Nick Davies: The journo who took on journalism
Interview by Alison McCulloch.
Nick Davies held journalists to account with Flat Earth News, which exposed the use of recycled PR “churnalism”. He did it again with his coverage of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, described in Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up With Rupert Murdoch.
You wrote in Hack Attack: “For a while, we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite.” Has anything changed since?
Not very much. I would say we have reduced the level of crime in newspapers to zero. But I thought in addition to that we would probably manage to create a reliable independent press regulator, and we failed in that.
I don’t think it’s surprising we failed to change those big structures of power. Rupert Murdoch still owns four national newspapers and a national news channel, and therefore politicians will still seek his favour, and he and his journalists will still throw their weight around.
We’ve got an election coming up, they’ll still be throwing their weight around as though it was up to them to decide who our government should be.
Do you find that depressing?
Well the thing is, I’ve got quite old. When I started as a journalist, which was in 1976, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, I really believed that if we found a bad thing and wrote about it the bad thing would stop. The reason was that Richard Nixon had to resign. But as the years went by it became clear that, actually, that was rather an unusual sequence of events.
What’s far more normal is when you see a bad thing, you write about it, the people who are responsible get very angry and run around shouting and making threats, and then they carry on doing what they were doing. That, on the whole, is what’s happened with Murdoch, his company and the dark newspapers of Fleet Street.
How can the rest of us force journalists to be as transparent as they insist everyone else should be?
I stumbled into writing about journalists and came up against a wall of spite, aggression and dishonesty. That wall remains intact and they’ve not changed their behaviour. They haven’t changed the way they deal with people who get in their way. They don’t like it, and that means the people who work there are often very frightened of speaking out.
There is a real regime of fear in some of these newspapers and it also means that people who do cross them, whether it’s a journalist or a lawyer or an MP, are likely to find themselves being attacked. So I don’t know how we would encourage them to be more open. They’re really not interested in it. They are hypocrites.
We’ve had “churnalism” and criminality. Are there any other dirty secrets of journalism that need exposing?
This is a little bit of a dead end because there were three or four very big allegations of very worrying things. I’m talking about quite specific concrete allegations where there were good sources who I believed were telling the truth. But those sources wouldn’t come on the record, and we couldn’t get any other source to confirm and develop the story.
There was one in particular that I would say is at least as powerful as that Milly Dowler story [the revelation that journalists had hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler]. We haven’t been able to tell it because it’s all off the record. It’s very frustrating. I spent a lot of time trying to develop it.
You’ve said that you are a media hermit. You avoid most newspapers and broadcast outlets. Where do you advise people go to find out what’s happening in the world?
I made that comment about being a media hermit — it’s really describing how I think reporters should operate. We were all trained to read masses of newspapers and follow radio and television, and I think it’s really bad practice, because you get sucked in to thinking the stories you should be reporting are the same ones that everybody else is reporting, and with the same angles. I think the worst thing about this is that it means you don’t cover the masses and masses of stories that aren’t being recycled by everybody else.
What advice do you have for reading newspapers and listening to broadcasts with a sceptical eye?
I think it’s really difficult even for a professional journalist to be constantly as sceptical as ideally we would be. It’s just such a mental effort every time you read a sentence to say, “Well now, is that true? Can I trust it?” But certainly if there’s a particular story which really matters to you, I definitely wouldn’t rely on news accounts. I would try and go and check, which has got much easier because of the internet.
The other side of this is that I think something rather frightening is happening because of the internet, which is that people are no longer relying on the mainstream news. They’ve become quite cynical about it, so they’re in a new position where they can not only consume the news, they can actually produce it on Twitter and blogs and so on.
How much of that concern might be a reluctance of journalists to lose their gatekeeper role?
I don’t know about the gatekeeper role. I don’t think we should lose journalism. If our financial problems accumulate and it turns out that in 20 years’ time mainstream journalism is basically dead, people will be sorry.
They’ll say, “Well, that’s a shame. We should have a profession out there who have the skills and the resources and the accountability, who would go out and check facts and find out how much of this bullshit on the internet is true and how much isn’t. What a shame we just blew it and lost them.
“It’s a shame we’ve got such a bad reputation, but people will miss us when we’re gone.”
Nick Davies is a guest of the Auckland Writers Festival, May 13-17, Aotea Centre. writersfestival.co.nz