Senior journalists, editors and PR executives went head-to-head in front of an audience of 200 to discuss the issues raised by Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News at a Press Gazette debate held at the London College of Communications.
Davies kicked-off by dismissing the ‘tiny number’of journalists and editors who have criticised the book: ‘I regard it as little more than the hissing of reptiles that don’t like bright light being shined on them.”
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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 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 our most precious working asset, which is time. We do not have the time do these basic practices – to check facts.”
Andrew Gilligan, the Evening Standard reporter whose three-month investigation led to the resignation of Lee Jasper, a senior aide to London Mayor Ken Livingstone, said he broadly supported Flat Earth News.
He slammed the London free papers, which he said had ‘no story longer than 300 words’and were ‘produced by five 22-year-olds in a warehouse somewhere”. While one free, London Lite, is owned by Associated Newspapers, parent company of the Standard, the other, thelondonpaper, is owned by News International.
Gilligan continued: ‘If the Standard was to go under that would be extremely good news for the people in power in London because it would mean that virtually nobody would give the scrutiny we have been applying to Ken.’
He said there was a danger that newspaper owners had reduced the trade to an industrial process since News International moved to Wapping in 1986. But he argued that the internet had actually made reporters’ jobs easier.
‘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.
‘Post-Wapping, the companies started to cut costs, using the same number of staff to fill the same space. But news isn’t the same as making electric toasters.”
He criticised newspapers for not having the courage to tell readers the truth in certain stories – and cited coverage of his own campaign against Livingstone.
‘Initially, they said that ‘The Standard said this, Livingstone says that’, but they didn’t make any effort to find out for themselves what the truth was.
‘It was entirely possible to do that: virtually everything we reported was a matter of public record. It came from company accounts, it came from advances to the London Assembly, it came from leaked emails. Eventually [the investigation] did catch on.”
Former Guardian editor and Observer media commentator Peter Preston questioned the figures compiled by the University of Cardiff’s journalism department and Davies’s methodology for his book, but he agreed broadly with its central premise.
‘Is the culture of churnalism destroying real journalism? Substitute the word harming or threatening and I would agree with that totally. The difficulty is you have to be more specific about what areas of journalism you are talking about.”
NUJ president and Sunday Express journalist Michelle Stanistreet said: ‘The sad reality is that journalists are feeling more and more like churnalists.
‘The big problem for people in the industry is that are not able to do the job as they would like to do it. They are effectively tied to their desk, they churn out stories to fill pages, there aren’t enough staff to do the work, and there’s certainly not enough time to get out and about.”
Sally Costerton, UK chief executive of PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which is criticised in Flat Earth News, rejected Davies’s findings and said: ‘I don’t believe there is a problem of transparency – we don’t make up stories.
‘It’s not in our interest, it’s not in our clients’ interests, and it’s not in journalists’ interests.’She added that there were ‘far more journalists on Fleet Street’20 years ago, which was a ‘great shame”.
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 15 or 20 years ago, but we have fewer papers. Unfortunately that has had a knock-on effectâ€¦ but I don’t think smaller staffs have meant less-professional journalists.
‘The days have gone when we could send reporters out for hours or weeks to get a story… It means my reporters need be a lot more decisive in their questioning and the way they construct their interviews, whether in the office or on the phone.”
The problems outlined by Davies were, he said, down to ‘weak editors who allow it to happen”.
Francis Ingham, director general of the PR association PRCA, backed his profession against Davies’s claim that PR distorts news coverage.
‘The picture painted in this book, of the world of PR is, in my opinion,
partial, unfair and misleading,’he said. ‘I reject entirely the idea that permeates in this book that the PR people set out to deliberately mislead the public.
‘Our members and the people that they employ live or die on the strength of their reputations.
‘If they do indeed fabricate stories or they lie, then they run serious risk of being found out and seeing their reputation and hence their career collapse.”