Nick Davies is the award-winning investigative journalist, writer and documentary maker who recently broke the story of the News of the World phone-taps. Last year, he published the bestselling Flat Earth News, an exposé of the systemic falsehood, distortion and propaganda current in the mainstream global media. The book won plaudits from critics across the political spectrum and is frequently referenced across the vast and nebulous blogosphere. We caught up with him to find out whether his views had changed in the last year, what he thinks of James Murdoch’s recent attack on the BBC and how he answers critics who feel, in attacking the media, he may be letting politicians off the hook.
The Third Estate: Could you tell us what you consider to be the essence of good news journalism? What are a journalist’s responsibilities?
Nick Davies: A journalist’s responsibility is to be honest, i.e. to attempt to tell the truth. He or she may fail: by simply not being able to find the truth with the time and resources available; or by making ‘an honest mistake’ and publishing in good faith something which turns out to be false or distorted. The unmovable responsibility is to attempt to tell the truth. And sometimes, with the wind behind us, we succeed.
The Third Estate: Your book Flat Earth News ended with a very downbeat assessment of the state of the media in Britain, concluding:
‘I’m afraid that I think, in trying to expose the weakness of the media, I am taking a snapshot of a cancer. Maybe it helps a little to be able to see the illness… but I fear the illness is terminal.’
Since then we’ve seen the expenses scandal dominate the news for months. Was this an example of good of investigative journalism, and if so, has it made you any more optimistic for the future?
Nick Davies: The book argues that good journalism is very ill, not that it’s dead. There is a steady trickle of good stories still being constructed by journalists who manage to get the time and resources to do their jobs properly. The MPs expenses is an example, but there are others. As to the future, that depends on whether or not we can find a source of funding which will allow for a revival of the sick profession. At the moment, the business model is failing: circulations are falling and advertising income is plummeting. As and when the credit crisis passes, we will discover whether the business model picks up or whether, as I suspect, it will not. Even if it does pick up and starts to generate profit again, it will have to cope with the problem of its corporate owners extracting that profit for shareholders and executives instead of investing in journalism (which is the core of the problem described in Flat Earth News.) In the absence of effective funding from the traditional business model, ie from selling papers and carrying advertisements, the search is on for some new source of funding. Can we find a way to charge for online news? Can we find a way to divert advertising back to news sites? Will government step in with some politically safe form of funding, a kind of licence fee for news media? Or, or, or. If there is no solution to the funding problem, there is no future for good journalism.
The Third Estate: James Murdoch is scarcely a darling of the left, but does he have a point about the dominance of the BBC – especially as regards online news? Is the BBC damaging newspapers or is it our last best hope for responsible journalism? Would it be a good thing if the BBC started funding local newspapers?
Nick Davies: Murdoch cares only for Murdoch. His attack on the BBC is something which his father has been engaged in for decades, long before the BBC had a website. He wants to kill off the competition. And he will grab at any available argument to try to justify it. We have to defend the BBC because it has a funding model (the licence fee) which works. In terms of journalism, we need the BBC in two different senses, first as a news organisation which, for all its failings, still has a culture of honesty; and, second, as a tool which tends to keep other, commercialised news organisations a little more honest.
It is breath-taking to hear a Murdoch blaming the BBC for damaging newspapers. Nobody in the history of journalism has done more damage to newspapers than Rupert Murdoch. He will say he has invested millions, but he has done that in the pursuit of profit and power and repeatedly, horribly at the expense of good journalism.
Compare the BBC as a source of honest journalism and for its impact on others, with the Sun as a source of repulsively dishonest journalism which has dragged the entire UK popular press down market. Look at the damage they have done to the Sunday Times, once arguably the best newspaper in the world.
If Murdoch has his way, television news in this country will be reduced to the level of Fox News in the US – poisoned by politics and riddled with commercial judgements, a genuine affront to decent journalism. Please don’t let’s get suckered into playing his game.
The Third Estate: Your reports of the News of the World’s bad practice met with some mixed responses from people who would usually seem to be allies – I’m thinking particularly of Julian Assaunge’s (administrator of Wikileaks) email to his subscribers:
‘…the Guardian, in seeing an opportunity to attack a journalistic and class rival, has been doing its level best to castrate British Journalism by tut-tuting in article after article about the News’ alleged sourcing improprieties; a tabloid newspaper doing investigative journalism! Journalists skirting the law to expose the truth! The long suffering of British billionaires-and Royalty! And did we mention that the News’ is owned by Rupert Murdoch?-so, um… you know, the enemy of my enemy and all that! The Guardian’s coverage is disproportionate. It is moral opportunism. It is an excuse to mention tabloid stories in a broadsheet. And it is dangerous. The result be will a publishing climate and probably legislation aimed at keeping the British public in the dark… the real scandal is not that some British papers used private investigators to find out what the public wants to know. It is that more did not. It is that the News’ was extorted out of a million pounds because the relevant British legislation does not have an accessible public interest defence for the disclosure of telephone recordings. Until it does, despite the risks, journalists who take their forth [sic] estate role seriously are obligated not to take the legislation seriously.’
What would you say to this line of argument?
Nick Davies: I hadn’t seen this guy’s comment. I think he’s wrong, on at least two major points. First, the News of the World may claim to be acting in the public interest, but it certainly is not. It is acting in the commercial interest of its owner, drumming up sales. There is a massive spectrum of activity which needs to be covered by journalists working in the public interest – anything at all to do with policy, incompetence, fraud, waste or corruption in central govt, local govt, corporations, trade unions, NGOs, EU, Nato; tax avoidance and evasion; the arms trade; the environment; poverty and inequality; health and education and criminal justice. The list is huge. Ask yourself: why does the News of the World week after week fail to cover those areas but choose instead to define ‘public interest’ in terms of the private lives, especially the sexual aspect of the private lives, of celebrities? And I think you will see that this is commercial interest not public interest.
The second point flows from that – that for the first time in human history we have an industry whose primary purpose is to harvest the private lives of people in order to generate profit. This is an industry which thinks nothing of planting a hidden camera to record a man having sex with prostitutes; of breaking into confidential data bases, tapping telephones, hacking voice messages, snatching photographs to grab the private material which it can sell. If the organs of the democratic state try to engage in that sort of activity, we insist that it is a) regulated by legal procedure, and b) supervised by bodies who can ensure that those regulations are adhered to and can handle complaints. And yet the media – which submits itself to no kind of popular vote – considers it has the right to proceed without regulation or supervision, simply pushing aside the law as though our privacy meant nothing. Our friend from Wikileaks is confusing the invasion of personal privacy (illegitimate) with the penetration of official secrecy (legitimate).
Underlying his misunderstanding, there is a good point, which is that the British media is trapped by all kinds of legal restrictions which, compounded with its commercial obsessions, mean that it frequently fails to penetrate official secrecy. By all means, let us reform the laws to allow more real journalism in the public interest. But don’t confuse that with the News of the World’s obsessive searching through the dirty underwear of its targets. To put this whole argument another way: I’ve been a reporter for 33 years and never before have I written stories which have provoked complete strangers into coming up to me in the street to shake my hand and say well done.
Our time with Nick Davies was limited and clearly further questions could be asked (not least regarding internet journalism and the place of blogs like The Third Estate in the new mediascape).
The real significance of Nick’s ongoing work seems to me to lie in a passage he himself quotes in Flat Earth News. It’s taken from It’s the Media Stupid, John Nichols and Robert McChesney (Open Media 2000).
‘The type of political culture that accompanies the rise of the corporate media system worldwide looks to be increasingly like that found in the United States; in the place of informed debate or political parties organising along the full spectrum of opinion there will be vacuous journalism and elections dominated by public relations, big money, moronic political advertising and limited debate on tangible issues. It is a world where the market and commercial values overwhelm notions of democracy and civic culture, a world where depoliticization runs rampant, and a world where the wealthy few face fewer and fewer threats of political challenge.’
Is this true? Tell us what you think.
For more information on Nick’s work go to www.flatearthnews.net