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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 25 April 2009
Do you remember a Y2K bug? When the world's computer systems were to melt down in an Armageddon of vital services failure and possible nuclear accidents?

The Y2K panic is a great example of flat-Earth news: something that gets passed on in the media chain from those unsure to those who might have a vested interest in maintaining it as fact to those who are completely ignorant, and in the process gets bigger and bigger and - almost accidentally - assumes a status of orthodox, accepted truth.

Such developments, though, although commonplace in science and technology news and frequently behind moral and health panics, are only the beginning of the story.

Nick Davies is less interested in how such stories originate and why they are believed and more in asking "why nobody checked?".

This book explores the reasons for the decline of investigative journalism and paints the resulting media landscape that is more than ever full of distortion, imbalance and plain fabrication.

It's a well organised account, combining academic research, opinions and experiences of numerous journalists and several case stories (themselves examples of investigative journalism).

Modern journalism is more often than not "churnalism": endless recycling - without performing any checks - of stories run by wire agencies and press releases from business and government PR departments.

However tempting is to see a propaganda conspiracy at work, Davies has a simpler, and in a way more worrying and more sinister mechanism: that of commercial, money-making priorities.

In the last thirty or so years, less and less reporters (especially local ones, working in the field, finding and checking stories) have to file more and more stories on shorter and shorter deadlines. This declining ratio of column inches to headcount is one of the most important reason for the decline in standards and increasing reliance on ready-made "news" served on the plate by the wire agencies and PR departments.

The time pressure and lack of resources to investigate and follow up is combined with a number of unspoken but pervasive "rules of production". Stories have to be cheap and easy to report, with safe facts and safe ideas.

The commercial mechanisms at work in the press have been more recently reinforced and extended by an organised propaganda machine of the governments in general (and the military in particular).

The chapter on rules of news production was particularly well written, convincing and enlightening. The section dealing with emerging government/military propaganda machine working on a global scale was fascinating and occasionally shocking. It's hard to believe the extent of actual fabrication - not just distortion, bias and selective reporting, but blatantly making up things - that goes on.

Davies attempts to be reasonably balanced although his progressive beliefs occasionally do influence his judgements.

He spends a lot of time lamenting the decline of investigative journalism and small budgets for "real journalism" and then produces an extensive account of Daily Mail activities that suggests just the opposite. I know that Davies thinks that Mail does it in an unworthy cause (and I very much agree with him) but I suspect his attitude to the use of "dark arts" would be a little bit more forgiving if it came from his side of political allegiance.

The book seems to be well researched and Davies offers plentiful examples, quotes from printed media and personal communications to back up his argument. Where he fails is in providing no source information. The citations in the text are usually attributed, but often not very precisely (e.g. with a name of the author and the title of the source, but with no date information) and there is no list of sources, no footnotes, no bibliography, no endnotes. Davies' website provides explanations, extra information and source material to several issues covered in the book but seven (even extensive) footnotes don't amount to comprehensive referencing.

Still, and despite the more technical shortcomings, Flat Earth News is a must for all that read newspapers, watch TV and have any interest at all in what passes for information in the current age. It's a truly riveting account and occasionally shocking.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2009
The case is convincing. The media has a problem telling the truth, or even getting at the truth. Meglomaniac proprieters, cost-based publishing, commercial pressure, political interest and popularism means little hope for real unbiased news to be identified or to get through untainted. And it's all a lot more sinister than that.

How can you believe what serious stuff you do read after it's been infected by PR, censored, distorted, minimised and disproportioned.
The book is initially hard going, it's dense with example and detail. About half way through it starts to really grip you. The most frightening question of course is that if the public is so manipulated by the media, what else are the Masters of the Universe up to under cover of media management. Remember that quote 'a good day to bury bad news' - everything gets so filtered - 'corrected' by the time it gets on the mat.

What's the real truth about; global warming, the Israel/Palestinian conflict, Immigration, the nuclear threat from north Korea, the real danger of drug taking. Why don't the papers tell us what a mess things really are. Why don't they say alcohol is as dangerous as heroin, why don't they tell us straight what an abuse these large establisment institutions really are-the banks, the church, the monarchy, the police. Why don't they remind us that one third of global product is traded through tax-free offshore accounts. Read this and find out.

We got conned over Iraq, probably over the Faulklands. What's next? - Iran, Pakistan, just the same old propaganda making things happen and letting them get through the critical net. Why can't we get real hard information that leads to real good decisions. An important, depressing and illuminating read.
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113 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on 2 April 2008
Author and journalist Nick Davies has written one of the best exposés of the media. The book started when he saw that the government's lies about Iraqi WMD became widely accepted as true because too many in his profession spread them uncritically. As he writes, journalism without checking is like a body without an immune system.

Commercial forces are the main obstacle to truth-telling journalism. The owners cut costs by cutting staff and local news suppliers, by running cheap stories, choosing safe facts and ideas, avoiding upsetting the powerful, giving both sides of the story (unless it's the official story), giving the readers what they want to believe, and going with moral panics.

He cites a Cardiff University study of four quality papers which found that 60% of their home news stories were wholly from wire agencies, mainly the Press Association, or PR material, 20% partially so, 8% from unknown sources, and just 12% generated by reporters. The Press Association reports only what is said, it has no time to check whether it is true. There are now more PR people, 47,800, than journalists, 45,000.

News websites run by media firms recycle 50% of their stories from the two international wire agencies, Associated Press and Reuters; those run by internet firms recycle 85% of their stories from those two. On a typical day, Google News offered `14,000' stories - actually retelling just 24 events.

The government has 1,500 press officers, issues 20,000 press releases a year, and also spends millions more of our money on PR firms. The Foreign Office spends £600 million a year on `public diplomacy'. The CIA spent $265 million on `information operations' in 1978 alone, more than the world's three biggest news agencies together. It focuses its efforts on the New York Times, CBS, Newsweek and Time.

Davies notes the non-stories - bin Laden before 9/11, 80% of world's people living below the poverty line, poverty and inequality surging since the 1980s, wars in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Congo and Nepal, the global water shortage, and the vast expansion of tax havens (a third of the world's GDP goes through them).

He notes how the scare about heroin, which is not a poison, led to the rise of the black market and the consequent `war' on drugs, which now costs the USA $49 billion a year. In Britain, every pound the state spends on prohibition stimulates £4 worth of crime. Again, the nuclear power scare is based on lies: Chernobyl killed just 56 people (World Health Organisation figure), not the six million that Greenpeace's Russian representative claimed.

Finally, Davies shows how Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Neil destroyed the Sunday Times and its Insight team, how the Observer suppressed stories that disproved the government's claims about WMD and how Paul Dacre rules the Daily Mail through fear.
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138 of 144 people found the following review helpful
Nick Davies must be a brave man... He has launched a devastating attack on not only the state of modern journalism, but also on the basic integrity of many of those involved in the profession. And this from a major paper journalist who must now have made a lot of enemies within his industry.

I'm sure you have noticed how very similar versions of the same stories are posted online by apparently independent and well funded news organisations - especially in America for news outside the US. This book explains why, and how the facts of these clone stories are often unchecked by the trusted organisations putting them into the public domain.

The book also covers the pernicious effects and influence of PR and also, perhaps most depressingly, the outright lying of major newspapers who are left barely challenged by the Press Complaints Commission and whom average people cannot afford to defend themselves against.

All of it seems to root back to money. Selling more papers through sensationalism, pandering to racism and lying; cost cutting exercises that have reduced the number of journalists available to cover an ever increasing number of stories, leaving them without the time to check their sources properly.

Very depressing, but a fantastic inoculation against the effects of this 'disease'. The book will help you take a more critical view of what you read, see and hear and understand the motivations that lie behind much of the news we are fed. The final summary provides some ideas about where good journalism can still be found - basically it exists where advertising does not - or where reporting is guided (or protected) by highly ethical 'old school' editorial policies.
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187 of 197 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2008
I brought this book after reading a few snippets in Private Eye. All I can say is that Nick Davis has written a fascinating insight into the journalism business in the UK. By writing a truly insightful book with an abundance of hard facts, Davis answers the question indirectly as to why newspapers are so cheap in the UK. The Sun can be purchased for 20p these days; I wonder why? Davis not only addresses why the UK media is so distorted; but how.

As he mentions in the chapter `The Private Life of Public Relation', PR firms inject falsehood into the British media so surreptitiously which the weekly columnists are completely oblivious to. For instance, he cites the case of the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips who wrote "a series of outspoken columns denouncing the whole concept of man-made climate change". Davis goes on to mention one of her articles in the Mail in February 2002 which said `The latest evidence is provided in a report published today by the European Science and Environmental Forum, in which a group of the most eminent scientists from Britain and America shed the theory'. Fair play to Phillips for doing her research, but was it researched enough? Davis gives us the pleasure of looking deeper into the roots of the story and writes "the forum whose work she {Phillips} was quoting was, in truth, yet another pseudo-group, created with the help of two PR agencies (APCO Worldwide and Burson-Marsteller) with the specific intent of campaigning against restrictions on corporate activity". He also mentions how the report "Phillips referred in such glowing terms was recycled work which had been funded by Exxon".

This is just one of many fascinating examples on how the minds of ordinary British folk are distorted so unnoticeably that many people regard what they read as the truth. And its not just the tabloids. Davis cites many examples from the likes of the Times to the Guardian that have been proven guilty of misleading their readers on a mass scale. If there is one book I could recommend anyone it would be this. I have been reading papers for some time now, and this book will completely change the way you read and look at things. It can even be quite fun reading the papers and trying to pick out stories that have been influenced by PR; it's amusing to make a game out of it.

Overall I would give this book 5 stars for its plethora of research (although backpage references would have been nice) and insights that can prove beneficial to anybody who likes to be informed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 27 April 2012
This book, from 2008, charts what Davies sees as the decline of journalistic practice from noble truth-telling to the mass production of ignorance under the corrupting influence of a latter-day class of corporate newspaper owners he describes as 'grocers'.

Davies informatively recounts the history of this decline, and builds well-reasoned, well-researched arguments to support the assertion that what we read in our newspapers is infused with falsehoods (I'm not sure if this means the same as lies), distortion and propaganda. It's hard to find fault with his conclusions.

I could follow his argument that the cost-cutting actions of profit-seeking owners have deprived journalists of their most important asset - time - with the result that what increasingly passes for news in our papers are unchecked and unvalidated stories fed from those dark, satanic PR mills or insinuated by peddlers of propaganda.

But having watched the parade of journalists recently appearing before the Leveson Inquiry, I was left wondering whether all reporters, given enough time to do their job, would be equal in their determination to find and tell the truth, or whether some journalists are more equal than others. Are the 'grocers' the sole sinners, or do they have willing accomplices?

One aspect of the book which for me detracted from its otherwise objectively reasoned approach was Davies' lack of even-handedness in the treatment of colleagues in his industry, with a tendency to sanctify some (Harold Evans comes to mind) while demonising others (perhaps too obvious to mention). I also found the book patchy in its pace. Some sections seem overwritten and a bit of a slog to get through, while others are real page turners.

Overall I got a lot of value from this book. I learned things I didn't know before, and it certainly made me think more about where stories in newspapers come from. With all the current focus on media culture, ethics and practices, I reckon this is a timely book to read, despite four years having passed since its first publication.

PS. The book frequently refers the reader to a Flat Earth News website, where after signing up one is encouraged to write blog entries or post comments. I signed up four weeks ago and contributed comments, which have yet to be posted by the 'Flat Earth News team' which purportedly operates the site. Perhaps they are too busy watching Leveson. Or maybe with the passage of time, their enthusiasm has fallen flat.

Update 3 May 2012: The Flat Earth News team lives! My comment of 6 April 2012, together with five other belated comments from June-December 2011, have now appeared on the website.
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52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on 30 July 2008
I'd always had a feeling that I was being misled by the mainstream media, but never really knew how it came about. This book went a long way to answering that question, and I now understand how the media is manipulated by a variety of sources so that what gets presented is very rarely the news as it happened.

My only criticism of the book is its coverage of the propaganda war in Iraq. It's undoubtedly all true, and relevant to the book, but I found that the middle of the book onwards was almost totally devoted to it, and it just turned me off a bit. It felt at times like the real message of the book was a criticism of Blair and Bush and that the stuff about the press was merely to illustrate that point, rather than the other way round.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2011
Possibly the best and most fascinating factual book I have read. This gives an insider insight to the industry of journalism, of news, that millions of Britons take as fact every single day.

Sure, you read a story in The Sun, or The Daily Mail, and take it with a pinch of salt. But what about The Sunday Times? The Independent? The Observer? BBC News?

This will change the way you read the news and make you take into account so much more than the story is portraying. Who really wrote that story in the Evening Standard? Where did that survey in the Express come from?

Some of the book relies heavily on anecdotal evidence. But there is also a very sharp, and deep analytical process in explaining the way news gets from its source to you, the reader.

Do you read newspapers? Do you watch the news? Then you need to read this book!
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 2 June 2008
The answer to that question and many others you didn't think you needed to know are all in this fantastic book. It is both illumintaing and at the same time depressing to realise that even the most trusted brands of journalism have become victim, like so much of our media, to the forces of money-making, fast-turnaround and nonsense PR. This book is an startling education for anyone who reads or watches 'news', not just those connected to the industry.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2009
I must admit that I approached this book with a feeling that Nick Davies had to do very little to convince me about the serious, sad state of journalism in the UK. In the event, he has more than surpassed my expectations for the following main reasons:

1. His own position as an `insider' provided him (and us) with a unique insight. I particularly liked the fact that he admitted some of his own failings (primarily with the benefit of hindsight it has to be said, but his honesty is appreciated)
2. The `Rules of Production' chapter is worth the purchase price of the book alone. The 10 rules identified by Davies, including examples of the rules in practice were extremely revealing, if also rather depressing. As he says himself at the end of this chapter "What we are looking at here is a global collapse of information gathering and truth-telling"
3. The examples of PR and propaganda and just how easy it is for such `news' to find their way into the so-called quality press is almost laughable if it wasn't so serious.

The impression I am left with is that the state of journalism is not set to improve anytime soon so I am grateful for Davies for increasing awareness of a very important issue.

In summary, an excellent book that comes highly recommended. The reason I do not give it 5 stars is the minor difficulty I have with the lack of source references. Do not let that put you off as it is a `Must Read.'
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