Flat Earth News author debates with supporters and critics

A panel of senior journalists and PR professionals last night debated with the investigative reporter Nick Davies about his book, Flat Earth News.

Davies answered questions from the public and journalists on the issues raised in the book at a Press Gazette event at the London College of Communcations in south London.

Speaking of what he called the “tiny number” of journalists and editors who have criticised the book, Davies said: “I regard it as little more than the hissing of reptiles that don’t like bright light being shined on them.”

He said that the level of error in newspapers had risen to an unacceptable level since titles had moved from being owned by wealthy individuals to ownership by national and multinational corporations.

“That commercialism has undermined journalism in a number of ways,” he said. “It’s about changing the ratio between staffing levels and output, which robs us of out most precious working asset, which is time.”

Andrew Gilligan, the Evening Standard reporter and former BBC and Sunday Telegraph journalist, said he broadly supported Flat Earth News, but pointed to what he claimed were a number of holes in its research.

He said: ‘At a national level, I don’t think Nick’s thesis works as well.

“If you do a byline count, you see the average national journalist doesn’t get more than two or three stories a day and frankly in a eight-hour day that’s enough to make a few phone calls.

“You have to take into account the great growth in editorial space since Wapping has been not in news but in soft stuff – in features, comment, lifestyle.

“It is also provided by freelancers and one thing I couldn’t find in the book was any kind of breakdown. I know overall staff to space ratio has diminished but I don’t know what the ratio is for news.

“The bigger hole in his argument was the web. The web has transformed my job – it has made it infinitely quicker and easier for me to get basic research done.

“Company records used to involve a half-day trip to Companies House. You had to physically go there, you had to get the record back, then you’d realise you need another company and you had to wait again for that and the whole thing could take weeks.

“Now I can do it all from the comfort of my luxuriously appointed Kensington desk in about 10 minutes. You can find people more easily, you can find cuttings more easily – you can do a huge amount of things.”

Former Guardian editor and Observer media commentator Peter Preston questioned the figures compiled by the University of Cardiff’s journalism department.

He said that many problems facing journalists were simply due to the financial problems their owners face.

“The Guardian, The Times, The Independent and last year the Telegraph are all loss-making papers,” he said.

“So we’re not talking about huge papers making huge money out of journalists – we’re talking about papers struggling.”

NUJ president and Sunday Express journalist Michelle Stanistreet said she welcomed Davies’ findings and said it supported many points raised by the union during its Stand Up For Journalism campaign last year.

Sally Costerton, chief executive of PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which is criticised in Flat Earth News, rejected Davies’ findings and said many of the problems facing journalists were mirrored in the PR industry.

“I don’t believe there is a problem of transparency – we don’t make up stories,” she said.

“It’s not in our interest, it’s not in our clients’ interests and it’s not in journalists’ interests.”

Malcolm Starbrook, editor of the East London Advertiser, said the problems outlined in the book were not visible in his newsroom.

He said: “It’s true that we employ fewer journalists than 50 years ago, but there were fewer papers then. But I don’t think small staffs have meant less quality.

“The days have gone when we could send reporters out for hours or weeks to get a story – it means my reporters have got to be more cunning.”

The problems outlined by Davies were, he said, down to “weak editors who allow it to happen”.

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