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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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on 1 October 2009
There are plenty of good books out there - and sadly probably even more bad books. But there are few genuinely important books. This is one of them.

I've been wrestling with the whole idea of the news media for a while now. Like a lot of idealistic young people, especially those with 60s era parents, I grew up assuming that the media was part of the solution. Ok, there were the right wing tabloids, boo hiss. But generally journalists were numbered among the good guys. Yes, they drank and smoked and swore; but they also put their necks on the line to root out corruption and cast light into dark corners. See countless films with Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart for details.

I even considered becoming a journalist myself. Then, sadly, I met a few. Now I realise they're part of the problem.

I've come across a few newspaper sceptics before. Nassim Taleb, for example, in `Fooled by Randomness' comes out as a media avoider. His view is that reading the news is a waste of time because any genuinely important facts will rise to the surface and he'll find out about them, while the rest is noise - opinion, PR guff, `infotainment' and dubious `facts' that will be contradicted within the week. The time we spend consuming this visual junk food could be better spent elsewhere. But Taleb isn't a newspaper insider. Davies is.

Nick Davies has done us all a huge service with `Flat Earth News'. We probably all know about some of the cases, like the `Hitler diaries' where newspapers have been proved spectacularly wrong or taken in by conmen, or where they have been led by the biases of their editors and owners to distort or conceal the truth. What I suspect most people don't realise is just how the systemic weaknesses of news organisations leave them prey to those agencies who want to control the national agenda. Foremost among these is simply that they have cut staffing to the bone, leaving inexperienced journalists to fill huge amounts of space each day.

Journalism, in short, has become a treadmill. So forget the image of Humphrey Bogart treading the mean streets on the trail of town hall corruption. Town hall corruption takes too long to root out, and attracts too many writs in the process. Instead imagine a 23 year old stuck at a desk all day copying out press releases about Paris Hilton.

Why does this matter? It matters because there's ample psychological evidence that we as a species are terrible at assessing risk through analysing statistics, so we tend to rely on crude judgements of frequency. So, if all the papers go off on a crusade about, say, paedophiles, or gang violence, or drugs, or hospital caught infections (usually because a single incident sets them off) and that's all we see for months, we tend to assume the issue in question is a serious risk, even when the risks are in fact minimal, or even negligible. But if an issue looks like it has legs, the politicians have to get involved and then we can get ill-considered, expensive, and even damaging legislation. National debate suffers and we all get a little stupider.

If this makes Davies' book sound like a worthy tome dedicated to newsgathering as an industry, then never fear: there are plenty of great stories about the awful things journos get up to. And he is admirably even-handed - the Observer comes in for just as much stick as the tabloids, and probably deserves it.

So, if you fancy thinking for yourself rather than consuming the unreliable, biased, prepackaged news-style infotainment currently on offer, stop buying the papers and use the money you save to buy good books. Start with this one.
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on 16 January 2009
I've obviously led a protected life, but the big revelation for me in "Flat Earth News" was the chapter about the Daily Mail. "Surely not" I hear you scoff. "We all knew that the Mail was a racist rag that routinely suppressed stories that showed black people in a good light". Well I didn't, but now, thanks to Nick Davies, I do.

But this isn't the only reason to read his excellent book. I think we probably all also realised that celebrity PR has taken the place of news in many dailies, that newspapers regurgitate stories sold to them by agencies to fill space and that politicians and the media are more bedfellows than adversaries, but "Flat Earth News" explains why this has happened and why the situation can only get worse. Cost cutting is at the heart of the problem of course and the reluctance of the great British public to pay a reasonable price for a daily, or to refuse to buy one that is filled with rubbish. The internet has been a factor as well, but sadly, the demographics of web use suggest that it will be the quality press (if that's still the right adjective) whose sales will suffer most.

But for those of us who still like to think that buying a daily keeps us informed, this book is required reading. Now you will be able to spot which stories were actually written, which purchased from an agency, which ones have been PR massaged and which simply made up to fit the agenda of the day. It can only make the daily commute more entertaining.
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on 28 February 2008
I bought this book after it was reviewed in a periodical and after reading the snippets I was hooked.

I was astonished at the ways in which the news we are encouraged to treat as the gospel truth is manipulated, mass produced and generally tainted by various parties.

This is a book that everyone should read - particularly if you ever read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch television.
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