Flat Earth News revisited

In need of inspiration, I am re-reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.

It was a big story for Press Gazette – we serialised it and hosted a debate at London College of Communications (Private Eye was less than impressed incidentally – as were one or two people who turned up.

It was a top reporter, probably one of the leading investigative journalists of his generation, setting his sights on his friends and colleagues mercilessly. (And if proof were needed of Davies’ credentials as a writer check out this mighty piece on the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Genoa in 2001).

Not just that, it was a Guardian reporter – albeit on a freelance retainer – serving up justice to The Observer, Guardian News & Media’s Sunday paper. We were, to say the least, quite eager to read the book.

As were our readers. PG became a sort of sounding-board for people to air their praise and criticism of the book: Press Association editor Jonathan Grun wrote an angry letter as did David Leppard of the Sunday Times Insight team and two Observer executives.

But looking back at the coverage of the book, I can’t help feeling that a lot of people missed the point.

The book’s essential argument is that control of the flow of information in public life is now controlled by PR firms and goverment departments, something none of the reviews I read managed to disprove or even deny. Davies argued that 80 per cent of stories in his five studied newspapers during one week contained PR or wire copy or both.

The diary of the local newspaper reporter who spends all his time in the office re-writing wire stories and even recycling nibs from other papers, is very sad to read.

You can’t blame the papers for defending themselves, but I wondered whether anyone would say, “OK, fair cop, we do rely on PR/PA a bit too much”. But it never happened.

My own criticism – which I put to Davies when the book came out – is that his statistical analysis only deals with what he calls “respectable papers”: Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times. He says that “nobody needs a book” to tell them tabloids are full of lies, whereas I find that a bit elitist.

But it’s an inspiring book, a call to ask more questions and reject what you are told. I even tried my humble hand at exposing PR mistruth myself, albeit on a much smaller scale.

And what effect – I wonder – does PR have on the blogosphere? In an age of publicity-hungry clients paying richly for their Google rankings and even paying bloggers to blog, does Flat Earth News spill over into the online realm?

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