacking by members of the press. Unfortunately, he approaches the task of “exposing journalism” with two central premises which I find bizarre.
Firstly, he appears to labour under the wrongful impression that members of the public imagine journalists to be crack investigators who stalk the streets with notebooks and pens, looking for exclusive stories to serve up to expectant readers. Clearly, as an adult who lives in the real world, I know that’s not what a journalist’s job is like. I know that journalists are expected to churn out multiple stories per day, and I know that most of what they write starts out as wire copy or press releases. It’s true to say that I didn’t fully realise the extent of the number of stories they’re expected to file, nor the extent of the reliance on agency copy, but I didn’t think the world of modern journalism was made up of Lois Lanes. This makes the tone he uses for much of the book seem enormously patronising. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt as patronised by any factual book I’ve ever voluntarily subjected myself to as I did by the first third of this book. It’s horrendous.
Secondly, he claims – and repeats ad nauseam – that the central job of any journalist is to tell the truth. Again, I’m afraid I cannot agree with this. There are many parts of any journalist’s job which are equally as important as telling the truth – engaging readers and selling papers being two of the more important ones. He seems to suggest that an ideal newspaper would simply be a list of facts of things that occurred during the day, with few adjectives and no opinions. That is clearly not sensible, as nobody in their right mind would part with good money for something so utterly dull.
Those are the two big, central problems with the book. They are the two which each and every time they crop up made me want to scream. There were times when I actually had to put this enormously repetitive book down and walk away. But, in a way, this is only the start of the list of problems.
When I read books with the intention of reviewing them, I often make notes along the way. I select key quotes, I list the bits I really like and the bits that made me angry. This book caused me to write more notes than any other I’ve ever reviewed for this site, and almost all were in the “bits that made me angry” category. I don’t intend to make all of those points here, but I will share a select few which raised questions in my mind that Davies failed to answer.
Davies has bizarre ideas on what is and isn’t news. He cites a story in which there was a rumour of Terry Leahy stepping down from his role at Tesco. In the face of these rumours, Tesco issued a denial. Davies then criticises news bulletins for continuing to run the story that a rumour was circulating but that it had been denied by Tesco. Does he honestly believe that this story is not newsworthy? Should flat denials always be taken at face value?
There’s a section of this book where Davies criticises the Daily Mail for not having a coherent economic policy. Seriously, I’m not making this up. He talks about the unexpressed and hence unexamined “moral values” which underpin reportage in newspapers, citing the Daily Mail’s treatment of asylum seekers as an example. I’m afraid it’s a little beyond this reviewer to understand how Davies can argue that the Daily Mail’s attitude towards asylum seekers has not been widely acknowledged, criticised and challenged. But, beyond this, he then goes on to suggest that the Daily Mail’s opposition to immigration coupled with its support of free trade adds up to a deeply flawed economic policy. Does Davies honestly believe that a newspaper like the Daily Mail should put forward coherent economic policies? Really? Of course the Daily Mail picks and chooses causes, and of course they do not add up to anything sensible. I struggle to believe that people – including its readers and editor – would argue that the Daily Mail offers a cohesive policy for government, however it presents itself. This feels a bit like criticising Bram Stoker for opening Dracula with the suggestion that all events within the novel are accurate reporting of a true event.
There’s an odd passage in which Davies criticises a newspaper – I forget which one – for reversing its stance on the Iraq war in the face of plummeting readership. Yet I wonder what he believes to be the alternative? If readers are deserting a paper due its opinions, does Davies suggest that it should continue to parrot the same line until it is forced, by lack of readership, to close?
Davies argues that the BBC’s aim to break news within five minutes of it reaching the newsroom is flawed because it doesn’t allow for checking. Does he honestly think that the BBC should only ever report confirmed stories? Does he believe that repeating clearly identified “unconfirmed reports”, as they so frequently do, harms the practice of journalism? Is it his honest belief that if they returned to the old days of checking every detail before publishing that their readers, viewers and listeners wouldn’t desert them in favour of faster rivals? Or does he believe that it doesn’t matter than nobody watches, provided that there is a news outlet of record?
And how does Davies suggest that journalism should be funded? He suggests several times in the book that the funding sources of some campaign groups mean that their view of the world is, by definition, skewed by the funders and should be ignored. So who does he suggest should fund the media? Who has he thought of as a potential provider of revenue to fund totally impartial journalism? He has no answer to this question, but suggests in his epilogue that money saved from moving to digital publication rather than dead tree publication should be reinvested in journalism. The suggestion, of course, completely misses the point that nobody has yet worked out how to make anywhere like the revenue from digital journalism as from print journalism, so there is no money to be reinvested.
Yet, for all of its many faults, I think this is an important book. Strip away the odd proselytising tone, and within this book there is an interesting, informative and detailed “state of the profession” report. There are still those who believe that the Daily Mail prints literal truth, those that don’t understand how news stories are gathered, and those that think that quotes in newspapers are verbatim transcripts of something that someone actually said. For those people, this book would doubtless be an eye-opener.
All of this leaves me with something of a dilemma. I hated this book. I found it patronising, and a real struggle to get through. It’s irritating tone made me frequently set it aside to read something that made me less angry. And yet, I recognise that it is important, and that many people like it. Indeed, many people like it very much. So how many stars should I give? Since there’s no easy answer, I’m going to plump for an arbitrary three.