A few weeks ago, I wrote a short jokey blogpost on the subject of Onion TV's satire of conspiracy theories about the media. (Weather Channel Accused of Pro-Weather Bias, which you can watch here.)
The example of a media conspiracy theory I used was Nick Davies's account of the Observer's coverage of the Iraq war in his book Flat Earth News which, I said, contained stories he must have known weren't true. Nick Davies has objected vigorously. As Mr Davies is undoubtedly a serious journalist, I apologise for any suggestion that he is less than honest and regret any hurt I have inflicted on his feelings. But I should say for the record that although his Flat Earth News website announces that Davies "takes the lid off newspapers and broadcasters, exposing the mechanics of falsehood, distortion and propaganda," my experience of serious print journalists and broadcasters is that they do not engage in falsehood, distortion and propaganda.
Mistakes in journalism happen for two reasons. 1) Information, which appears to be genuine at the time of publication, turns out to be false. 2) People see the same information through different ideological spectacles, and reach wildly different conclusions.
In fairness to Mr Davies, I think we are dealing with the second explanation here.
The reason I wrote what I wrote is that in Flat Earth News Nick Davies describes how Roger Alton, the previous editor of the paper, supported the second Iraq war, as was his right. Davies then presented the Observer as being in thrall to the warmongers in Downing Street and publishing false stories to please Blair. The Observer, like many other papers (see point 1 above), did indeed publish stories from official sources which turned out to be self-serving nonsense. The problem I and many other journalists at the Observer have with Davies's view is that the Observer also published stories Downing Street did not want to hear. The most sensational was a piece by Martin Bright about how GCHQ was spying on UN security council members in the run up to the war, which was leaked to us by Katherine Gun, a whistleblower inside the listening station. (Summary here).
The story went round the world and did Tony Blair no good at all. Davies in his book tried to get round this inconvenient fact by saying that the story caused heated debates in the newsroom. Of course it did. The editor could have been up at the Old Bailey on a charge of breaking the Official Secrets Act -- you would expect there to be fractious debate. So I asked Martin Bright to give his account of what happened in the hope of settling the matter. Here it is:
"I was happy to talk to Nick Davies about The Observer and the Iraq War because I thought it was important that he heard what happened from the people who were there. I explained from the outset, however, that on the Katharine Gun story I did not believe Roger Alton had bowed to political pressure to delay publication of the story. Roger's judgement about the story appeared to me entirely journalistic although he may have had some ideological resistance to an antiwar story. Indeed I said it was entirely to his credit that he ran the story considering his position on the war. Nick Davies chose to interpret events differently"
So he did. I merely note that the story, along with many other critical pieces, made it into the paper none the less.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook.
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