By Leon Horton
It is a truism within the the mainstream media that journalists hardly ever report on themselves. Only when they absolutely cannot ignore a story, such as illegal phone tapping by their own masters, will journalists bite each others’ tails. This is one industry where dog eats dog at their own peril, but in 2009 award-winning Guardian journalist Nick Davies did just that with the release of his book Flat Earth News.
A seminal piece of investigative journalism, Flat Earth News exposes the extent to which the global media has become polluted by PR and propaganda, and is a must read for anyone concerned about journalism. In discussing the influence of PR on his profession, Davies asserts:
“The overt links to the media and the whole well-worn idea of ‘spin’ scarcely begin to capture the breadth and ingenuity of the tactics which are now used by the global industry of public relations. And it is this huge industry of manipulation – targeted at a structurally vulnerable media – which feeds falsehood and distortion directly into news channels.” (1)
What Davies means by a “vulnerable media” is puzzling at first, but in great detail he describes how time and again the press has fallen foul of PR and been caught out reporting unsubstantiated stories as fact. From the anticipated millennium bug crash that never came to pass, to the supposed legality of the Bush/Blair war on Iraq, to the false assertions made daily by the Daily Mail, in Flat Earth News Davies brilliantly captures an industry in crisis and a profession under orders to relay lies and “sex up” the truth.
The problem, as Davies sees it, is essentially one of supply and demand: a dearth of supply, exacerbated by serious cuts in the number of journalists, and a constant demand by the corporate owners to maximize output and profits. Media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch have systematically bought up an industry that once prided itself on its duty and freedom to tell the truth, bent it to their own commercial and political wills and made such severe cutbacks in staff that few journalists making a living today have the time or resources to pursue a story through serious investigation.
Instead, they are forced to rely on pre-packaged stories handed down to them by PR companies and news gathering (wire) agencies such as the Press Association or Reuters.
To gauge the degree to which the UK media, and by extension the global media, is reliant on stories coming “off the wire”, Davies commissioned a team of researchers from the journalism department of Cardiff University to investigate a sample of news stories running through the most prestigious British newspapers, namely The Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, throwing in the Daily Mail for good measure. What they found was startling.
Across a total of 2,207 print stories over the course of two weeks, the research team revealed that 60% consisted wholly or mainly of wire and/or PR copy, with a further 20% containing elements of wire/PR to which more material had been added. They were unable to identify the source of 8%, which left just 12% of the stories where the researchers could be sure that all the material had been generated by the reporters themselves. Moreover, only 1% of wire stories admitted their sources, preferring to use the misleading “by a staff reporter” or using a named reporter who had rewritten the agency copy. Further to this, 70% of the stories passed into print without being checked for accuracy.
Davies draws the conclusion that:
“taken together, these data portray a picture of journalism in which any meaningful independent journalistic activity by the press is the exception rather than the rule. We are not talking about investigative journalism here, but the everyday practices of news judgement, fact-checking, balance, criticising and interrogating sources, etc, that are, in theory, central to routine, day-to-day journalism.” (2)
Next, Davies’ team turned their attention to broadcasting and found an equally dire situation in UK commercial news:
“By 2004, the eleven different companies which used to own the ITV network had collapsed into a single monopoly whose regional newsrooms saw their journalists and film crews cut, while young graduate trainees were pulled in on cheap wages to fill the gap. In 2006, ITV announced plans to cut their budget by a further £100 million while giving their shareholders £500 million.” (3)
With such drastic cutbacks to their traditional supply lines, broadcast journalists found themselves in the same unenviable position as their print colleagues – forced to rely on ready-made, pre-packaged material from unsubstantiated sources: PR on a plate.
Surely, though, there is still a corner of news journalism safe in the hands of the BBC, mindful of its public service remit and the security of the licence fee? Not so, according to the Cardiff researchers. After attempting to justify the licence fee by introducing an internal market, in 1997 the BBC announced a huge 25% cut in staff over the following five years. Then, says Davies:
“In March 2005, the new director general, Mark Thompson, proposed another 13% cut, including 12% of the jobs in BBC News and 21% in Factual and Learning. By October 2007, he was announcing the removal of another 500 journalists from News as well the loss of half of the remaining 1,200 staff in Factual and Learning. And all this was happening as the corporation was increasing its news output by moving into twenty-four-hour broadcasting.” (4)
No matter how we look at this picture, either as expedient cost-cutting or as ruthless business practice, the fact remains when you cut away too much fat you start to slice into healthy flesh – and when you do that the whole body goes into shock. For those working within the industry, the “vulnerable media”, who, quite rightly, have a duty of care for their own work and for their readers and audiences, the pain of amputation might be too much to bear.
In his final analysis, Davies concludes:
“The tendency for the new media to recycle ignorance… flows directly from the behaviour of the new corporate owners of the media who have cut editorial staffing while increasing editorial output; slashed the old supply lines which used to feed up raw information from the ground; and, with the advent of news websites, added the new imperative of speed. Working in a news factory, without the time to check, without the chance to go out and make contacts and find leads, reporters are reduced to churnalism, to the passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR. In these circumstances, the news factory will produce an effective and reliable product for its readers and viewers and listeners only if those outside suppliers are delivering an effective and reliable account of the world. Are they?” (5)
One of the biggest outside suppliers, the UK’s Press Association, has such credibility with British media outlets that it is treated as a reliable source that does not require checking. In December 2004, for example, the BBC issued a notice to news staff that the Press Association could be “treated as a confirmed, single source” (6) that can be put straight out on the airwaves. All of the UK’s national and regional newspapers subscribe to the PA’s news service, as does ITV and the major websites handling UK news.
Unfortunately the Press Association face the same problems as other media outlets: slashing staff, including their own journalists, while increasing output. This problem is compounded by the fact the Press Association, like Reuters, is a news agency not a newspaper. Wire agencies are under no obligation to check whether their stories are true, they simply report what they are told and sell the information on – creating an open door for PR.
Just as the UK media is over-reliant on the Press Association for its domestic news, most international newspapers, broadcasters and websites rely heavily on just two wire agencies: Associated Press and Reuters. Both agencies claim their daily output of news to be consumed in one form or another by more than a billion people across the globe – a monopoly that, left unchecked, is inevitably a target for PR – and both agencies suffer under the weight of staff shortages and increased workloads. On the face of it, who can blame the public relations industry when they choose to capitalise on this?
When necessary, of course, public relations companies fiercely defend their own activities – more so, even, than the reputations of their clients – and will use all the tricks of their loathsome trade to publically attack and denounce their detractors. In 1995, Ron Levy, then president of the North American Precis Syndicate, told PR News its readers should view Toxic Sludge Is Good For You (Lies, Dam Lies and the Public Relations Industry) as being more concerned with selling copies than presenting a balanced view of PR and urged them to see if the book “(a) only says nasty things about the great PR firms, or (b) presents both sides, including how much good the great PR firms are doing… to save lives, avoid blindness and other health tragedies, and help people get more happiness out of life.” (7)
Authors Stauber and Rampton responded to this self-aggrandising, sanctimonious rubbish:
“We know this book doesn’t tell the “whole story” about public relations. PR practitioners are engaged in promotional and publicity campaigns for clinics, schools and deserving charities that benefit the public. The techniques of public relations are not all inherently bad. But positive uses of PR do not in any way mitigate the undemocratic power of the multi-billion dollar PR industry to manipulate and propagandize on behalf of wealthy special interests, dominating debate, discussion and decision-making.” (8)
It might be too late to disentangle the mangled body of mainstream media from the pile-up on the (dis)information super highway. The wheels of the press keep on churning. The concept of a free, independent press, considered a cornerstone of democracy, is a fundamental body counted upon to guarantee our freedoms, to expose injustice and corruption, to hold to account those who would seek to violate our civil liberties and rights.
But when journalists, the very people charged with upholding these self-evident truths, are denied the institutional backing and the raw material to do their jobs properly, when pre-packaged PR is presented as fact, then, as newspaper proprietor Joseph Pulitzer predicted in his 1904 article in the North American Review: “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself.”(9)
(1) Davies, Nick, “Flat Earth News”, (Vintage, 2009), page 167.
(2) ibid, page 53.
(3) ibid, pages 66-67.
(4) ibid, page 67.
(5) ibid, page 73.
(6) ibid, page 75.
(7) Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon, “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry”, (Common Courage Press, 1995), page 205.
(9) Pulitzer, Joseph, “The College of Journalism”, (The North American Review, May 1904), page 680.