Press standards, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 402-419)


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 has done.

  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 analysis?

  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 journalists—as we have all seen in local and national papers—has dropped. Indeed, the pressure on journalists to even carry camcorders and do things for web pages seems to have increased.

  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 churnalism—the shortage of time—is 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 started—because I have experience as well as research—the 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 here.

  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 churn—recycle—into 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 interests—political or commercial—of 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 this?

  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 journalists—a very small number of us—actually 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 morning—I happened to live next door to it—and 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 journalism—let us not say there is not—but 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 need—active obstruction—and 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 whole—the totality of the media—reinforce 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 done.

  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 today?

  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 that.

  Mr Greenslade: You have to show malice.

  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 thing—many people around this table might think that competition is the be all and end all in life—however, 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 newspapers—the supermarket checkout newspapers—which 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 good—not entertaining the public but doing public good—and 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.

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