Startling revelations

1 February 2008 – Today MediaWise is releasing online the Cardiff University research report that underpins Nick Davies’ devastating critique of British journalism Flat Earth News, previewed in the current issue of Private Eye and this week’s edition of Press Gazette.

The quality and independence of British journalism has been severely damaged since the Wapping Dispute in 1986, when Rupert Murdoch challenged the power of the print unions. Over the last 20 years, the research shows, profits have doubled and pagination has trebled, across the industry, while the number of jobs is about the same and productivity, in terms of the number of stories produced by journalists, has trebled.

Many journalists now have to feed a 24-hour news operation, producing copy for a variety of media – print, online, television and radio. Increasingly deskbound, they have no time to go out and find or properly research stories. Our report suggests that less than 1 in 5 stories is now independently sourced. As a result the public relations industry exerts an unduly powerful influence over the news agenda. And with each medium feeding off the content of its rivals, the public has no way of knowing which news items may have originated in an unchallenged press release.

Profits may be up but there has been no corresponding investment in the actual business of journalism. This is one of the complaints of striking journalists at the Milton Keynes Citizen, who have queried their management’s commitment to quality journalism. Johnston Press, now has 18 daily newspapers, 291 weekly newspapers and 317 local websites, acquired and developed over recent years.

Take-overs, merged titles and shared newsrooms and overheads have improved balance sheets across the industry to the detriment of journalistic integrity. Yet few members of the public can be expected to appreciate the complex mesh of media ownership that controls the flow of information they receive, and may indeed influence news content.

They may be familiar with News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch’s massive global interests in media production, but what about Newsquest, the UK end of the US publishing giant Gannett? It owns 17 regional dailies, some 300 local weeklies and 180 local websites. The Daily Mail General Trust includes 50 companies with more than 100 local newspapers, 28 local websites, as well as radio, TV, teletext outlets and its national titles. Their influence over public discourse is immense, so it is not surprising that Daily Mail executives were among the first to try and rubbish Nick Davies’ book and the Cardiff research.

Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, our report is a major contribution to the debate MediaWise initiated in 2004 on Journalism and Public Trust. We were pleased to assist Nick Davies, since those who object to criticism of journalism standards constantly demand hard evidence. Cardiff’s research contains evidence in abundance. Its closing section, ‘The View from the Newsroom’, offers perhaps the most dispiriting evidence – a collapse in confidence among even then most experienced of journalists.

Only last weekend (26 Jan 08) former Independent on Sunday Editor Peter Wilby reflected this mood, when he told the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom conference on ‘New Threats to Media Freedom’ that marketing managers are now taken more seriously than Editors.

“Is it any wonder that public trust in journalists is declining?” responded Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists. The situation is not peculiar to the UK. A poll in the US has revealed that fewer than one in five Americans is willing to trust the accuracy of news reporting, and four out of five are convinced that the media seek to manipulate public opinion. One third of Americans believe the media is biased and unfair, according to research by Sacred Heart University in New England.

The House of Lords Communications Committee members need to read the Cardiff research and Nick Davies’ book before they complete their current deliberations on Media Ownership and the News. We shall also be submitting it to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, and renewing our call for a Fourth Royal Commission into the state of the UK media.

Mike Jempson,
Director, The MediaWise Trust

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus to be published on 7 Feb 2008.

(Bulletin No 146)

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