Thursday, 9 August 2012

HG Library: Twisting the truth: why the mass media misinform

You can’t believe what you read in the newspapers, even the quality ones. Award-winning journalist Nick Davies tells Ivan Tyrrell why. This article was published in Vol 15, No 3 (2008) of the Human Givens journal.

TYRRELL: First, I want to thank you. Your book Flat Earth News has cured me of my addiction to newspapers! Until reading it, newspapers had always been a part of my life, as they were for my parents, and I grew up thinking that journalists were interested in getting at the truth. I remember in the 60s, for example, the Sunday Times’ Insight team doing major investigative exposés of scandals involving greed and hypocrisy, which chimed with the optimistic, if foolish, belief – which many people held then – that political corruption and injustice could be eradicated. And that is all gone now...

DAVIES: Yes, more or less.

TYRRELL: I was riveted by your unrelenting descriptions of the behind-the-scenes degeneration of all the major newspapers, not just the Sunday Times, but, as I understand it, what really got you into writing this book was what you called “a single, notorious story – the long and twisting saga of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”. You wanted to understand how journalists could have got it so wrong about weapons of mass destruction [WMD].

DAVIES: Yes, although I should put it in a slightly different way. What really annoyed me was when the media began analysing the non-existence of WMD, as though it were a problem only of the intelligence agencies’ and government’s making, whereas, if you look at the shape of the dis- information, there was a third player involved: the media. So, my initial thought was, “Why on earth are we in the British media not writing about our part in this?” Why is it that the New York Times and Washington Post were the only major newspapers that actually investigated their own failure and published the results? No newspaper or broadcast organisation in this country did that. Why don’t we put our journalism under the same kind of scrutiny that we bring to bear on everything else: politics, finance, entertainment, sport? And then, yes, the key question became, why do we get these stories so wrong? 
And I think that a lot of outsiders would answer, “Well, you misreported the WMD story because that’s what Rudolph Murdoch and the other proprietors told you to do”. But, as a journalist, I reckon that’s not really true. There is some proprietor interference, and I’ve written a bit about it in the book, but actually it’s relatively rare, and on nothing like the scale that outsiders imagine. Proprietor interference certainly can’t explain the misreporting by say, The Guardian and The Observer, which are owned by a trust, or by the BBC, also owned by a trust. There was an analysis of the BBC coverage of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq which found that 86 per cent of their stories took it for granted that the weapons existed. Well, that wasn’t because the owners were telling them what to write, because there ain’t an owner! There is something more interesting going on here.

TYRRELL: It is a clear example of what you term “flat earth news”. I quote: “[A story] appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true. The most powerful institutions on the planet insist that it is true, but it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.” Another perfect illustration was the hysteria generated about the so-called ‘millennium bug’.

DAVIES: Yes, when you stand back and look at the scale of falsehood, misreporting and distortion involved in the millennium bug story, it doesn’t look like the kind of story where a proprietor would have any interest in interfering. There is something else at work here in these great global stories which we get so wrong, and also in the many small stories that just come up, live for 24 or 48 hours and then die off or go away.

TYRRELL: Of course, there are still journalists with integrity and determination to root out truth. But you seemed to find that the huge pressure put on journalists to churn out stories conditions them in the main to make certain stock responses, so they can’t think flexibly. Investigation takes time.

DAVIES: Yes, what we have is ‘churnalism’, a great term that someone coined. It means that you don’t have the time or the incentive to follow the basic rules of journalism: to go out and find stories, make contacts, check facts – those basic things. You just churn it out.

TYRRELL: It’s a terribly sad and damaging practice. If journalists have no time to think, it starts to spread out into the community, because we are reading what they’ve written.

DAVIES: I think we are looking at a global collapse of information gathering and truth telling. And that leaves us in a kind of knowledge chaos, where the very subject matter of global debate is shifted from the essential to the arbitrary; where government policy, cultural values, widespread assumptions, declarations of war and attempts at peace all turn out to be poisoned by distortion.

TYRRELL: You make the case that a lot of that is down to 10 ‘rules of production’ by which the media operate today. I think our readers would find it interesting if we talk through these rules because we are all too aware how difficult it is to get new ideas taken up by the media, and what you say explains why.

DAVIES: Okay. The central thrust of the book is that the logic of journalism has been undermined by the logic of commercialism: cut costs and increase revenue. Twenty years after Wapping, when Rupert Murdoch broke the print unions and the new corporate owners became free to apply the logic of commerce, staffing levels are slightly lower than they were then but the amount of editorial space to fill has trebled. So we no longer have the time to do our jobs properly – including having little time to check facts. So we end up with all these rather destructive tendencies.

TYRRELL: And it is these that you describe in the rules. The first rule is run cheap stories.

DAVIES: Yes, you just go for stories which are financially cheap to cover. I teach aspiring journalists and I sometimes say to these students, as an exercise, “Suppose we had a story about an Australian rules football player, a game nobody follows over here, and that we don’t understand. But this particular football player is quite interesting because he’s an Aborigine and that means he’s important in the Australian context because Aborigines there are treated so badly. He’s just retired from football but he’s developed a little bit of a second career as a singer or something but, basically, we’ve never heard of this guy. However, he’s being going out with a white woman, and she turns up dead, and this Aussie rules football player is arrested. What will we do with this story?” And we discuss it and the class usually agrees that we’re going to ignore it because he’s a guy we’ve never heard of, who played a sport we don’t follow, so we are not interested in it. Maybe one or two in the class say, “Well, he’s an Aborigine so, in the context of race relations in Australia, it’s sufficiently important there that we might do a feature at the moment of the arrest, when the trial begins and when the trial finishes. But that’s it.”
Then I tell them that, “Well, actually, in real life, what happened was this: the story took off and made headlines around the world, day after day after day, for months. It became so huge that, when he came to court, his trial knocked our Prime Minister’s keynote speech at the Labour Party conference off the top of the news bulletins, causing a major row behind the scenes.”

TYRRELL: Of course, you are really talking about the circumstances of the O J Simpson case.

DAVIES: Yes, an American football player who was a black man accused of killing a white woman: I just translated it to Australia. But how can something like that happen? It isn’t anything to do with journalistic judgement of the kind which we should be making: it’s a commercial judgement. There are more journalists per square foot in the US than anywhere else on the surface of the planet. “O J” is a big story for them. They start filing copy. It turns up on the wires. The pictures come over. You can sit at a news desk and say to a reporter, “Just write that up; give me 600 words”, and then 30 minutes later you’ve got a page lead. And once you set the story up, you create the narrative; the punters want to know more about it. You’re off! It just takes over. There is no rational thinking going on. But that irrational thinking infiltrates the media in this very subtle way.

TYRRELL: That’s a good example of running a cheap story that doesn’t involve journalists using their powers of discrimination. Which brings us to Rule Two: select safe facts.

DAVIES: This is significant, too. In order to keep costs down, you don’t want to write stories that are going to be complained about – because it costs money to deal with complaints. You just want to be able to bang out a story and move on to the next one. Selecting safe facts means choosing facts which everybody else already accepts. If everybody ‘knows’ that all the computers in the world are going to stop working at midnight on 31 December 1999, that’s a ‘safe fact’. You can put it out. Nobody is going to argue with it because everybody knows it’s true. It happens to be untrue, but that doesn’t matter – it’s safe because every one believes it’s true, even if it isn’t. Even better, choose facts that can be attributed to official sources. Official sources are powerful – you attack them at your peril.

TYRRELL: Reporters learn that they are on safe ground if they toe the official line and report it.

DAVIES: Yes. The perfect example of the danger if you don’t is what happened to Andrew Gilligan. Early one morning he did a story on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme about the notorious September 2002 intelligence dossier on Iraq, which the Labour government was using to argue in favour of war. Gilligan said that the government had “sexed up” the dossier to make its case for war stronger. Because he attacked the official sources, although he was later proved right, he had to endure the professional equivalent of being burnt at the stake. Gilligan, Greg Dyke, who was the BBC’s Director General, and BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies were all forced to resign after a vicious witch hunt by the government that began with the outing of the source of Gilligan’s story, top weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. The formal enquiry, conducted by Lord Hutton, concluded that his story was ‘unfounded’. It nearly ruined Gilligan’s career and cost Kelly his life.

TYRRELL: We now know that Hutton’s conclusion was incorrect.

DAVIES: Yes, it was the mass of stories suggesting that WMD did exist that turned out to be unfounded, but not one of the journalists writing them suffered professionally in any way and that is because they had the support of ‘official sources’. These sources provided them with facts, even if they weren’t true, and they were safe if they used them.
When journalists pass on safe facts there is a tremendously significant political distortion, hidden from most people, but, because these safe facts come from powerful sources, we run with them – it’s easier. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy theory: just that there is a built-in structure in the way we work where we tend to favour the official point of view. If you were to ask most journalists, “Do you realise that, over and over again, you favour powerful people, governments and corporations, in what you write?” they would say, “No! We’re here to challenge power and the abuse of power.” They don’t even know that they are doing it!

TYRRELL: As you point out, the 1952 Defamation Act actually protects journalists against being sued for libel if their story is based on an official statement by or on behalf of any government department, officer of state, local authority or chief officer of police and, since 1996, this has applied to official statements from the European Union as well! So, as you explain, the press can’t be sued for reporting an official statement that accuses a man of being a criminal but they can be sued if they repeat the statement of a man accusing a government official of being a criminal! Unbelievable. Your third rule seems to stem from the second.

DAVIES: Yes. Rule Three is avoid the electric fence, and it’s an extension of the idea of safe facts. There are some organisations running very powerful lobbies which frighten journalists away from them. The analogy is with the farmer’s electric fence in a field. Cows only have to wander into it a few times and get shocked and then the farmer can take the fence away, knowing that the cattle won’t cross that line any more.
In the book, I go into considerable detail about the Israeli lobby, which is fantastically aggressive in pursing media organisations who, in their view, don’t treat Israel fairly. Another example is the Police Federation in this country, which has a long history of aggressively suing media organisations when they publish stories that in any way reflect badly on individual officers. Their track record of launching expensive, painful libel actions is such that newspapers are now frightened of criticising individual police officers. Thus an electric fence is created by lobbying and legal bullying. Any powerful active group can draw a cordon around certain topics and journalists will be worried about tackling them.

TYRRELL: And the fourth rule?

DAVIES: Select safe ideas. This parallels Rule Two about selecting safe facts. It means, go with what the consensus believes. When you write a story that reflects consensus beliefs, you don’t have to offer ‘proof ’. You can take that for granted. This is dangerous because lots of consensus beliefs may be factually wrong, or grossly immoral. One of the ways in which I illustrated that was by going back to the Texas newspapers of the late 19th century and the way they reported lynchings. At the time, the consensus understanding among the good white folk of Texas was that, if a black man was accused of committing a serious crime, particularly if it involved anything like a sexual approach to a white woman, it was ‘natural’, ‘reasonable’, and ‘morally right’ to kill him in public. So you organised a public murder – and lynched him. When you read those newspapers today and see those assumptions, it is really striking and obvious that they were just going with the flow of safe ideas. But it is far more difficult to observe our contemporary assumptions: the safe ideas which we all take for granted, without having to examine them, and write in our newspaper stories today.

TYRRELL: Yes. An example of that for those of us who use the human givens approach to therapy is the repeated assertion from journalists, when they write about therapy, that the public should only see therapists who are accredited by particular bodies – they always cite the same ones. They are covering their backs. But some therapists accredited by such bodies are doing really weird stuff – they’ve got the accreditation because they did the ‘right’ number of hours of training and had the ‘right’ number of hours of supervision. The fact that what they are doing doesn’t work – or may even do harm – appears to be neither here nor there!
Our therapists report highly positive outcomes with most of their clients. Yet, when an article gets into the papers about the human givens approach, there is almost always the stock ending – a critical comment from a spokesperson for therapy from a different approach. So I responded particularly strongly to your fifth rule: always give both sides of the story.

DAVIES: This rule, too, is concerned with keeping costs down by making stories cheap and easy to cover. The idea that you should always give both sides of the story has become so deeply imbedded that journalists are now indoctrinated with it when they are trained. I mean, it’s just absolutely routine in the newsroom! The shout goes up, “Why haven’t you got the other side of the story?”
Now, I want to say that this is a thoroughly bad idea because, if our job is to find the truth, you tell the truth by giving both sides of the story only in the rather unusual circumstances that both sides of the story are part of the truth and both parties are willing to tell it. That isn’t the way it works!

TYRRELL: Your description of this practice also perfectly illuminates why so many articles and documentaries come across as so ‘dumbed down’ and bland. Often a new idea or perspective is lost because it is instantly countered by opposing ones. Everything can be seen from multiple viewpoints. But being presented with them all at once means that you don’t have the time to focus your attention fully on the new information or new idea, so you can’t process it properly and reflect on it.

DAVIES: Following this rule means never having to say you’re sorry because, in effect, you haven’t said anything. Whatever allegation is made you simply neutralise it by carrying the denial, and then nobody can complain. So, at best, we avoid telling the truth – we just stick together two contradictory claims; at worst this rule becomes an excuse for publishing falsehoods – as long as it’s not grossly libellous, this rule allows a journalist to say whatever he likes about you as an individual. He can say you have failed to turn up to work for the last four weeks. He can call you up and say, “Is it true that you’ve failed to turn up for work for the last four weeks?” And you say, “No, it’s absolutely untrue. I’ve been working my normal hours.” Then he says, “Well, were you there in the evenings?” And you say, “No, I go home at 5pm.” So I am now allowed to write the following: “It is widely believed that Ivan failed to turn up for work for four weeks. He denies it, although he acknowledges that he’s never there in the evenings.” Okay, that’s perfectly right. But it’s ludicrous! And journalists are taught to do this.

TYRRELL: I had an experience when a national newspaper journalist interviewed me for an article about curing depression. She had seen the film of a session in which I had worked with a severely depressed single mum and the follow-up session, at which the woman reported that she had changed completely after the first one – indeed, she looked like an almost completely different person: hair groomed, nice clothes, eyes shining, etc. This had particularly impressed the journalist because she herself had had months of con- ventional therapy for depression, which hadn’t worked. When she submitted the article her editor said, “Well, you’ve got to go and interview the woman to make sure it wasn’t just a temporary lift in mood.” So she did. It was by then eight months or more after the film had been made. The woman was still out of depression and told the journalist that her session with me was what had changed things for her. The editor then said, “Hmm, phone up the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and see what they say about it.” So she did, and their press spokesman dismissed my work with this woman saying, “Oh, that just sounds like positive thinking. If getting people out of depression was just positive thinking, we wouldn’t need counsellors and psychotherapists. It’s ridiculous.” The journalist, who was very impressed with what we were doing, said his comment was no surprise because he was trained in a different approach. Of course, someone who is wedded to another approach won’t believe our methods work.

DAVIES: That would be typical. She had to do it. She had to get ‘the other side of the story’. It’s thoughtless, just routine.

TYRRELL: To be fair, she did understand what was happening and apologised to me for it. Of course, as you point out, this rule about getting both sides of the story only applies to statements of fact or points of view that are seen as maverick. Safe, consensus views, even if just assumed to be true, never have to be balanced by any other views. So, it seems, the first five rules of production are basically about cutting costs by playing safe.

DAVIES: Yes. The remaining five rules are em- bedded conventions to do with increasing revenue, the other commercial imperative. The sixth and most obvious rule is that you give the punters what they want because that will sell newspapers, and there are some pretty shocking examples in the book. I included a memo from Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Murray, one-time news editor of the Sunday Express, writing to his staff to tell them what he wanted them to do: “We are aiming to have six sex stories a week. In an ideal world, we should have a ‘cabinet minister affair’ story. Sex and scandal at the highest levels of society always sell well, but these stories are notoriously difficult to get. We need to be constantly stirring things up. We must make the readers cross.”
Abiding by this rule has had serious consequences because, in the coverage of government, for example, the press should be seriously enquiring into government policy, spotting where government is on the right track, highlighting where it’s on the wrong track and playing the classic watchdog role. There’s almost none of that any more. What we have instead is a contest between two illegitimate functions. On the one hand, you have government public relations, a huge operation that day and night attempts to manipulate the press in its own interest – and succeeding to a considerable extent. Against that, we have an irrationally, almost hysterically, negative quest to find some way of making cabinet ministers, MPs and officials look bad. You might think that newspapers are obviously involved in some sort of deep-seated and cunning political conspiracy to damage the government, but actually they are just following the sixth rule of production: give readers what they want; it will sell papers. So it flows from the commercialism, you see. And in a way that makes it more dangerous because, if there was an organised conspiracy, you could identify the conspirators and complain about them, but this is right there in the DNA of journalists and determines how they work.

TYRRELL: Your example, just now, of this rule is from the Sunday Express but, as you importantly point out, this isn’t just a tabloid rule. It applies in the quality media, too. You tell, for instance, how Andrew Grice, The Independent’s political editor, found that some of Tony Blair’s own Cabinet colleagues were saying, just days after he had won his third term, that he would have to stand down within 18 months. Grice pleaded for this “most significant” story to be the splash but the newspaper wanted a change of pace after the election and so went with some story about Britain’s vanishing flowers, putting a big picture of one on the front page, instead.

DAVIES: Absolutely true. Then there’s Rule Seven: the bias against truth. This is to do with the different ways in which we distort the material we work with. In order to sell, the key thing is that we keep it simple, but we want the concrete and not the abstract; we want the immediate and not the historical; we want the event and not the process. We don’t want the context.
So, a bomb goes off in Nairobi. We have pictures of a burning building, a police car with its siren going, injured bodies rushed into hospital. But why did it happen? We don’t know why, so we’ll quickly move on. It’s just an event. We are not going to take time to understand it. This attitude filters through to all the subjects journalists report on and it is itself responsible for a lot of our falsehood: because we don’t have to explain it to you, we journalists don’t bother to explain it to ourselves. Therefore, when we are writing rubbish about millennium bugs, or whatever, it’s because we genuinely don’t know what we are talking about. And we don’t know what we are talking about, because we don’t need to know. Telling readers why things happen is not what’s required. So the bias against truth is about narrowing everything down to a simple incident or episode in a story.

TYRRELL: The truth always involves masses of context, seeing things from lots of different points of view. And journalists just don’t do that anymore?

DAVIES: No, they don’t. It’s human interest over issue; simplicity rather than complexity; certainly rather than doubt. Put all that together and you’ve got a powerful source of distortion running through journalism. Veteran CBS correspondent Tom Fenton described in his book Bad News how he was told to remove all mention of Kurds from his report about the gassing of thousands of Kurds by Saddam Hussein, even though that lay at the heart of the story. It would be too confusing, he was told: no one knows who the Kurds are!
On to Rule Eight – give them what they want to believe in. That’s an extension of telling the stories that are going to sell newspapers. It’s rather similar to what we were talking about before: recycling ideas that are popular. There’s a wonderful memo that was leaked from Piers Morgan when he was editor of the Daily Mirror, apologising to the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, the Mirror’s owner, for the sudden slump in sales that occurred when the paper continued to oppose the war in Iraq even after the British troops had started fighting. Towards the end of it, he says, “The readers are never wrong. Repulsive maybe, but never wrong.” And the Mirror changed its line to be in favour of the war.

TYRRELL: Moral panic is another way in which newspapers increase their circulation.

DAVIES: Yes, that’s Rule Nine: go with the moral panic. We engage in generating moral panic, which becomes a source of a gross distortion of the truth. This occurs especially during times of national crisis. War brings on moral panic. In wartime you’ve got to support ‘the boys’, regardless of what the boys are doing. They may be shooting prisoners of war or they may be abusing civilians, but we’ve got to support them. So the coverage is distorted. You also see it around the big deaths. There was wonderful stuff going on about the Queen Mother when she died, just wholesale distortion of the truth about her as a character, about the extent of the mourning, about the national mood. On the evening of the Saturday when she died, for example, a television crew was sent down to the West End to get evidence of the moral panic. The preordained line of the story was that everybody is so sad she has died that the West End has gone quiet. But of course the TV crew get down there and everybody is out on the streets, noisily beating each other up and vomiting in the gutter in their usual way, showing every sign that they couldn’t care less. But the reporter has still got to stick to the line that everybody is miserable. So he looks into the camera, with all this going on behind him, and comes up with this great line. He says, “It was the spirit of the Blitz in the West End tonight. The old lady is dead, but the show must go on. Such courage in the face of adversity!”
To sell people papers, or get them to watch TV, we allow the stories to be distorted.

TYRRELL: I love the name you give to Rule 10 – Ninja Turtle syndrome.

DAVIES: It derives from when my children were young in the 1980s and, for a while, television was awash with an awful American programme called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: offensive, heavily armed, violent little reptiles who were named after renaissance artists, so children were growing up associating the names Leonardo and Raphael with heavily armed reptiles! As parents, that was easy to deal with - we thought. We decided simply not to have anything to do with it, not to let the children watch this rubbish, to steer them away from the telly. We would not buy them nasty little plastic Ninja knick-knacks; we would just opt out of Ninja Turtles altogether. But when they went to school and all the other kids in the playground were talking Ninja Turtle, they felt so left out. And so, as parents, you think, “Ah, this isn’t fair”, and you cave in. Well the same logic applies on news desks.
Stories come up and journalists with long white hair and grey beards say, “This story is untrue and/or too trivial. It is crap and we don’t want to cover it. But everybody else is running it, so we have to.” We all hunt in packs and feed from this tiny agenda of what stories should be written, and what angles to go for. Once the story starts running, it’s a good story. Hacks cluster around it down the pub. We can’t ignore it; in fact, we can’t even take another angle. We just don’t give a damn whether it’s true or not.

TYRRELL: As you say in the book, reporters from different newspapers commonly get together after a court case or a big speech to agree their ‘line’. And even newspaper editors swap notes with their opposite numbers about the stories they are going to lead on! As you show, these 10 rules of production tend to favour the status quo and it’s incredibly difficult to separate public relations [PR] – which used to be called propaganda – from true stories. How invasive is the impact of PR now?

DAVIES: Well, commercial logic produces this structural defect: fewer staff producing more stories following rules of production, dictated by the need to sell papers and make profits. In order to churn out enough copy from so few staff, newspapers turn to second-hand sources of information. I commissioned specialist researchers from the journalism department of the University of Cardiff to do a huge analysis of the content of home news stories in quality newspapers, more than 2,000 of them. We traced the raw material for those stories and found that 54 per cent of them were wholly or mainly constructed from material provided by press officers generating campaigns for government departments, corporations and charities. And the important point about it is that all PR, necessarily, is done to serve the interests of the people who are paying for it.
If churnalism recycles that PR, we are allowing the commercial and political interest of these organisations to infiltrate the newsroom. You see, clever PR people understand the rules of production and they manipulate it by giving us stories which are cheap and easy to cover and which are going to appeal to the punters.

TYRRELL: Even at our journal, we are always being contacted by PR people, offering to find us mental health experts who can comment on ‘effective’ treatments – usually drugs – for different psychiatric conditions or to show us round private clinics etc. It is easy for us to say no, of course, because our whole raison d’être is to get people to think and question ideas and approaches that don’t stand up. But it’s clearly very, very hard for us as readers of mass media to discriminate between truth and falsehoods, isn’t it? And that can lead to people believing in conspiracy theories or just to stop thinking for themselves altogether. It’s very difficult to get a handle on politics any more because it is just reduced to sound bites.

DAVIES: When I started in journalism, 30 years ago, the quality papers ran parliamentary reports, whole pages of them. Well, that has all disappeared. We are much more likely to write that this cabinet minister disagrees with that cabinet minister. It’s about personal conflict, not policies.

TYRRELL: You ended your book with a powerful quote from Joseph Pulitzer: “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself ”. And you conclude that he was probably right. So, now that you have looked into all this so thoroughly and exposed in your book just how far the truth is being mangled, what do you think is the effect of it on society? What do you think the media we have today are doing to the population?

DAVIES: That is very good question but very difficult to answer because you can’t really track and measure the changes in cultural thinking. But I think the media are doing a series of destructive things. One is that we are embedding falsehoods into popular culture – misunderstandings about, say, heroin and drugs policy, or criminal justice or schools. These are areas that I have looked at in depth and where I happen to know that what the government and the media are saying is fundamentally false. So that’s one thing, fostering great misunderstandings. The second thing, I would say, is that there is a profound brutalisation of thinking going on where, by constantly reducing everything to short, sharp shocks, incident without context, and all that business we’ve just been talking about, treating people as though they have a concentration span of a goldfish, you reduce people’s ability to think in sophisticated ways. So understanding complexity becomes difficult. Then there is trivialisation: people are served up a very trivial account of the world and so tend to discuss it in trivial ways.

TYRRELL: And it is a very emotional account too. People can’t think straight when they are emotional, and journalists and the media generally spread emotional stories.

DAVIES: Yes: As Jim Murray said, “We must make the readers cross!”

TYRRELL: We have only just touched the surface of what you reveal in your book. But it is shocking and I, for one, will never read newspapers or view news programmes in the same way again. Thank you, Nick, for your time.

Nick Davies writes investigative stories for The Guardian and has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year in British press awards. He also makes television documentaries and has written four books uncovering a variety of scandals. His website can be visited at His latest book, Flat Earth News, is published by Chatto & Windus at £17.99.

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