Flat Earth News

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(322)

Nick Davies, Chatto and Windus, £17.99

In the Dark Ages lepers were forced to ring a bell and shout "Unclean, unclean!" while both peasant and lord shunned an illness they didn't understand and couldn't cure.

Many on the left today take a similar line on the mainstream media. At the Heathrow camp for climate action last summer journalists had to carry a flag to identify themselves. For the editors of Media Lens, a website that harries the media from the left, media workers are "cogs in the machine of industrial killing".

But by writing off the corporate media as a hopeless case we risk abandoning an important field of politics. The right certainly see it as such - think of Blair's sustained bullying of the media on Iraq.

So a serious critique of the media needs to be able to analyse shifts and changes, the tension between structures and individuals, identifying specific points of weakness around which to campaign. The "leper colony" approach is a blunt instrument where often a sharp knife is required.

That's why this new book by Nick Davies is a breakthrough. Davies is one of the country's finest investigative journalists, and here he brings his skills to bear on the industry to which he has devoted his life. Based on rigorous research, Flat Earth News is beautifully written with passion and wit. The question of Iraq runs throughout the book. Davies sets out to answer why journalists did so badly on the biggest news story of our era. For him, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were a classic case of "flat earth" news - widely accepted as true, heresy to suggest otherwise, but all based on falsehood.

Davies examines the dominant assumptions about the media on the left, drawn from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's "propaganda model", and finds them wanting. Most importantly, he devotes a large chunk of the book to researching what has happened to the production process that has reduced journalists to "churnalists" - people with little time or resources to do anything but churn out vast quantities of output based on press releases and propaganda.

A central observation in the book is that January 1986 marked a turning point for the British media when Murdoch smashed the print unions at Wapping after a bitter strike. Davies has performed an enormous service by reasserting the importance of Wapping for the industry today.

His book will spark lots of ideas among socialists who want to think strategically about political struggles over the media. The NUJ, Bectu and GPMU trade union branches, and media studies departments, should bulk order this book - it fits perfectly with the NUJ's "Journalism Matters" campaign.


Read Nick Davies' article on journalism today here.