Modern journalism: no time for the truth

A book exposing distortion and propaganda in the British press has drawn fire. Here its author Nick Davies answers his critics

BY Nick Davies LAST UPDATED AT 17:38 ON Mon 11 Feb 2008

Nervous, nervous. When you write a book about journalism, attempting to expose the scale of its falsehood and its indulgence in illegal activity, it makes other journalists nervous. Especially senior ones.

Off the record, working journalists have been sending me emails from all over the UK as well as North America, Western Europe, Hong Kong and New Zealand saying: "Thank God somebody is finally saying this". But in public, most have gone quiet and some senior people have gone crazy.

It was wonderful, for example, to read Peter Preston in Saturday's Guardian taking leave of his hinges to denounce Flat Earth News. He complained at length that I seemed to believe in some kind of golden age of journalism when we were all free to tell the truth. Here's what the book says: "There never was some kind of golden age when all journalists were free to tell the truth."

He also suggested I was a hypocrite for denouncing the use of un-named sources and then using them myself. Never in my life on this planet have I denounced the use of un-named sources: I rely on them.

Peter went on to skip around the reality of the Observer's pre-war run of grossly false stories with all the balletic grace of a nymph in a tutu. He pranced past the detailed evidence that these were the product of sustained manipulation by intelligence agencies and Downing Street, embraced the phantom that I objected to its editorial line in favour of the Iraq war (I'm afraid I agreed with it) and, spinning fast, emerged with the dizzy idea that I'd failed to do basic investigative work.

Yet if he hade made any attempt to check with me, he would have learnt that that chapter is based on interviews with more than a dozen Observer staffers, some internal documents and a final run-through with a deputy editor.

What's wonderful, of course, is the irony of seeing senior journalists attacking the book by reproducing precisely the kind of falsehood and distortion which it attempts to expose.

In the book, I argue that part of the reason why journalists so frequently fail to tell the truth is simply that they are not given the time to find it. And before I have time to say "Told you so", I find myself confronted on the BBC's Today programme by two senior Fleet figures who insist that I am wrong, even though one of them, John Mullin from the Independent on Sunday, admitted he had read only half of the book; and the other, Stewart Kuttner from the News of the World, appeared to have read not a word.

Nervous - they're nervous. Simon Jenkins and Magnus Linklater (whom I revere) both have written more or less negative pieces which would surely strike most of those who have read the book as missing the point entirely.

One editor, who may as well remain nameless, encouraged a young reporter to phone me with a dotty smear about my private life. After a while, the reporter accepted that the story was false and said goodbye. Two hours later, he was back with the news that his editor nevertheless wanted him to pursue it! It took hours and my stern declaration to the editor that I'd recorded the reporter's admission that the story was false before I finally stopped it.

Some have been (in my possibly self-serving view) courageous: Peter Oborne, Peter Wilby and Roy Greenslade have all stepped forward and said there's something important here. I thought Mary Riddell was generous to acknowledge any virtue in the book when she was writing in the Observer, whose old regime comes out badly.

But still the question remains: why should an industry whose primary object is to tell the truth be so nervous about having the truth told about itself?

'Flat Earth News: an award winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media', Chatto and Windus · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.