Video: Nick Davies, Author of Flat Earth News

Tuesday 12 February 2008, 14:46

Angelique Halliburton Angelique Halliburton

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"We are very ill but we are not dead," says Nick Davies. But you'd be forgiven for thinking the illness was terminal, given the diagnosis in his new book, Flat Earth News.

Davies paints a bleak picture of a profession stretched to breaking point: besieged and outnumbered by wily public relations gurus; compelled to practice what the investigative reporter dubs 'churnalism'.

During a passionate, animated appearance at the BBC Media Centre in London, Davies seemed far from exhausted, although he said he was, from "fighting too many fires".

"When you take on Fleet Street," he explained, "you expect them to come after you."

So he's been the target of columnists and hacks, including one whose opening gambit was: "I know the story isn't true but my editor wants me to push it."

A clear symptom of a serious ailment.

Davies also had an opportunity to knock heads with BBC News Interactive over criticism in his book of its so-called five-minute rule for putting up a news story. Davies' question, "Does the need for speed mean you don't check things out?", provoked an ardent rebuttal, but he stuck to his guns.

The main target of Davies' ire remained the culture that shackles journalists to their desks regurgitating second-hand data which they're compelled to take at face value.

He blames this on the corporate dominance of the media; the imperative to turn around a story in the shortest possible time (regardless of the medium); the need for inexperienced junior reporters to fill three times the column inches of their counterparts in 1985. 

It's a huge cultural change, argues Davies, which makes us vulnerable to manipulation from outside, in the form of specious stories and spin or the selective touting of stories by astute PR managers.

So what's the answer? Those waiting for one had better not hold their breath. If you want a hope to cling to, Davies offers the revival at the BBC of original journalism

Mind you, I suspect he thinks it's that the corporation uses the abbreviation OJ to denote something reporters did as a matter of routine a generation ago - keeping a contacts book, going to court, scouring council minutes and agendas.

What's stopping us from doing it now? Managers towering over us like Gradgrind?

(Bob Woodward famously said: "The best journalism is done in defiance of management.")

Is it the rapacious appetite of 24-hour news or those PR puppeteers? Perhaps it's the momentum a story develops just because everybody else is putting it out?

Typically in a complicated world, it's all of the above and more besides. Which sounds like a cop-out. Well, it is, because there's a danger that while we're lamenting the demise of 'real' journalism (whatever that may be) we're taking our eyes off the patient on the table.

Call it what you like, original journalism is potent medicine. But we all have a responsibility to cultivate and administer it for the patient to survive.

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