Saturday, February 09, 2008


Fleet St Defender Demolishes 'Strawman'

My own memories of Fleet St focus on the George(pictured) which I used gratefully to visit after work up in Holborn at the Air Ministry back in the early 70s. In his piece yesterday, Simon Jenkins defended the modern press against its detractors, looking back to some mythical 'golden age'. He insists there was no such age:

They[the newspapers] were dreadful. Newspapers were brief, humourless, reverential of authority and composed of Hansard, publicity handouts, court reports and agency copy. Wars were reported from "our" side. A political story was simply taken from a secret "lobby" briefing. Foreign news was rarely more than one broadsheet page.

He goes on to deny that there was any real investigative journalism, outside the Sunday Times; defends owners who for the most part do not aim to make money out of their papers; and points out that we still have nine titles reflecting a much superior product. Since corporate ownership arrived, moreover, pagination has tripled and newspapers are bolder, more diverse and, crucially, a much better read. He ends up quoting sociologist Stein Ringen who describes the British press(though I guess he means more the upmarket bit of it) as 'simply brilliant' and a boon to democracy.

I tend to agree with most of this; the quality press has improved amazingly since the seventies and infinitely since the fifties to which decade some look back nostalgically. But I'm not sure if these points answer the critique made by Nick Davies a few days ago. Davies's article summarised his book on the veracity of the press and discovered, alarmingly that misinformation was rife:

I commissioned research from specialists at Cardiff University, who surveyed more than 2,000 UK news stories from the four quality dailies (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) and the Daily Mail. They found two striking things. First, when they tried to trace the origins of their "facts", they discovered that only 12% of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With 8% of the stories, they just couldn't be sure. The remaining 80%, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry. Second, when they looked for evidence that these "facts" had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.

Now, I'm sure the press is glossier, more informative and more entertaining, but is it more reliable? are we sure it tells the truth? Davies's article was worrying and none of Jenkins' arguments refuted these allegations.

There's probably more original content on the blogs these days than you can find in the papers. Which is another reason why the press hate us :D
There's a devastatingly fine rebuttal of Nick Davies's book by Peter Preston in Saturday's Guardian Review (and probably on line) in which, inter alia, he points out that Davies "scatters page after page with anonymous chaps" shortly after criticising his colleagues for relying on second hand material...
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