Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

In a devastating critique of the ills of British journalism, Nick Davies exposes the alarming degree to which reporters are being exploited by the public relations industry, spin doctors, assorted publicists and the like but rather disappointingly he skates over the full impact of the failings which he identifies so clearly in Flat Earth News.

Declining editorial standards have made it all the easier for successive governments to collude with proprietors in manipulating the news media, never more so than during the build-up to the war against Iraq and the blatant misreporting of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

While Davies deserves to be congratulated for his diligence and courage in identifying the many falsehoods and distortions of the intelligence services -- and also the gullibility of the media in accepting them -- he makes only one passing reference to Rupert Murdoch’s role as cheerleader for George Bush and Tony Blair, preferring instead to focus an entire chapter on unseemly and incestuous infighting between Guardian journalists like himself and those on their pro-war sister paper, the Observer.

The Ethical Journalist,

By Tony Harcup.

Sage Publications, £18.00.

Review by Nicholas Jones

After all the anguished soul searching of the summer months over the alleged faking of television and radio programmes, the obvious title for Tony Harcup’s next book must surely be The Ethical Broadcaster. With commendable clarity he has pulled together an invaluable compendium of the numerous ethical dilemmas which every journalist will probably face at some point in their careers, a timely reminder, if one was needed, that public trust in the news media is hard won and easily lost.

While the argument over the need for an enforceable code of conduct will continue to ebb and flow, journalists cannot ignore the fact that our behaviour and ethics are under greater scrutiny than ever before, not least because of the continuing explosion in ways of communicating and accessing information.

Our integrity is on the line as never before and while I agree with the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie that journalism cannot claim to be a profession, he must not be allowed to get away unchallenged with his most recent definition of our trade: "It is a knack, a skill or a talent - like plumbing". (Sun 2.8.2007)

Nicholas Jones explains how the growth in non-attributed quotes and stories based on anonymous sources is eating away at the probity of British journalism:

My heart goes out to that unsung hero who never falters when faced by journalists desperate for an eye witness quote. Once I see those three all-important words -- "an onlooker said..." -- I know I wont be disappointed.

Indeed I have become the "onlooker’s" greatest fan. And, anorak that I am, I have started keeping a file on what the "onlooker" says.

Speech to Press Intergroup, European Parliament, Strasbourg, 27.9.2006

British newspaper front pages for the 19th of July 2003 tell the story of the tragic suicide of Dr David Kelly, who at the time of his death was Britain’s leading authority on biological warfare. I believe Dr Kelly was perhaps the most significant confidential source of information in British journalism in recent times, at least in the years I have been a reporter. But behind the front-age headlines, there is another untold story, of a black day in British journalism.

What we witnessed in just a few weeks was a collective failure by the British news media to protect a source of information whose importance I suggest stands alongside that of Mark Felt, the former deputy director of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, who a year ago finally admitted he was the celebrated "deep throat" in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Remember, that affair brought down President Nixon. And, yes, with the hindsight of recent political history, I am seeking to make out the case that if the journalists of the BBC had adopted that same considered, step-by-step approach which was followed by the reporters of the Washington Post, then who knows, Dr Kelly’s insights during the early months of 2003 might well have been enough to have triggered the downfall of Tony Blair. Yes, a British Prime Minister might also have suffered the same fate as an American President.