Flat Earth News and the Jersey child abuse scandal (Part 1)
4 April 2008; last revised 19 April 10.20am
IN A CURIOUS COINCIDENCE Nick Davies’s widely-praised critique of modern journalism, Flat Earth News, which sets out to expose the manner in which falsehood and distortion have come to dominate the media, was published exactly three weeks before the emergence of one of the most sensational news stories of recent years. The story in question concerns the allegations of abuse which are currently being made in relation to a children’s home in Jersey.
Davies’s book was published on 7 February 2008 and was reprinted three times over the next eight days. The Jersey story first came to widespread attention on the weekend of 23-24 February 2008. On 24 February the Independent on Sunday, to cite but one example, ran the story under the headline ‘Body found amid fears of child abuse ring on Jersey’. It went on to describe how the site of the former Haut de la Garenne home in Jersey had been searched with the help of ground-penetrating radar and tracker dogs and the partial remains of a child had been uncovered: ‘Police were unable to say how long the body had been there, how old the child was or whether the skeleton was male or female.’
Police inquiries continue at Haut de la Garenne, Jersey, March 2008
The story went on to describe how police had spent most of last year ‘covertly’ gathering statements from alleged victims of abuse and had then ‘officially’ begun an investigation in November. Already it was reported that police had spoken to 140 alleged victims and had 40 suspects in their sights. It was also said that police ‘expected to discover more bodies’ at the home.
As Brian Cathcart noted in the New Statesman:
Press reports rapidly multiplied. Amidst gruesome reports of excavations in bricked-up cellars and of the discovery of ‘shackles’ believed to have been used in the abuse of children, the number of alleged victims rose steadily. On 28 February the BBC News website reported that 160 people had now spoken to the police. The story then faithfully echoed the police press release of the previous day which had made a point of saying that ‘We have never doubted that the people who contacted us are telling the truth’:
Elsewhere there were reports of cover-ups, of sinister political machinations, of the involvement of prominent Jersey politicians and of allegations which in the past went unheeded. For legal reasons journalists in the British press said little about the supposed involvement of Jersey officials or politicians. But, safe in the knowledge that you cannot be sued for libelling the dead, the Guardian did not hesitate to name, on the basis of a single unproven allegation, the former Jersey politician Wilfred Krichefski as an alleged serial rapist at the home. An article in The Australian gave more details and hinted that journalists are privy to more ‘knowledge’ than they are able to report:
Writing in the Daily Mail, Demetrious Panton, a former care resident whose complaints of abuse played a prominent role in the Islington child abuse scandal, was in no doubt about the significance of the findings at the home:
In view of such stories we might well ask whether the news that has been coming out of Jersey does indeed point to one of the worst examples of organised child abuse in the United Kingdom.
But there is another question which needs to be asked. Might the story in the form we have it now be simply another – particularly dangerous – example of what Nick Davies calls ‘flat earth news’? As Davies puts it in his book: ‘A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.’
One of the reasons for treating the story with caution is that a great many of the elements in it have appeared before in earlier children’s home scandals and, on investigation, have proved to be unfounded. The idea that there is a paedophile ring centred on a children’s home which supposedly supplied young boys to prominent politicians first surfaced in 1980 in relation to the Kincora working boys’ hostel in East Belfast. The same idea reappeared again in 1991 in order to form a very significant strand of the North Wales scandal, which would eventually lead to the North Wales Tribunal. Paedophile rings were also associated with more than a dozen other children’s homes investigations over the next fifteen years.
In some of these cases there was a core of reality to the stories which emerged; both at Kincora and at Bryn Estyn, boys were sexually abused by one or two members of staff. There was certainly abuse in Islington's children’s homes where, unusually, allegations tended to concern contemporary or very recent abuse. But the idea that a paedophile ring might actually be based in a children’s home has, thus far, never been substantiated. This is so even in Islington where a misguided approach to equal employment opportunities led to a situation in which the rights and welfare of children were sometimes gravely neglected. Although journalists often talk about paedophile rings in Islington as though this is an established fact, the claim that such rings existed remains, as Christian Wolmar acknowledges in his book Forgotten Children, unproven.
In the more notorious cases of Kincora and North Wales the evidence makes it quite clear that belief in the existence of paedophile rings which supplied boys to politicians always belonged to the realm of fantasy. Indeed, as former BBC reporter Chris Moore has noted in his book on the Kincora scandal, none of those who alleged they had been abused at Kincora even made the claim that a paedophile ring or organised prostitution was involved.
In 2003, similar claims about paedophile rings in children’s homes emerged in Portugal. The Portuguese police arrested a number of prominent public figures, including 38 year-old former employment minister Paulo Pedroso, one of Portugal’s leading left-wing politicians. This was part of a massive operation to track down members of a paedophile ring centred on the Casa Pia network of state run children’s homes. This supposed paedophile ring, like those featured in the stories of Kincora and North Wales, had allegedly been covered up for years by police officers and politicians who knew of its existence. Five years on, however, Pedroso has been released without charge and it is clear that he was the innocent victim of false allegations. No credible evidence has ever emerged that the paedophile ring alleged by police, social workers and journalists had any real existence or was based on anything other than what I have called elsewhere a ‘global village rumour’.
The idea that residents of children homes were being murdered played little or no part in the Kincora, North Wales and Casa Pia scandals. But such ideas were prominent in the moral panic which overtook the Irish Republic in 1999 after the broadcast on Irish TV of States of Fear, a three-part documentary series about the Irish industrial schools. Amidst the widespread allegations of abuse which were made in the wake of this programme, many children were said to have disappeared or been murdered in schools run by the Christian Brothers. As the tireless campaigner Rory Connor has pointed out, in a comment posted on the Community Care website, ‘these included accusations in a major Sunday newspaper of mass killing (“a Holocaust”) at Letterfrack in Co. Galway.’ However, as Connor notes, ‘Not a single claim has proved to be correct. This is not surprising as several relate to periods when no child died of any cause.’
In Ireland, as in North Wales and Kincora, there can be no doubt that some children were physically or sexually abused in children’s homes. But in all these cases what has happened is that a small nucleus of reality has had woven around it a vast tissue of fantasy and fabrication. Both in Ireland and in North Wales, as in similar scandals in Cheshire, Merseyside, Northumbria (and indeed in Nova Scotia), the evidence indicates that overwhelming majority of allegations associated with such scandals are false.
Even the Jersey police themsleves have implicitly recognised that some of the media coverage the story has received goes far beyond any evidence which has been collected. As early as 27 February one of their press releases included the statement that ‘We do not believe that there was a total, organised paedophile ring at Haut de la Garenne.’
What the police have not acknowledged is that the stories they have been giving to the media have themselves been largely responsible for fanning the flames of the coverage which, now and then, they attempt rather half-heartedly to douse.
The need for caution in relation to these stories becomes clearer if we consider carefully the evidence which has emerged so far. When the police first lit the flames of the media coverage which would soon turn into a raging inferno, they did so with a brief press release. This contained the following claim:
Given the terms in which the police announced the discovery it was not in any way surprising that Independent on Sunday should have announced, in its headline the next morning, that a ‘body’ had been discovered. However, this body soon turned out not to be a body at all. Although described elsewhere as a ‘skeleton’ or a ‘skull’, it was in fact only a fragment of a skull. The skull fragment has not yet even been dated. When deputy police chief Lenny Harper, the leader of the investigation, was asked by local Jersey Evening Post reporter Diane Simon whether it might turn out to be a red herring, he acknowledged that it might: ‘It could be a red herring – we just don’t know yet. But if it is, we will not have wasted much time during the inquiry on the item, as it has been bagged, sealed and sent to the UK for forensic examination.’
(When I was originally writing this article on 2 April 2008 initial tests had proved inconclusive and the police were still waiting for the results of carbon dating tests which were being carried out on the skull fragment. But already reports had appeared in mid March, both in The Jersey Evening Post and The Times, that archaeologists believe the earliest date for it might be the 1920s. According to the Post, ‘Deputy police chief Lenny Harper said today that if the bone was from that era, a decision would have to be made as to whether the police pursued a homicide inquiry or concentrated on the child abuse allegations.’
However, after the first version of this article had appeared, the police issued another press release on 8 April. They now revealed that the final results of the carbon dating procedure had been received and that scientists had found it impossible to give any date for the fragment. This, they said was because the protein collagen (whose presence in the bone is essential for carbon dating to be carried out) had been ‘completely destroyed’ in the sample which they had submitted for analysis. In an attempt to explain the complete absence of collagen from the bone fragment, the press release continued in the following terms: ‘Archaeologists state that the bone could not have been found in a much less favourable environment as there was a large amount of lime present.’
Police now attributed to archaeologists the view that ‘from a study of the materials in the location where the find was made, the bone was placed at that location no earlier than the 1920’s – some seventy years after the home opened as an Industrial School for Boys’. It should be noted that this particular formulation leaves open the possibility that the bone itself is much older then the time of its disposal might suggest.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this news is that, with the exception of a report on the BBC website and a heavily spun report in the Daily Mail, it seems to have gone virtually unrecorded by most of the mainstream media. )
The other piece of evidence which excited widespread and sensational coverage was the discovery of a set of shackles which had supposedly been used in order to restrain or manacle children. While massive and sensational attention has been given to this reported find, a single sentence, buried inconspicuously in an article in the Guardian suggested that it too may be irrelevant to the inquiry: ‘However,’ the article recorded, ‘it is now thought that shackles found in a cellar last month may have been used to restrain livestock and may have played no part in the abuse.’
Largely on the basis of the passage quoted here it would seem that some readers of this article have concluded that Cathcart is expressing real doubts about the status of the story. Cathcart himself, however, answers his own question in the negative:
It is true Cathcart goes on to say that this response from the police may make some journalists uncomfortable. It is nevertheless clear that, far from ending on a note of caution about the coverage the story has received, Cathcart effectively vindicates it on the grounds that journalists’ presentation of the evidence is only thin and sensational because they are leaving the ‘real’ evidence to the police. For a journalist to analyse the story in this way is, I believe, to get it about as lethally wrong as it is possible to do.
The main reason for saying this is that Cathcart’s presumption that the police are in possession of evidence which has not been contaminated and whose integrity should be protected from the incursions of journalism is made on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, in some respects it flies flagrantly in the face of facts which should be apparent to any well-informed onlooker.
In the first place it should be quite clear to an experienced journalist like Cathcart, and to any responsible senior police officer, that even if there had been some pristine store of uncontaminated evidence before the investigation hit the headlines in late February, the nature of the coverage which has followed must inevitably be contaminating this evidence almost by the day. According to Lenny Harper himself, the very reporting which Cathcart implicitly characterises as thin and sensational has actually been responsible for producing a great deal of the evidence on which the police are now relying. This becomes clear in the following extract from a revealing profile of Harper which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 27 March 2008:
The first point which should be made here is that the tactic of using lurid and sensational publicity in order to encourage retrospective allegations of abuse made twenty or thirty years after the alleged events is fraught with danger. It is of course entirely possible that such publicity will prompt some people who genuinely have been abused to come forward and to make complaints. But there is a great deal evidence already in the public domain (some of it collected in my book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn), that it is also possible – indeed likely – that this approach will encourage fantasy and fabrication on a significant scale. Unless we assume that human nature in Jersey is different from human nature in North Wales, Ireland, or Nova Scotia, the recent publicity will almost inevitably have led to large numbers of false allegations being made against former care workers who are completely innocent of any crime. Such false allegations are not always consciously fabricated and they are not usually the product of malice. But they are frequently the result of opportunistic compensation-seeking or, even more insidiously, of the kind of complex attention-seeking to which many damaged former residents of care homes are prone.
Any responsible and fair-minded investigating officer should by now be aware of such dangers. That Deputy Police Chief Lenny Harper, whose sincerity and noble intentions are not in question, is either not aware of them, or is at the very least insufficiently mindful of them, is painfully clear from the words quoted above. He repeatedly refers to those who have made allegations of abuse as ‘victims’ and clearly does not recognise that this term is both prejudicial and dangerous. For, when used in this context, the word ‘victim’ inevitably conveys a presumption of veracity about complaints while simultaneously abandoning the presumption of innocence to which all defendants are entitled.
Historically we have placed the presumption of innocence at the heart of our justice system for no other reason than to safeguard people against wrongful conviction. For a senior police officer to abandon this presumption in public, while defending the use of sensational publicity as part of a deliberate strategy to encourage more people to make complaints of physical and sexual abuse, is deeply disturbing.
Harper’s strategy, indeed, is doubly dangerous. It does not only make it virtually certain that large numbers of false allegations will be brought forward; it also creates a climate of opinion which cannot but undermine the entire process of justice. When journalists are obliquely encouraged by a police officer to treat unsubstantiated speculations about torture, murder and horror as though they were facts, conditions are created in which juries are tilted against defendants and fair trials become impossible.
There is, however, another, perhaps even more important respect in which Cathcart’s extraordinary conclusion that journalists have been exhibiting ‘restraint’ in their coverage of the story is likely to be dangerously mistaken.
What is dangerous here is the assumption that the methods used by the police before the story began to receive the current level of publicity were ever capable of gathering uncontaminated evidence.
Although the Jersey story only began to assume its current massive profile after the discovery of the skull fragment on 23 February 2008, it actually first featured in the UK national news some months before this. This is because on 28 November 2007 the States of Jersey police issued a press release about their inquiry. As well as announcing that they had ‘now had contact with around 60 victims and witnesses’, the police gave some details of how their inquiry was being conducted. It was being run in conjunction with a telephone helpline based in the UK and managed by the NSPCC and twenty calls had already been made to this helpline in the first week of the inquiry. In addition to this, the press release revealed that various outside consultants had been imported from the UK. These included ‘one analyst, from Merseyside Police whose role will be to examine all information coming into the enquiry and establish links and connections between the various strands’.
To anyone who is familiar with the history of child abuse scares in Britain, the involvement of the NSPCC and the Merseyside Police in the Jersey inquiry is far from reassuring. NSPCC helplines or consultants played a significant role in the various satanic abuse scares which swept Britain during the late 1980s; in 1990 the Times published a report quoting the NSPCC as saying that ‘ritual child abuse is rife’. A year later the North Wales Police entered into a partnership with the NSPCC, whose ‘Bryn Estyn helpline’ played a crucial role in collecting some of the allegations which led to the demonisation of the Bryn Estyn home in Wrexham. Bryn Estyn was portrayed in the media as the ‘Colditz of care’ and became the subject of sensationalist press reports which had something in common with those which have recently been appearing about the Haut de la Garenne home in Jersey.
Encouraged by national press attention and the drip feeding in the media of what might be called ‘atrocity propaganda’ directed against former care workers, the Bryn Estyn police operation soon spread out across the whole of North Wales. Eventually, after an investigation lasting more than two years, no fewer than 365 people found themselves facing allegations of abuse. Of these, only about three or four end up with convictions for serious sexual abuse. Although the evidence suggests that one of these cases involved the wrongful conviction of an innocent man, the £15 million North Wales Tribunal, which reported in February 2000, effectively concealed the perversion of justice and of police methods in which the North Wales investigation consisted. A Tribunal set up to establish whether there had been a cover up, itself ended by covering up the truth – namely that the vast majority of the 365 suspects in North Wales were innocent people wrongly accused. (The evidence on which this claim is based is, once again, contained in my book, The Secret of Bryn Estyn.)
Police trawling operations
The North Wales inquiry marked the beginning rather than the end of a systematic injustice which now spread from Clwyd in North Wales over the border to nearby Cheshire and Merseyside, and eventually to practically every police force in the UK. The Merseyside Police, who have now provided an ‘expert’ to advise Lenny Harper, were particularly zealous in developing and extending an entirely new form of police investigation which had been pioneered by their colleagues in North Wales. They did so in the course of conducting a massive investigation into more than a hundred Merseyside care homes under the name ‘Operation Care’.
When I interviewed Detective Superintendent John Robbins, the head of ‘Operation Care’ in 1996, he described the new technique of investigation as ‘the reverse of normal police methods’. He explained that, instead of starting from a crime and setting out to find the criminal, the trawling procedure starts with the suspect (or an allegation) and then attempts to find the crime. Police officers trace and interview former residents of care homes and, during these interviews, more evidence against the original suspect, or against other care workers, almost unfailingly emerges.
As I wrote in the New Statesman in 1999, the principle underlying all trawling operations is, in the words of Robbins, that of ‘corroboration by volume’. The assumption is that although a single allegation may not suffice to indicate that a crime has taken place, several different allegations provide almost certain proof.
If such multiple allegations were made spontaneously and entirely independently of one another, then the logic of this argument would be unimpeachable. The problem is that the Merseyside Police, and other police forces who followed in their footsteps, actually developed a technique whose main purpose was not to investigate allegations which had already been made but to generate such allegations – and to do so on as large a scale as possible. By using what they called the ‘mushrooming technique’ investigators in Operation Care would systematically use each witness that they interviewed as a means of ‘propagating’ the names and addresses of more witnesses – and thus of propagating more allegations. The starting point, we are told, is with the known ‘victim(s)’:
By developing what was, by Robbins’s own admission, an entirely new, upside-down technique of police investigation, the Merseyside Police discovered that, if they started with a single allegation, they could almost invariably convert these into multiple allegations.
In some cases there can be no doubt that this resulted in the conviction of care workers who were genuinely guilty. The Merseyside force are quite right to point out that a significant number of those who were charged actually pleaded guilty. But what the same force has consistently failed to recognise is that such trawling operations are intrinsically dangerous. In many cases police officers taking part in them are not only eager to receive allegations, but eager to believe them as well. Knowing nothing of the human qualities of the care workers who have been accused, and predisposed by the very nature of their investigation to think the worst, any officer involved in such an inquiry will find it extremely difficult to avoid demonising those who are accused and thus becoming emotionally committed to finding yet more allegations against them.
In some cases there is evidence that police officers have either actively solicited allegations against particular individuals or that they have encouraged allegations by holding out the promise of compensation. Even where this has not happened it is all too easy for officers unwittingly to sow the seeds of the allegation they are seeking to harvest by asking leading questions. Police trawling may be a dependable way of gaining convictions against those who are genuinely guilty. But it is also a a supremely effective means of generating multiple false allegations. Because these allegations are invariably presented in court as though they were independent, when this is not in fact the case, the technique of trawling has again and again misled juries into convicting innocent people.
In short, between about 1990 and 2000 police forces in the UK developed a form of investigation which almost guaranteed that the evidence collected against any suspect would be contaminated by the very technique which was being used to gather it. Precisely because this method repeatedly led to convictions, it rapidly spread from police force to police force until the entire country became enmeshed in a web of related investigations.
The sheer scale on which this took place has never been recognised either by politicians or by the media. This includes the Independent, for although, in November 2001, it published a version of the map reproduced here, it offered no figures for the number of arrests made. Moreover, it published its map not in order to warn against the dangers of trawling, but rather as part of a 10-year long campaign which effectively launched the North Wales scandal, and had the effect of endorsing and promoting trawling operations across the entire country (see Part Two, forthcoming).
If, however, we extrapolate from figures supplied by the Association of Chief Police Officers in answer to a question posed by Merseyside MP Claire Curtis-Thomas, we can estimate that, since the North Wales investigation was launched in August 1991, between 7,000 and 10,000 care workers in the UK (and possibly more) have already had accusations made against them as a result of these investigations. Most of these workers have not been charged with any offence, but some two or three thousand have now been arrested. Many of these have had their lives ruined.
Although there have indeed been a significant number of genuine convictions as a result of these investigations, all the evidence suggests that the vast majority of those accused are innocent victims of false allegations.
One of the great mysteries of recent British history is how it is that such an extraordinary and destructive witch-hunt has taken place beneath the eyes of both judges and journalists, without there being any real recognition that it has happened at all.
The mystery is one that only deepens if we consider that the crisis produced in our system of justice had become so grave by the year 2002 that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee decided to hold an inquiry into the whole subject of police trawling.
After conducting a three-month inquiry, in which it took oral and written evidence from many individuals and organisations, the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that what it calls ‘a new genre of miscarriages of justice’ has arisen from ‘the over-enthusiastic pursuit’ of allegations of abuse relating to children’s homes. ‘I am in no doubt,’ said the Chairman, Chris Mullin MP, ‘that a number of innocent people have been convicted and that many other innocent people, who have not been convicted, have had their lives ruined.’ During the inquiry it was suggested by witnesses that as many as a hundred former care workers had been wrongly convicted as direct result of police trawling operations and the loop-holes in the laws of evidence which these exploited.
One of the reasons why this report disappeared from view almost without trace is that the government effectively suppressed its conclusions. Having inadvertently covered up the systematic injustices which had taken place in North Wales by commissioning a blind-eye Tribunal of Inquiry presided over by retired high court judge Sir Ronald Waterhouse, the government now became party to another unwitting cover-up. The Home Office minister responsible for the government response was John Denham MP, who would soon afterwards resign from the cabinet in protest against the decision to invade Iraq. In his response he demonstrated exactly the kind of gullibility towards official disinformation which he would shortly distinguish himself by not showing in relation to the Iraq war. Relying on information supplied by badly informed civil servants and self-serving senior police officers, he dismissed the report almost in its entirety.
One of the consequences of the government’s rejection of the Home Affairs Committee report was that there has never been widespread recognition of the dangers of all so-called ‘historic’ child abuse inquiries.
In practice these inquiries have become significantly less common. This is in part, no doubt, because the original moral panic which was created over the North Wales investigation in 1991 (and re-ignited by the publication of the Tribunal report in 2000) has now all but burned itself out. But is is also because the concerted criticisms which have been made of police trawling, though failing to attract wide publicity, appear to have had a significant effect in moderating the enthusiasm for such operations on the part of many senior UK police officers.
This recent decline in trawling investigations is one of the factors which makes the emergence of the Jersey story so remarkable. What appears to have happened is that the same kind of moral panic which was created in 1991 around the Bryn Estyn home in North Wales has now been re-invented and focused on Haut de la Garenne and Jersey.
While the government can reasonably be charged with some responsibility here, because of its steadfast refusal to heed the conclusions of the 2002 Home Affairs Committee report, an even greater responsibility should be borne by journalists. For, in the light of the Jersey story and the way it has been treated, it is now more clear than ever that journalists have failed to learn the lessons of North Wales and of what must, by any reasonable assessment, count as one of the most catastrophic episodes in the entire history of modern journalism.
At a time when a dangerous publicity-driven technique of investigation has been revived in Jersey what is needed more than ever is journalistic vigilance. This is particularly so in view of the role which has been played by the NSPCC and the Merseyside Police, both of whom have a long track record of contaminating the evidence they collect. The extent to which trawling techniques have themselves been used by the Jersey police is not clear. But the role played by what appears to be the deliberate dissemination of atrocity propaganda is clear. That Brian Cathcart should praise credulous and sensation-seeking journalists for their restraint and for refraining from contaminating evidence is both ironic and tragic. For it is quite clear that the Jersey Police are assiduously contaminating their own evidence with every press conference that they hold
Flat earth news
It is at this point that we need to return to the question which was already posed by implication at the outset of this article in relation to the recent publication of Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News.
If the Jersey story is indeed another example of ‘flat earth news’, we might well ask how is it that it spread through the media virtually unchallenged in the very month that Davies’s book was published, was reprinted at least three times and rapidly rose to the towards the top of the bestseller lists.
Have we simply failed to heed Davies’s warnings? Or are the warnings themselves insufficient? Do they miss something which is quite crucial to any understanding of the role of the media in distorting the reality they report?
In one of the most enthusiastic of the many reviews of Davies’s book which have so far appeared, Peter Oborne, the political correspondent of the Spectator, writes as follows:
Oborne goes on to make some criticisms. He suggests that Davies ‘does not pay nearly enough tribute to the eclecticism and generosity of spirit’ of the Observer during the years when it was edited by Roger Alton. And he complains that he is unfair to the Daily Mail, a newspaper for which Oborne himself writes a weekly column. Oborne writes that, although Davies accuses the paper of racism, ‘he pays at best grudging tribute to the paper’s superb campaign to bring the white killers of the black schoolboy Stephen Lawrence to justice.’ Oborne also notes that, among the broadsheet newspapers which form Davies’s subject matter, ‘Only the Guardian, the paper for which Davies works, escapes savage criticism.’. Oborne’s review ends, however, by putting these criticisms to one side:
This is a handsome tribute for any journalist to pay to another in respect of a book which criticises so severely the profession to which they both belong. But it may well seem, on one level at least, to be well-deserved. Nick Davies does indeed appear to have performed a public service. He has certainly conveyed the desperate shallowness of the grasp of reality which too many journalists have. Having described the proliferation of stories about the millennium bug and the computer catastrophe which would supposedly overtake us at midnight at the turn of the millennium, he writes as follows:
Throughout the book one of Davies’s main targets is the credulity of modern journalism and the ease with which it will embrace as facts the fictions which have been spun by others – in particular by politicians, by public relations firms, by intelligence agencies or by the largely unchecked and unresearched copy of press agencies. As Davies reminds us, a daily newspaper is, almost by definition, a rush job, produced against the clock, constrained by limited budgets and the process of compression in which almost all modern journalism consists. Partly for these reasons much modern journalism now consists in ‘the rapid repackaging of largely unchecked second-hand material, much of it designed to service the political or commercial interests of those who provide it’.
Davies quotes the American political reporter David Broder, who once said that if journalists were to label their product accurately, they would immediately add, to every edition of their newspaper, some words of caution: ‘But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow, with a corrected, updated version (p. 45).’
Davies’s makes it clear that even Broder’s words are optimistic. Very often the mistakes which a journalist makes in the first version of the story are never corrected, and the original, false story may never be updated, however frequently it is recycled. Davies’s own description of the true state of affairs is both more eloquent and, I believe, more accurate:
Having long ago come to the conclusion that we live within a collective fantasy, or a set of collective delusions, and that the news media are one of the principal means by which we maintain this fantasy-version of reality, I find myself reacting to these words, initially at least, with a sense both of relief and gratitude. That a working journalist should have come to a similar conclusion and should have set out this conclusion so clearly in a book addressed to the general reader seems, on the face of things, immensely heartening.
It is not only in advancing and documenting this general thesis that Davies will appear to many readers to have performed an important public service. Many of his specific stories of how the press works are also valuable. However, his book, for all its apparent virtues, has some striking omissions. They are very serious omissions and they need to be viewed with a more unflinching gaze than has been directed at them by any of Davies’ reviewers so far – with the interesting exception, perhaps, of David Cromwell and David Edwards of Media Lens.
By far the greatest and gravest of these omissions is Davies’s failure to set modern journalism in any kind of historical context. Indeed the book seems to have been written in an almost complete historical and cultural vacuum. After reading to its end the hypothetical Martian anthropologist might quite reasonably conclude that Britain, whose journalism forms Davies’s main subject matter, does not have a history or a culture. Or at least that its cultural history is completely irrelevant to an understanding of the modern media.
One of the consequences of the historical vacuum in which Davies writes is that his analysis of the cultural function of journalism is at times astonishingly naive. In the course of his his discussion of the millennium bug stories, part of which has already been quoted, Davies writes the following:
When reading a critique about journalism written by a journalist for the general reader, one does not expect – and thankfully one is not offered by Davies – a lecture on post-modernism or epistemology. That having been said, it is still somewhat astonishing that any intelligent journalist can commit himself, three times in the course of as many paragraphs, to the view that the primary purpose of journalism is ‘telling the truth’.
Davies himself may be obliquely aware of the naivety of this view, for in a later passage he appears to take up a much more nuanced position:
In their review, David Edwards and David Cromwell single this passage out and describe it as ‘refreshing’. However, if we restore the paragraph to its context we discover that Davies is in fact expounding a rather different position from the one we might assume. For he immediately goes on to write this:
One of the most striking features of this paragraph is the extraordinary notion that the manner in which a journalist views reality can be usefully compared to the angle from which we view a room. Once again it will be noted that this analogy immediately drains the perspective of journalists of all history and all culture – and indeed of all psychology as well. The other striking (and related) feature is Davies’s assumption that, providing we act ‘honestly’, it is possible for journalists to slip free of the straitjacket not only of ‘ideology’ but also of ‘any other overarching influence’.
Despite initial appearances Davies is not in fact shifting from his original position; he is merely reformulating it in terms which sound more sophisticated and sceptical without actually being so. He cannot ultimately relinquish his view that journalism is all about ‘telling the truth’ and he repeats it like a mantra:
One point which we might note here is that Davies insists on seeing journalism as something which is first and foremost ‘a profession’ and implies that all journalists, whatever their differences, share a common aim. This is in some ways an odd view. It may well be true that Melanie Phillips and John Pilger, Simon Heffer and Polly Toynbee, Barbara Amiel and George Monbiot, Peter Hitchens and his brother Christopher all belong to the same profession. But, as any half-observant onlooker will know, these journalists spend a large part of their time disagreeing with one another. And that is to put it mildly. The relationship between Peter and Christopher Hitchens may well contain an element of brotherly love. But it seems frequently to be much closer to fratricide.
Although Davies writes about journalists at this point as though they are merely professionals and the newspapers that employ them merely employers, a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that this is not the case. Newspapers are much more like institutions than news factories or competing businesses. Newspapers have values and, if not creeds to which every journalist is happy to subscribe, they have something approaching belief-systems. For many journalists who work for the Guardian it would be all but unthinkable to seek permanent employment at, say, the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail.
In the Introduction to his book Nick Davies himself implicitly acknowledges the allegiance journalists often feel to the newspapers they work for – the extent to which they may not simply work for a newspaper, but actually identify with it. He writes: ‘I’m a Guardian man. I’ve read the paper since I was fourteen. I’ve worked on it for years . . . ’ (p. 4). He also acknowledges that when he became a journalist himself, his main motive was not to tell the truth about the world but to change it:
In this account of what drove him to become a journalist what figures most prominently is not the desire to report accurately; it is the ideal of crusading against corruption, of pitting oneself against some of the most powerful people in the world and winning, and of signalling one’s own power by transforming the world rather than simply describing it. What is striking about the account of journalism he goes on to give in the body of his book is that none of these motives, which beat in the heart of so many journalists, are explored in any detail – or in some cases at all. Instead, as has already been noted, Davies stresses that the purpose of journalism is simple; it is to tell the truth.
If we are to come closer to an understanding of why journalists are, all too often, so extraordinarily bad at performing the task which Davies believes to be self-evidently theirs, then we need to pause to consider more closely the very kind of motives which Davies himself acknowledges but which he omits from his analysis. At the same time we need to consider the history of modern investigative journalism which he has managed to rinse out of his account entirely.
For that history, I believe, holds the key to the credulity of journalists which Davies documents so strikingly but fails satisfactorily to account for. More specifically it does much to explain why journalists are so susceptible to stories like that of Haut de la Garenne.
It should also help us to assess whether Peter Oborne is right in praising Nick Davies’s book in the manner that he does and in hailing him as a journalist who has performed ‘an enormous public service’. In taking such a view, Oborne is very far from being on his own. For the book itself comes with quotations on its jacket from other leading journalists. ‘If you read newspapers,’ writes John Humphrys, ‘you MUST read this book.’ Ian Hislop is quoted as saying that the book is ‘A must-read for anyone who is worried about journalism – which, on this anlysis, should be everyone.’ Rather more surprisingly the book is also praised by John Pilger: ‘This brilliant book by Nick Davies, unrelenting in its research, ruthless in its honesty, is a landmark exposé by a courageous insider. All those interested in truth – outsiders and insiders – should read it.’
Davies’s book is indeed, as I hope I have already conveyed, fascinating, compelling and full of interesting facts and claims. It also seems to have hit a nerve in the newspaper-reading public; by the end of March, less than two months after it was first published, it had already been reprinted seven times. No doubt the enthusiastic endorsements the book has received from John Humphrys, Ian Hislop and John Pilger have played a part in this.
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© Richard Webster, 2008