Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
21 APRIL 2009
Chairman: Good morning. Can I welcome
Nick Davies, writer, journalist and author of Flat Earth News,
and Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at City University
and previous editor of various newspapers. Nigel Evans is going
to ask the first question.
Q402 Mr Evans: Could I
start by asking you about your concept of "churnalism"
which you mention in your book (of which you seem to have a copy
on the table and if we were being televised you could hold it
up and do a little plug)? Could you just tell us a little bit
about the concept of churnalism?
Mr Davies: What I am really writing
about in the book is the way in which commercialism has invaded
our newsrooms and undermined the values of journalism. There are
all sorts of aspects to that; the impact is subtle and manifold.
The big, obvious structural impact is what is being called churnalism
which is essentially that the big corporations have cut their
costs by reducing the number of journalists but increased their
output because the more pages you print, the more advertising
you carry and therefore the more money you can earn. The impact
of that is that journalists just do not have enough time to do
their job. As a single example of that, I commissioned this piece
of research into news stories in our quality newspapers. We took
a sample of two weeks' output, more than 2000 stories and said,
insofar as each of these stories rests on a central factual statement,
is there evidence that that statement has been thoroughly checked?
The answer you are bound to get is 100% because that is what we
do, we check to discriminate between falsehood and truth. The
answer they got was not 100%; it was 12%. These are the quality
newspapers. That is the kind of things that happens when you take
time away from working journalists which is what the commercialism
Q403 Mr Evans: This is not a new
thing though. It has always struck me that stories, for instance,
that appear in local newspapers must be scanned and scoured by
national journalists who then pick and choose and lift those stories
to print them. With the number of free sheets that we have now
it does seem that some of the stories you have read before and
the detail has not really been altered that much. So it is not
a new thing, is it?
Mr Davies: There has never been
a time when journalists were simply able to tell the truth about
everything. We have always been tethered by time problems because
we are writing about events as they occur and traditionally we
have tried to put them in the paper the next day. So there has
always been a time problem. However, that time problem has certainly
got worse in the 32 years that I have been working as a reporter
and we attempted to measure it with this research I commissioned
from Cardiff University. It is a crude figure, but what they found
was that on average a Fleet Street reporter now is filling three
times as much space as he or she was in the mid-1980s which means
operationally, on average, only a third of the time, story by
story. It is a very, very important shift and the degree of the
time shortage is new.
Q404 Mr Evans: When did you do that
Mr Davies: About two years ago.
Q405 Mr Evans: In which case, if
your statement was right then, it must have got worse now because
the number of journalistsas we have all seen in local and
national papershas dropped. Indeed, the pressure on journalists
to even carry camcorders and do things for web pages seems to
Mr Davies: Definitely. That is
really the reason that the book took off. I am travelling the
world now. I have just come back from China talking about it;
I have been in Australia; I have been all over Western Europe.
All across the developed world those same forces of commercialism,
now aggravated by the credit crisis, are undermining the ability
of journalists to do their job properly. The churnalismthe
shortage of timeis one aspect of that. If you are looking
at the problems of the standards of the press, the primary criteria
for judging us is truth telling and we are failing on that primary
standard more and more often.
Q406 Mr Evans: Would you say that
compared to the past the quality of journalism is as good as it
was in the past, maybe better than it was in the past or is it
now worse than it was in the past?
Mr Davies: If we take a baseline
of 32 years ago when I startedbecause I have experience
as well as researchthe quality of the journalists is probably
better; the quality of the journalism is undoubtedly worse because
of this professional straightjacket in which we are now compelled
to work. When the book came out there were some senior journalists
who just hated it; I was being bombarded with hostility and some
of the people who came out badly from the book did not like it.
What then happened was that I was contacted by journalists from
up and down this country and all across the developed world effectively
saying the same thing, "Thank God you said that because it
is the same in my newsroom". There is a really serious problem
Q407 Mr Evans: Do you believe as
well that there is simply lifting of stories from other papers
which are slightly changed but without the proper investigative
journalism with journalists talking to the people they are writing
about and finding out whether the story was true originally?
Mr Davies: There is a bit of lifting
from other papers. There are two key sources of second hand information:
the wire agency (Reuters, AP) and there is the PR industry. Those
are the two primary sources of second hand material which flow
through the newsrooms and which we churnrecycleinto
print without really checking. I think that means that we are
structurally likely to fail to tell the truth because the news
agencies are too short of staff themselves to know the truth about
what is going on on their patch and the PR industry is specifically
designed to serve the interestspolitical or commercialof
those who pay for it, not the interests of truth.
Q408 Mr Evans: So the old line of
"It's got to be true, I read it in the newspaper" no
longer holds any sway.
Mr Davies: I do not think it ever
was entirely true. There has always been a problem with it, but
that problem I insist has got significantly worse and continues
to deteriorate because of the credit crisis.
Q409 Chairman: Roy, do you recognise
Mr Greenslade: Yes, I certainly
do recognise it. We are now getting evidence from across the country
of courts that are going unreported, of council meetings that
are not being properly covered, of local paper journalists who
never leave the office, of local paper journalists who are required
to perform a sort of wordage count per day or a number of stories
per day. All of this links entirely to what Nick says about churnalism
which is really that it becomes a kind of factory of words rather
than an industry which is dedicated to telling the truth. Certainly
papers come out and certainly papers contain stories, but the
stories are different from the truth, as we know. You can get
your PR feed and in your PR feed you get a story. You might balance
that, if you have a chance, by making one phone call to get the
other side, but that is not what journalism is really about. It
is not about presenting one side and the other side; it is about
trying to get to the truth and you can only do that without time
constraints. In his book Nick has avoided making the mistake (of
which he has been accused many times) of looking back to a golden
age. He agrees with me that there was no golden age; there was
no time in which it was absolutely great and perfect. If I look
back to my first local paper, as I did recently at Colindale Newspaper
Library, I realised that it was not the be all and end all of
journalism then either. However, it was packed with stories, packed
with material which had involved us journalistsa very small
number of usactually going out, meeting people, making
contacts and so on. That does not happen any more. However, I
ought to just stress finally that you have to see it from the
other side too, and that is that councils have made it much more
difficult for journalists to report and so have the police. When
I was first a reporter I went to the police station every morningI
happened to live next door to itand spoke to the duty sergeant
who would turn the book round and we would go through what was
interesting. No duty sergeant will allow that to happen nowadays
because there is a whole PR outfit created to prevent that happening.
It is not simply that journalists have become denuded of time
and opportunity, it is also that the authorities on which we regularly
called have made it that much more difficult to do it. I think
we need to see that context.
Q410 Chairman: Both of you have been
focussing to some extent on local newspapers. I do not want to
pre-empt the Committee's next inquiry which is into the future
of local newspapers, but is this not because of the growth of
on-line distribution, the migration of advertising away from local
traditional news outlets? This is a structural change which really
is inevitable. It is not something we can reverse.
Mr Davies: You have actually got
three phases of work here. Phase number one: the local newspapers
which, on the whole, tend to belong to local families are bought
up by big corporations. You will know that there are four corporations
which own most of the local newspapers nowadays and they ransacked
those local newsrooms for profit, laying off journalists, increasing
the output, closing the offices in the middle of towns so they
can sell the building for profit and moving it out to some industrial
estate where it is cheaper. All that damages the quality of the
local news but it makes a lot of money. Phase two: along comes
the internet, news is free, advertising starts to drift off to
websites where it does not have to pay and/or is more precisely
focused on the market it is trying to reach. Phase three: the
credit crisis, advertising starts to crash downwards. Whereas
previously these corporations were damaging the quality of journalism
in order to increase their profits, now they are damaging the
quality of journalism in order to try to stay afloat. You have
masses and masses of journalists losing their jobs.
Mr Greenslade: We will come back
to the nationals probably because that is your central focus,
the important thing about corporatised journalism as described
by Nick is that that is also evident in national newspapers too.
Although not in every group, it is really very clear in, say,
Trinity Mirror and the Express group and so on where the idea
is that you simply use the kind of mechanisms that I have described
in terms of local papers in national papers, that is smaller and
smaller staff required to respond to a prompt by the news desk
to follow up what is provided by agencies or stringers rather
than actually generating material themselves. That is what I describe
as corporatised journalism and reactive journalism. Journalism
has to be pro-active and that is the difference. The same structures
that we have seen in local newspapers are being repeated to an
extent in nationals.
Q411 Chairman: On top of that there
appears to have been a steady movement away from hard, investigative
journalism towards celebrity sensations.
Mr Greenslade: There is investigative
journalismlet us not say there is notbut it is less
evident than before. The very phrase "investigative journalism"
suggests that there are things which are separate from other kinds
of journalism. Really all journalism should be investigative journalism
in the sense that, even if it is a relatively small story, it
takes that journalist some time to research and investigate it.
It is not that the big, set piece investigative journalism is
not going on because it is, but it is that kind of regular, subjecting
every story to that penetrating analysis which is not happening.
Mr Davies: I slightly disagree
with that. I agree that all journalism should be investigative;
it should be truth telling; it should involve checking and there
has been a serious decline in that, the routine checking of facts.
What we might call investigative stuff is where somebody is trying
to obstruct you getting access to the information you needactive
obstructionand therefore it is tougher and more time consuming.
There is much less of that. I used to be an on-screen reporter
at World in Action and there was also TV Eye at
Thames television and First Tuesday at Yorkshire television
which have all gone and been replaced with that dross Tonight
with Trevor McDonald which is a disgrace. That is the picture.
That is not done because the government comes forward and says
that we should not have real investigations. That is commercialism
at work; it is too expensive to do those difficult investigations.
If you put Trevor in front of the screen and you do short stories
that only last five or 10 minutes, something perhaps about celebrities,
you get higher ratings but you kill your journalism.
Q412 Rosemary McKenna: Can I just
follow up on the point the Chairman made about the celebrity thing.
Is it because of the drop in real journalism and the easy way
it is to fill newspapers with celebrities? Which came first?
Mr Greenslade: That is wonderfully
"chicken and egg". We do live in a celebrity age and
quite why that should be the case I am uncertain. Psychologists
have written many books about it and I am not certain that they
have got it absolutely right. However, in terms of the way it
has affected the media, telling stories has become second rate
to the easy way of boosting a celebrity. There is no doubt that
although Nick's book is brilliant my book on the press is even
more brilliant. In my book I went back to 1945 and simply wrote
a history of what had happened in newspapers from 1945 onwards.
There is no doubt, looking back in those files, that the proportion
of celebrity content has expanded by a huge amount, by many hundreds
of per cent. That might, as you say, reflect a change in public
taste. I do not think so; I think the media as a wholethe
totality of the mediareinforce the concept that celebrity
news is best. We have also seen a democratisation of celebrities
as it were (the Jade Good phenomenon) and that, in itself, means
that celebrity has taken over in a way that it should not have
Mr Davies: I would add that there
is an institutional side to this which is that the growth of celebrity
news is occurring as part of the growth of PR input into newspapers.
When we researched the news stories published by the quality newspapers
in this country, we found that 54% of them were wholly or mainly
PR product. Wholly PR product means that the press officer for
the corporation or the trade union or the government department
writes the press release and we put it in the paper with the reporters'
byline on it. We are allowing government departments and corporations
to write the news. Wholly or mainly PR means that they have written
the press release, we have taken it, made a phone call, tacked
a quote on the end and put it in the paper. That is a very frightening
thing when that happens. If you want to understand why we got
the story on weapons of mass destruction wrong, why we misreported
the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20, that is what it is about;
we rewrite press releases that interested parties put out serving
their interests. Celebrity news is driven by their part of the
PR machine, putting out cheap, easy to run "sexy" stories
with pictures which fill more space and sell papers.
Mr Greenslade: The other important
thing about celebrities is that they have the highest paid, best
PRs and therefore they are much more exploitative and they get
up to all sorts of things. I was at a conference in Derry a couple
of years ago when a PR stood up and said that he was disgusted
with the run down of journalism and he often wrote PR handouts
that had appeared verbatim in the press. He held up in front of
everyone at the conference a page about which he was disgusted
when it happened; he said, "They even ran my byline".
Q413 Mr Hall: Could I explore the
concept of responsible journalism? It is permissible for the press
to run stories that are defamatory as long as they have been well
researched, professionally presented and in the public interest.
That seems to be the defence. Is that sort of defence still relevant
Mr Davies: It is okay for the
press to run defamatory stories
Q414 Mr Hall: This is the House of
Lords ruling in Reynolds, that journalists making statements
which were subsequently found to be defamatory or untrue were
protected in law if the story had been researched, presented professionally
and the subject matter was in the public interest.
Mr Davies: The Reynolds
judgment has been updated and we now call it Jameel. That
is a bad solution to a very bad problem. The very bad problem
is that we have a libel law which does not work for either side.
There are masses of people who are factually wronged and damaged
by newspapers who cannot use libel law to correct the errors because
it is too expensive. Then from the newspapers' point of view,
the legal fees that are involved (I am sure you will have been
told this by other witnesses) are so terrifying that there is
a constant chilling effect, a constant inhibition on us. The libel
laws are a mess. Along comes the High Court and they say, "We
will try to help you out here". Essentially what they are
saying in Reynolds and Jameel is, "If you go
through the correct processes so that we reckon you have behaved
in a responsible way, even if you have blown it we will let you
get away with it". I do not like that because it encourages
a kind of "he said/she said" journalism where we do
not get to the truth. In fact I think it licenses damaging falsehoods.
If somebody comes along to me and says, "Mike Hall is a paedophile"
I ring you up and act responsibly and you say, "No I am not"
Q415 Mr Hall: Just for the record,
I am not.
Mr Davies: No, I understand that
but the Reynolds judgment licenses me to run that story
as long as it is full of your denials and I have behaved in a
responsible way. If Charlie down the road who has told me this
is lying, that is a licence to run malicious falsehoods. I say
this with some passion because when the book came out there were
several attempts to do that to me. I suddenly found myself on
the receiving end of really dishonest journalism. I had to really,
really fight to stop a grotesque sexual smear about my wife going
into the paper. Part of what helped me was that I have never had
a wife. It was just bonkers. I finally only stopped that story
going into the paper because I tape recorded the conversation
with the reporter in which he acknowledged that the fact that
I did not have a wife probably meant that the story was not true.
At the end of the day the editor said, "I am going to run
it anyway with your denial". That is not good enough. I said,
"If you run that story I will publish the tapes in which
your own reporter admits that the story is not true" and
then he backed off. I am not happy with Reynolds and Jameel
but a lot of journalists are because it is one way of dealing
with the wretched libel law.
Q416 Chairman: Are you willing to
tell us which paper it was?
Mr Davies: I do not think I should.
The sleeping dog is lying and I will leave it there.
Mr Greenslade: I am sympathetic
to what Nick says of course, but I do believe that Reynolds
and Jameel do offer a way of getting material into the
public domain that needs to be put there. Of course it is a grotesque
example that Nick quotes but I think there have been plenty of
other examples where that has been valuable, not least in the
Jameel case. I think the key to this is the word "responsible".
As journalists we wish to exercise the greatest amount of licence
and freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility and it is about
how we go about our job. Most of what the Reynolds judgment
said was that we should do certain things properly and I think
that that was important in the case of George Galloway v The
Daily Telegraph where the Telegraph had failed to act
responsibly and the reason I believe the judgment was made in
Galloway's favour was because his counsel were able to show that
the paper had behaved irresponsibly. I think that was very important
in that case and it is important in other cases too. I attended
the Committee to hear Max Mosley speak and although I have differing
views from him about prior notification, it is certainly a case
that responsible journalism means that you should approach the
other party before you go to print when you are about to print
something which intrudes so heavily into their privacy for instance,
or indeed which may libel. I think it is responsible journalism.
I do not think it is a "he said/she said" in those situations;
you should give the other side an opportunity to explain themselves.
That is there in Reynolds and it is something again that
was ignored in the case of the News of the World in carrying
out the Mosley investigation.
Q417 Mr Hall: We have heard evidence
from quite a number of what you would call reputable newspapers
in America. The one absolutely staggering thought in America is
that they can publish anything they like about people in public
life. There is no actual recourse to a court of law to resolve
Mr Greenslade: You have to show
Q418 Mr Hall: Absolutely. The person
or organisation or individual who are put under the spotlight
get the opportunity to rebut and because of that the American
press seems to take a far more responsible attitude. We have heard
that they are only allowed one anonymous source; they have to
cross-reference their story with two separate reference points.
Only then, if it stacks up, do they publish.
Mr Greenslade: The important thing
is about the specificity of culture and this goes across the world.
We have highly competitive sets of national newspapers and competition
is supposed to be a good thingmany people around this table
might think that competition is the be all and end all in lifehowever,
sometimes competition has bad effects too. The bad results of
competition in our press, as distinct from the American press,
are that it has led to extremely poor behaviour. If I might just
indulge a moment of history here, in the 1948 Royal Commission
on the press it was suggested that there should be the setting
up of a press council and, at the same time, there should be some
kind of code from which the press council would operate. It took
five years before the Press Council was set up and without any
kind of code at all so journalists were simply working as they
decided. Out of that freedom that the press enjoyed gradually,
over a prolonged period, standards fell and fell and the Press
Council fell into a situation in which it was disregarded by the
bulk of the press. This led to a kind of Wild West period in the
late 1980s which is the very reason why the Press Council was
abandoned. We set up the PCC and at last, 50 years later, we created
a code of ethics to make journalists abide by. Then of course
we created an administration called the PCC that was weak enough
to ensure that the Code could be ignored.
Q419 Mr Hall: The Americans are very
keen of checking the facts of the story before they go to press.
Mr Greenslade: They are, but they
have a totally split thing. They have weird and crazy newspapersthe
supermarket checkout newspaperswhich no-one really believes
that much and which even stars occasionally sue for but largely
ignore and treat as going with the territory of fame as it were.
Then we have newspapers which, for a variety of reasons, have
created their own set of ethics and ethical guidelines and they
stick very closely to them. In Britain American newspapers are
regarded as incredibly dull because they do that. You will undoubtedly
hear evidence from some editors who think that dullness is something
that must never occur in a newspaper, you must not deal with anything
seriously, that we need all the guff, gossip and trivia to ensure
that we keep readership up and that way justify the odd bits of
serious news that we cover. I see it in a different way; I think
that essentially journalism is about doing public goodnot
entertaining the public but doing public goodand we should
use that as our yardstick or our criteria for everything we do
in journalism. This may be unrelievedly dull but I think it is
very important in terms of our democracy.