“Trapped within the same page”

Nick Davies on churnalism and the dark arts of PR

In his new book, Flat Earth News, campaigning journalist Nick Davis has revealed the rot at the heart of the modern media landscape - from overworked journalists, corrupt media owners and over-powerful PR groups.

Why did you write this book?

The immediate trigger was the Weapons of Mass Destruction. As it became clear that they didn’t exist, it frustrated me that the media were discussing that as though it was just a problem of government and intelligence agencies, without recognising that they themselves were part of the global misinformation. So that’s the trigger. I just though it doesn’t make sense that the media failed to bring to bear on themselves the kind of scrutiny they bring to bear on every other activity of life. And if you say, why did we screw up the WMD story, it actually takes you straight into it, because if you try and say, “Oh well, that`s because owners tell journalists what to write”, that explanation doesn’t hold up when, for example, you look at the BBC, the Guardian and the Observer, who don’t have media owners. They belong to trusts, and yet, for example, in the case of the BBC we know that eighty-six per cent of its stories took it for granted that the WMD existed. So there’s something else going on, this isn’t just about proprietors interfering, there’s something else.

You’ve said that reactions to the book from other journalists have been on the whole very positive: what kind of feedback—if any—have you had from the PR industry?

The PR industry are very interested in the book, so I’ve been speaking at a lot of public meetings which have been organised by PR companies, and the break-down, the reaction, is the same: you get a small proportion of people who feel threatened by the book and who get terribly upset and angry — that’s the same in PR and in journalism — but the majority of people recognise the picture and they’re interested to debate the issues.

It’s quite a depressing picture of the PR industry painted in your book, with ‘false events’ and manipulation. Is it possible to draw a distinction between ‘good’ PR—say, releases from hospitals, NGOs, charities—and ‘bad’ PR, such as corporate/business?

Well I suppose there’s a spectrum here, isn’t there? At the far end, the bad end, you have PR companies who work in an unethical fashion, so they will work for, let’s say, tyrants who use torture and murder to suppress political opposition; that is, to my mind, unethical and unacceptable. Coming the other way down the spectrum, PR companies who lie, I think, are behaving very badly. Coming back down into the middle ground, there are those—it’s not just PR companies, it’s press officers and the like—who will, within the framework of the truth, put out information which is fundamentally misleading. There’s a little example of that in the book with a report where there were lots of computer programmes run to test the impact of changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on global temperature, and the press release that was put out picked on a tiny minority of the findings which were more exciting than the majority of findings and made out that was what this whole process uncovered; it’s within the framework of the truth, but it`s fundamentally misleading. If you come further down the spectrum towards the good end, at its most anodyne you can have the press office for the local council, who’s simply putting out a press release about what happened at the district council meeting last night, and that may be entirely accurate and straightforward. I would say though, even when you’re at that good, straightforward end of the spectrum, there is an inherent problem from the journalist’s point of view, because it’s our job to make the judgement about what stories should be covered, and with what angle and what quotes and what pictures. And if we’re sitting in the newsroom and it’s the council’s press officer who writes the press release from which we then make our story, we are handing over, we’re surrendering those judgements to somebody else, and there is always the possibility that they’ll be acting with the interests of the council in mind rather than the interests of the public, the readers.

But isn’t it the responsibility of the journalist to apply critical thinking to press releases?

Well, the trouble is, because of the way commercialism has affected journalism, you have not enough staff doing too much work, and also as I’ve said in the fourth chapter of the book, they work with what I call ‘rules of production’, which tend to distort the way they do their work. So it’s a picture with two sides to it. Yes, in principle journalists should be doing their job properly and asserting themselves over the public relations material that comes in their direction. Unfortunately, there is a significant tendency for them not to be doing that. So certainly, in the background, journalists frequently are failing to do their jobs properly because they’re not allowed to; that then presents an opportunity for the PR industry to take advantage, and the PR industry does. So quite where the responsibility is, whether it’s the fault of journalism for making itself vulnerable to manipulation, or the fault of the PR industry for getting in there and taking advantage by manipulating, that’s hard to say.

Journalism, newswires and PR have been bedfellows since PR was invented. To what extent is this about transparency—if papers openly acknowledged their PR sources, would this be a better situation?

Well, I think it would improve the situation a little if newspapers were open about their use of wire copy and PR material. That would mean readers were more likely to be able to decode what they were reading. But it wouldn’t actually solve the underlying problem of journalists becoming passive processors of second-hand information rather than active news-gatherers. It wouldn’t be an improvement.

Is there any situation where there can be a healthy relationship between PR and journalism?

Well, if journalism were funded properly, so that we had an effective number of journalists at work and also working without the many subtle constraints of commercialism, then it would be more like an even fight, so to speak. The great puzzle for the mainstream media at the moment is to find a financial model for the future. Because the old model where we print dead tree papers and get income from advertising and selling those papers, that model is disintegrating, it’s losing money, it’s losing readers, it’s losing advertising. So the puzzle is, is there somewhere out in the electronic ether, based on websites and electronic communication, a model that works? And at the moment nobody’s come up with one. If they were to, then conceivably that could generate the funds to liberate us from the constraints of commercialism and then we would be back on a more even relationship.

Do you think that the dark situation you are painting for Great Britain’s media and its PR world is similar to the rest of Europe?

Yes, I think in principle you’ll find the same picture all across the developed world. There are two different reasons for saying that. One is the extent to which empirical surveys have been conducted in other parts of the world along the same lines as that Cardiff study, they’ve tended to come up with the same result. I actually don’t know one from Western Europe, but certainly in the United States and Australia you’ve got very, very similar survey results because the underlying structure is the same: corporate ownership. And then the other reason for thinking you’d find the same picture is that I’ve had lots of reaction from journalists all across the developed world, including Western Europe. So specifically I’ve either had media coming along and interviewing me and/or individual journalists giving me commentary from Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, in the old Eastern Europe as well—the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Scandinavian countries. And even if they’re only interviewing me, they’re saying ‘My God, it’s the same here’. So I would have thought it’s going to be the same in principal across all of Western Europe.

You’ve been doing a huge amount of PR work around this book yourself —interviews, debates and so forth. Does that reassure you that the sickness you’ve diagnosed in journalism is not terminal, and that people —PR and journalists alike—really do care about the independence and health of journalism?

You see, what I’m talking about are the structures within which we work. I think those structures are killing off journalism. But within those structures you’ve got loads and loads of individual journalists, and there may well also be individual PR people, who deeply resent the way in which they’re being compelled to work, and it’s those individuals who are getting in touch doing the interviews, or organising the debates. But we’re all trapped within the same page, and I don’t know that we’re able to find a way out. So I’m not saying that good journalism is dead, I’m saying it’s terribly ill, and it’s still possible not only for individuals to discuss in the way that we are, but also for individual journalists to do their job properly, providing they can manoeuvre effectively within the cage.

What solutions do you suggest for the imbalance between PR and journalism? Where should time-pressed journalists turn to for news stories?

Following on from what I just said, I sometimes think the greatest skill in journalism is office politics. So if you can work your way into an organisation which is fairly big, and within that organisation negotiate with some powerful executive who will then protect your time and allow you to do your job effectively and then give you the space in which to write—or maybe broadcast—the outcome, then there’s hope. But it’s at that micro-level that you can see solutions, with individual journalists being able to break through and do their job properly. On the macro-level it comes back to this point about where we find the new financial model, and nobody knows the answer to that. You’ve got the cleverest people in the media trying to work out what the future looks like, and they can see that, at some point in the next two or three decades, we may well stop producing dead-tree newspapers, we’ll simply publish on the website, and that means first of all a huge cut in our costs: if we’re no longer printing the beast and we’re no longer distributing it, that’s a massive saving. So you say, ‘well we can put all that money into hiring reporters’, but the problem is, the same time as we save all those costs, we also potentially lose lots of income. So I don’t know of a media website or a news website that has so far succeeded in selling news to people who click on the website. Those who’ve tried to charge have just seen people desert them. So where do we get the income we used to get from selling the newspaper? And how much advertising will these websites carry? These are questions we don’t quite know the answers to. So there may be a way of sorting that out so that the electronic version of newspapers makes thumping great amounts of money. And then you come to the final underlying problem, which is if those websites are owned by large corporations, then the risk is that we’ll repeat in the electronic world what we’ve just done in the dead-tree world, which is the long phase of the Eighties and Nineties when media corporations were making vast amounts of money. They didn’t invest that money in good journalism, they took it and passed it out to the shareholder. So it’s all very problematic what the future looks like.

So it’s more of a structural, underlying fault…

What I’m talking about is whether or not there’s a structural solution out there, and the real answer is ‘I don`t know!’

Many PR professionals are themselves former journalists; can you imagine yourself following that career path?

Personally I don’t think I will, mostly because there’s going to come a point in the next few years when I think I’m going to want to completely change direction. So I might go off and become a baker or something. Because I’ve been doing it a long time, so this is just a philosophical point, I don’t think anybody should spend all their lives doing one thing. But I don’t think PR would suit me, I’m too outspoken.

Because there are so many journalists who have ‘gone to the dark side’, if you like…

And they know what they’re doing. You see, one of the odd ironies here is that, before the book was published. I thought ‘this book is going to disappear into a dark hole’, because the newspapers who are its subjects are never going to publicise it. So I sat down to try and work out a strategy to get publicity in spite of that. And you may think it proves some of what I’ve said about the ease with which you can manipulate newspapers that Fleet Street did indeed end up publicising a book which attacked it.

Briefly, what kind of tactics did you use?

Well the first thing was to break the book up into sections and try to place those sections with particular outlets who wouldn’t feel threatened by them.

Which is what you accuse Bell Yard Communications of doing in the case of the Nat West Three.

So I’m saying the underlying point of the book is that it’s very easy to manipulate the papers these days. The final four chapters of the book are the ones that contain the most upsetting allegations from Fleet Street’s point-of-view, so I gave them to Private Eye. I gave the Independent the chapter on propaganda, which wasn’t going to offend them, I did a piece for the Guardian about ‘churnalism’ which wasn’t going to offend it. In fact I tried to do Bell Yard Communications and the NatWest Three for the Financial Times, and they approved it and took it until the editor intervened. There was some sort of embarrassment factor in there about the way that the Financial Times had covered the story, so there it fell and it ended up with City AM; you know, the free paper.

It’s funny that the story would have been nixed for embarrassing the FT; as you explain in your chapter on the NatWest Three, the newspapers bought the story and ran with it even though it contradicted their own work on the story two years earlier…

Oh I think almost everybody ended up contradicting themselves, but yes, the Telegraph campaigned very powerfully against its original story. They’ve also all gone reasonably quiet now that those guys have pleaded guilty—well I say reasonably quiet, in a way it’s unreasonably quiet, isn’t it? And look at the things that didn’t happen as well, you know, where are the shackles, where are…

...the orange jumpsuits….

...they were going to have to spend years in prison awaiting trial, I mean none of these things happened.  

Interview by Dafydd Phillips

Nick Davies

Nick Davies is a UK-based journalist who has won seve-ral awards for his work on crime, poverty, drugs, miscarriages of justice and other social issues. A regularl writer for the Guardian, his book Flat Earth News is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus.