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Monday 28th September 2009
Apology to Nick Davies

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.

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January 26th, 2010
6:01 PM
Cohen is part of the growing commentariat, a columnist whose increasingly bizarre rants are more Islington dinner party debate than serious journalism. Nick Davies, by contrast, is the finest investigative journalist of his generation. A man who actually leaves his desk and finds things out, rather than simply reading the latest posting on Harry's Place to get ideas.

October 25th, 2009
11:10 PM
"there's nothing wrong with having a dig." Quite right. What is wrong is fabricating a lie - that Nick Davies inserted into his book stories that he knew were untrue - and then, when you are asked for evidence, simply producing bluster and abuse and a non-apology. It's wrong, and it's appalling.

October 8th, 2009
9:10 AM
Well, an even better thing is to reread this posting. You take the side that Nick Cohen has done something wrong, Peter. I don't. Nick Cohen quotes what Nick Davies' website claims he (Davies) is doing; and gives him the second option for his reasons. Why bother raising anything? Well there's nothing wrong with having a dig, puncturing what some might say seems to be quite self important aims. Would the media be the flag of the devil if Nick Davies wasn't around? Enough has been said in way of an explanation as to how the first posting came about, with an apology for misinterpretation. No need to sue anybody. It is nothing more than a bit of stand-off on Standpoint. Better than the claptrap you easily find elsewhere.

October 7th, 2009
11:10 PM
So when is Cohen going to correct his lies in this post?

October 6th, 2009
9:10 PM
No, it wasn't a joke. Go back and read the original post. It was a serious claim about a serious journalist - and one that was blatantly false, and which Cohen can't produce a shred of evidence for.

Chris Williams
October 6th, 2009
1:10 PM
Well done, Henry - looks like your trolling has managed to move the topic of conversation away from "Nick Cohen - serial liar?". I'm sure he's grateful.

October 6th, 2009
9:10 AM
Well looky here, Peter has never said anything in his life that could insult someone, it seems. Your virtue will be rewarded I'm sure, at some point. But this childish demanding you are making is bizarre. If you get to the real world, don't be shocked too much so you squeak out something that will scare one of our old ladies. It was a jokey posting, as said, and you and your gang are as near to pathetic on this as makes no difference.

October 4th, 2009
8:10 PM
Hear, hear, Peter! Shame on Cohen!

October 3rd, 2009
9:10 PM
If you are so puerile you will call Johan Hari, who vehemntly opposes totalitarianism and wins awards from Amnesty International for his reporting on it, a "maoist", then you can't be taken seriously, and I shall disregard what you say. Nick - when are you going to accurately describe your original accusations against Nick Davies? Aren't you embarrassed that everyone can see you are lying, just by clicking on your original post?

October 3rd, 2009
10:10 AM
What's really in this for you peter? Is it personal - Peter Davies, is it? A -breakdown in print- was what you should have wrote. That was what the review of the book, well, I say review but a break down in print was what it actually amounted to. Hari hasn't been some squeaky-clean infant getting picked on, he can be a sneaky liar when he wants to. A maoist? Probably is. Or do you really know different for sure? There's no disgrace at all with that. I've called people far worse, and since you're not a judge, an officer in the thought and speech police, but more like Mary Whitehouse, then get down the gym and beef yourself up. It's a rough world out there.

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About Nick Cohen

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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