Media Relations: Nick Davies interview - Here's the news: Earth is still flat

Two years after the publication of his controversial book, Guardian journalist Nick Davies shares his current views on PR and media with Cathy Wallace.

Nick Davies
Nick Davies

When award-winning journalist Nick Davies wrote Flat Earth News in February 2008, he wanted to expose 'falsehood, propaganda and distortion in the global media'. In the book, Davies argued journalism had been replaced by 'churnalism', a now widely accepted term for poor-quality, rushed, badly researched reporting. He also wrote of 'pseudo events manufactured by the PR industry'.

Unsurprisingly, the book caused a storm. While some PR professionals welcomed what Davies said, others felt he painted a misleading picture of the PR industry.

PRWeek met with Davies at the Grosvenor Lounge in Victoria's Thistle Hotel. Davies, 56, was battling with a broken pair of glasses and a new, hi-tech smartphone during our interview. Despite his friendly and approachable exterior, readers of Flat Earth News will be aware he has a deep understanding of the industry, and pulls no punches. PRWeek asked him about the reaction to Flat Earth News, his views on the media and PR industries, and whether he felt that, two years on, anything had changed.

- Describe the initial reaction to Flat Earth News

It came in two parts. There was a month or two at the beginning when some of the 'bad guys' in the book were fantastically hostile - people such as Peter Preston from The Guardian and Roger Alton and Kamal Ahmed at The Observer. After a month or two it changed and there was a second wave of reaction, which was hugely supportive.

- Did you find that hostility surprising considering you have written extensively for both The Guardian and The Observer?

The Guardian and Observer staff generally were hugely supportive and had helped me write the chapters that infuriated the 'bad guys' there. People in newspapers generally have been very supportive and phoned me saying they were working for an organisation that would not allow them to do their jobs properly. People did not become journalists to write bad or false stories, they want to write good stories.

- As a freelance journalist, were you concerned the opinions you expressed about Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre could affect future commissions?

I would not feel comfortable working for Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre. I do not blame people who do work for Paul Dacre. But I would not work for him and I am pretty sure he would not employ me.

- Melanie Riley, director of Bell Yard, was one of the PR professionals you named in the book for her work with the NatWest Three. She sent a letter to PRWeek on 15 February 2008 expressing concerns about how you had portrayed the case. How would you respond to that?

I did a radio interview and Melanie rang up and claimed I had written about Bell Yard and never spoken to her. She must have known I spent two hours in the Bell Yard office with a partner and that my researcher had numerous email conversations with her. I think the book showed Bell Yard in a good light.

- How can that be the case?

If PR professionals do their jobs well, they will serve the interests of the people who have paid them. There is a direct conflict between how they operate and the way journalists are supposed to operate, which is to serve the interests of readers, viewers and listeners. It is not about saying people who work in PR are bad. There is conflict between the objectives of PR and the objectives of journalism. Melanie did a good job for her client and I believe she comes out of the story well. In fact, I would have thought she got a lot of business out of it.

- Has anything changed over the past two years?

If you look at what the book is saying, which is why are we publishing so many stories that are not true, you have to look at the commercial factors. These have become more and more destructive, for three reasons. Firstly, big corporations have made our news organisations more commercial. Secondly, the internet has made the financial impact on commercial organisations worse and, thirdly, the credit crisis.

- What has the impact of those three factors been?

Newsrooms have fewer journalists in them and they are having to produce more material. The way in which they select stories and angles is more compromised than it was before and the likelihood they will run stories that are false or distorted is greater.

- Can we solve this problem, or is it too late?

That is the big question and in newspapers, everyone is asking it. I feel we need to be realistic and admit that it is possible we cannot solve the problem. That does not mean we cannot, but that it is possible we cannot.

- So, to put it another way, it is possible we can solve the problem. How?

Either we find a way of reviewing the traditional business model of advertising and circulation, or we find a new business model, for example paywalls on websites. At the moment, it is not obvious that either of these routes will be the future.

- There is an emerging trend for local authority-funded titles, billed as presenting local news and views, and with a local authority budget. But they will not report on issues that reflect the council in a negative light. Could this be a route to explore?

Newspapers like this cannot claim to be telling people the truth about their council. However, there is a wider issue in that reporting of local government is one of the areas that has gone. There is a national shortage of local government reporters - there is not one on any national newspaper or at the PA. The only national coverage of local politics is in Private Eye.

- How does the PR industry fit into the picture you are painting?

At the moment, the extent to which we rely on the PR industry for our stories has increased and will carry on doing so. If the PR industry does its job well, as a service industry of the people who are paying it, this presents a bigger problem for journalists. PR professionals and journalists are serving different interests. If a reporter is overworked and given the chance of rewriting a press release in half an hour or going out, making contacts, finding a story, researching and developing it, it will take days. It's likely they'll use the press release.

- But PR is not necessarily a bad source of news?

Most PR activity is not dishonest. Most is true, but it deals in truths that are selected to show the client in a good light. If you are a press officer in the police force and you have a story about an officer who was drunk on duty, or a story about an officer getting an award for bravery, you can perfectly legitimately choose to put out the story about the award - it's a true story.

A journalist will be grateful to receive it, but we will never get the opportunity to see the story about the drunk officer and we will never get to exercise our judgment about which story we should be running.

- You say 'most' PR activity is true. Do you think some PR professionals lie?

As a matter of professional experience, it can happen that PR people tell lies. If you have a PR person at a government office and you go to them with an embarrassing story, they will, in my experience, tell lies.

- Do you feel your book has made you unpopular with PR professionals?

I have spoken at events held by the PR industry and have had an audience made up entirely of PR people. They were 95 per cent sympathetic. I have come across one or two negative PR people but, in general, they are very supportive.

- Do you think you have helped the PR profession?

A lot of PR people have been journalists. But a lot of PR people will say it is ridiculous to write a press release and then see a paper and read that very same press release. A lot of PR folk see the bigger picture. Yes, a PR person is trying to represent the organisation for which they work, but in the rest of their lives they are citizens. If they see a paper and read about the threat of swine flu and wonder whether or not they should go to Mexico, they need to know what they are reading is a product of journalism, not fed to journalists by pharmaceutical firms trying to promote themselves.

HOW I SEE IT

- Graham Goodkind, Chairman and founder, Frank PR

The book was a vital contribution to the interesting, frustrating and endless debate about the role of media in society and its alleged decline. Davies raised some troubling points for people concerned with the media, showing how the press have often ceased to inform public debate and how cutbacks have badly damaged news gathering. There are examples where a PR-influenced story, such as the Millennium Bug, got out of hand.

The book is quite negatively biased about PR, especially corporate and public affairs. That said, much of the 'PR' detailed is of the crude, rather unethical and often stupid variety that doesn't work in a social media-enabled landscape. The big thing that has changed since publication is the emergence of social media as a counterweight to the problems in the book. Lazy media and dodgy PROs can get away with far less than they could two years ago.

- Nick Rabin, Head of broadcast, Weber Shandwick

As a former journalist working in PR, I approached the book with a degree of trepidation - I feared a character assassination of the industries in which I have spent most of my working life.

Yes, it does make some valid points, but I dispute the view of journalism's halcyon days where journalists were unencumbered by other people's agendas - Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere were hardly shrinking violets when it came to their papers' editorial policies.

There is, and has always been, bad journalism, just as there is bad PR. In the relationship between the two, each has to understand that the other has an agenda - the problem is that Davies appears to believe the journalist's has more value. Good PR can, and does, help journalists write better stories without having to resort to 'churnalism'.

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