I have no recollection of ever having come across Nick Davies. But when I learned on the grapevine last month that he was proposing to publish a book in which he cites unnamed people accusing me of ‘cheating my sources and making up stories”, I sent him an email asking him whether that is what his book was alleging.
I had not, at that time, seen his as-yet-to-be published book Flat Earth News. I asked him to explain why he had not approached me for comment. In the email correspondence that followed, Davies dodged and dived questions, refusing to tell me what it was he was planning to say about me. Explaining why he had not bothered to put any of the claims to me, he wrote: ‘Because I wouldn’t have trusted your reply.”
As his email shows – and for reasons which are not apparent to me – Davies exudes a breathtaking arrogance. He seems to have set himself up as the high priest of investigative journalism although it is unclear just what he has done to merit this.
His book takes a number of his journalist colleagues to task, condemning what he claims are substandard methods. His argument is that commercial pressures have forced today’s news journalists to rely on inadequate sources, corner-cutting and dodgy tricks to obtain scoops. According to Davies, nearly all of us – except him – have abandoned the standards of some bygone golden era.
Of course, as Simon Jenkins wrote so persuasively in Davies’s own newspaper The Guardian last week, his central claim is neither true or new. However, I accept that he is entitled to his opinion, even if it is partly based on falsehoods regurgitated from ancient copies of Private Eye.
His approach, which I found baffling, was characterised by his failure to put a single one of his claims to me before publication.
Is Davies not aware of the fundamental tenet of all news journalism that allegations which could be regarded as serious and potentially defamatory should always be put to people to allow them an opportunity to reply?
I understand that Davies failed to give others wrongly condemned in his book a similar opportunity to reply. Presumably, his defence would be that he could not trust their word either.
Yet in failing to allow us the chance to defend ourselves, Davies commits the very offence that he purports to expose. While lecturing us all on the basic principles that inform (his) so-called ‘proper’investigative journalism, he ignores the most fundamental rule of all: listen to what the other side has to say before going to press. There is only one word to describe this approach: hypocrisy.
The 10 or more pages Davies devotes to me – and the letter his publisher’s lawyers subsequently wrote in a pathetic attempt to defend them – are littered with falsehoods and put forward the most bizarre conspiracy theory. I will cite just three examples.
First, Davies appears to suggest that I lied about a tape of an interview I conducted with a former KGB officer in 1995. I have never lied about any tape. Second, Davies says that I ‘colluded’with the intelligence services to ‘fabricate’a story about a widow, suspect in the 1994 bombing of the Israeli embassy in London. The story of the Palestinian widow was already in the public domain before I reported on it. So how could I – with or without the collusion of MI5 or MI6 – possibly have invented it?
Thirdly, Davies seeks to justify his claim that I ‘fabricate’stories by stating that I made up a ‘baseless story that Algeria had a nuclear bomb”. For the record, I did not write that Algeria had a nuclear bomb. This is a fact Davies must have known if he had actually read the 1992 story to which he refers.
This sort of ‘journalism’and his attempt to defend it can simply be described in one word: trash. Coming from someone who lectures others on accuracy and integrity, it is nothing short of disgraceful. Such claims, baseless as they are, damage me and destroy my relationship with my sources.
Davies appears to be relying on the so-called recollections of one or two embittered former Sunday Times journalists about events which took place up to 16 years ago. How on any kind of earth – flat or otherwise – can Davies defend that as a basis for defamatory statements?
It is hard to see how any practising professional news journalist would be able to get away with this methodology. In anyone’s book, it’s certainly not investigative journalism. It is a toxic tissue of rumour and innuendo. It would be laughable, were it not that his words are designed to damage me, my colleagues and the fine newspaper for which we are all proud to work.
The Sunday Times goes to extraordinary lengths to check facts and, whatever Davies says, we don’t run stories if we can’t stand them up. The paper’s track record speaks for itself: cash for questions; cash for honours; the MMR scandal over Wakefield; the Downing Street memo which showed the Iraq war was planned well in advance of any public admission.
For the record, during my time on the paper, it has won scoop of the year twice and reporters have won specialist writer of the year on three occasions. We’ve also won team of the year twice. This year alone we’ve exposed the bugging of a Muslim MP and seen the culmination of the Conway story which we were first to reveal. Not bad for a news operation supposedly starved of resources and talent.
As Davies knows, a journalist’s sources are his lifeblood. His claim that I ‘cheat’my sources and ‘make up stories’amounts to the most serious allegation of professional misconduct which can be made against anyone in this job. It is like accusing a doctor of practising bogus medicine. If it were true, it would not have been possible for me to have worked at The Sunday Times for 21 years without the senior editors, who are responsible for editing and checking my copy, to have discovered this.
Thanks to a sympathetic journalist on another newspaper I was made fully aware of Davies’s claims against me before his book was published. Davies knew that I had written to his publisher denying his claims; he knew that I had rebutted them on the record, in detail and had challenged him to produce any proof; he relied on unidentified individuals whose statements he declined to produce.
Davies also knows that prior to publication, I asked him and his publisher to remove these claims from his book – or at least have my vigorous denials included in the final version. Yet the book is now published without a single reference to anything I had to say.
What sort of journalist does that? Certainly not one who can lay claim to standards superior to our own.