Every newspaper office has its Prophet of Doom – at least one – and they are not the person you want to get stuck with at the water cooler/smoking area.
Nothing is ever being done quite right for these people. They are always ready with tales of how much better things used to be or how much worse things are bound to get.
Get out of bed on the wrong side and on our day we can all become this person.
But to be this person all the time takes more energy than most of us possess.
It is a kind of vocation that springs from a deeper well than mere grumpiness of even depression.
It’s a fundamental belief in the inevitability of bad things happening and it is the perfect driving force behind an investigative reporter
I don’t know the investigative reporter Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, but if I had to make a judgement based on reading his book I would say he is one of these people.
Flat Earth News is an important medical directory for the illnesses that afflict the media today.
Davies starts out trying to frame his diagnosis in a no-fault way: journalists taking short cuts because of staff shortages; companies cutting staff because maximising profit is in their DNA; PRs and marketing agencies piping tainted information into the media water table because promoting their own agenda is what they exist to do.
He describes a perfect storm of influences that combine to turn journalism into ‘churnalism’ – the propagation of half-truths and unchecked material like contaminants in an information food chain that ends with us, at home in our living rooms, consuming bullshit.
If you expect and seek out the worst sooner or later you will find the worst.
It’s an axiom that rationalises the existence of investigative reporters while they are between stories.
After reading Flat Earth News I would say that Davies (the investigative reporter who pursued the News International phone hacking story for the Guardian) makes some very important points and describes some very real dangers and transgressions by the media industry.
But he also becomes shrill in his commentary and paints an apocalyptic picture of the press sinking into a quagmire of corruption.
It’s a workable view of the world, I suppose, if you want to shake a bunch of media students out of their dozy, hung over complacency or if you have the energy to jolt with shocked scepticism every time you read a story or watch the news.
But how useful is it as a barometer of the health of the press in an age when reports of its death are being exagerrated daily?
If I didn’t already have an interest in the media as a newspaper journalist myself – or I should say as someone who currently trains them – I think I would probably come away from this book deciding not to waste money on newspapers any more.
I would place all my hope in the internet and the best endeavours of honest individuals telling it how it is.
I would avoid the corporate media machine in precisely the same way Davies describes people shunning the “benign” drug heroin as a consequence of inaccurate churnalism.
He chooses pure heroin as an example of a drug that has been wrongly attributed negative characteristics in reality caused by its unsuccessful prohibition and its adulteration as a black market product.
It was at this point – getting a taste of the kind of battles he is prepared to fight – I realised Mr Davies might be a bit of a zealot for dangerous truths.
There is a striking similarity between what he says the media has done to heroin and what he is doing to the media in his book.
Pure journalism – processed carefully over time by an elite of skilled practitioners – is benign but the rest, well you just don’t know what they put in it.
Davies talks as though the citizenry has a right to the truth and journalists have a duty to produce it.
This is a little disingenuous. The citizenry has a right to free speech and it is up to them to make their own assessment of the truth.
The point about journalists is that we are as fallible and flawed as the general public because we are the general public. Our rights are their rights.
Your right to put something on a piece of paper and publish it to another person is the same as Rupert Murdoch’s.
The important thing is that we do not attempt to control access to that right by insisting it is only available to people who are telling ‘the truth’ – whatever that may be.
The really clever thing would have been to come up with some solutions rather than wallowing in the faults and failings of a free press operating in a free market.