Sunday, February 17, 2008


Nick Davies
, Special Correspondent for 'The Guardian' speaks to The Generalist in a new series of contemporary interviews for our companion audio site THE AUDIO GENERALIST. Listen now.

His latest book is 'Flat Earth News' [Chatto & Windus] - a term he defines as an unreliable statement or story 'created by outsiders, usually for their own commercial or political benefit, injected by a wire agency into the arteries of the media through which it then circulates around the whole body of global communication .'

The rise of 'flat earth news' in our media is due, Davies believes principally to less people having to produce more stories in a 24/7 environment, leaving little time to check facts - or even to leave the office !

It also means an unhealthy reliance on wire copy and pr releases. A research report specially commissioned for the book from the University of Cardiff discovered that 80 per cent of news stories in a sample of 'quality' national newspapers in the UK consisted of agency or PR copy. [Available for download here]

On a low level it means more noise in the system; on a high level - the Y2K panic and WMDs in Iraq.

The book also reveals the extent to which British 'broadsheets' employ the services of a network of 'crackers' who supply them with details from private databases - phone records, bank details and the like.

The book, most controversially, analyses three newsroom situations in more depth: the history of the Insight team at the Sunday Times and the reason for its decline; the situation in the newsroom at The Observer leading up to the paper's decision to give its editorial support to Blair's Iraq campaign; the scene inside Paul Dacre's Daily Mail (In a word: ugly.)

The book's sucess can be partly judged by the fact that it is already on its third reprint just eight days after publication.

The book has received a great many praiseworthy reviews, including:

Flat Earth News. Review by Deborah Orr
[Independent on Sunday. 15 Feb 2008)

The Vile Behaviour of the Press by Peter Oborne
[The Spectator. 30 Jan 2008]

'News media have no time for truth' by Sam Leith
(The Telegraph 10 Feb 2008)


Failures of the Fourth Estate by Mary Riddell
(Observer 3 Feb 2008)
Flat Earth News. Review by David Aaronovitch
(The Times 8 Feb 2008)
Is Journalism Getting a Fair Press in this Book?
by Dan Sabbagh (The Times 8 Feb 2008)
Kamal Ahmed: 'Nick is a coward.'
By Michael Savage. (The Independent 11 Feb 2008)

[Since first posting, Nick Davies has written to us claiming that the Kamal Ahmed piece is libellous and that he has written to the Independent to that effect. The Times are publishing a letter tomorrow correcting what he describes as 'the worst of the falsehoods' in the Dan Sabbagh piece.

'No topic is so surrounded by myth as the golden age of the press.' by Simon Jenkins
(The Guardian 8 Feb 2008)

Damaged Limitations by Peter Preston (The Guardian 9 Feb 2008)

These articles say more about the critics themselves than they do about the book which they have either wilfully misunderstood and/or patronised

John Humphries, Ian Hislop, Roy Greeenslade, John Pilger, Peter Oborne. All have positive quotes on the book jacket.

Lively debate at

What interested me most was a quote in
Hard truths for the trade in 'Flat Earth News' by Tim Luckhurst (The Independent 10 Feb 2008): 'I suspect Flat Earth News will come to be seen as among the last excellent books about journalism by a member of the pre-digital generation. Many of the sins he identifies are too easily detected by informed internet readerships. That which survives unchallenged in print is increasingly exposed to ruthless scrutiny on the web. Cynicism is not a new phenomenon in British journalism, but it has a new foe.' [First sighting of the phrase 'pre-digital generation'! Those who began on manual typewriters] makes the point that Davies seems uninterested in 'alternatives to Big Media. There is a world of citizen journalism, user generated content and bloggers out there. There is also a whole range of new journalism techniques that can link the hack with the public to create a more interactive, transparent and trustworthy news media. It can support even the most sophisticated kinds of investigative journalism.'

There is a detailed and interesting critique by Adrian Monck which questions the Cardiff research and much of this has to do with new technology, which has revolutionised journalistic practice and enabled writers to be much more productive. [Monck has his own book out called 'Can You Trust the Media.']


Nick Davies gave a speech at the London School of Economics on Nov 17, 2007. It is reproduced on the Media Workers Against the War site. The first comment on the piece reads as follows:

  • steve_roberts Says:
    December 10th, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    Sweet irony
    “for hundreds of years everyone knew the Earth was flat.”
    The Ancient Greeks knew the earth was round and Eratosthenes estimated its circumference to within 16.5% in 240 BC. The widely held belief that it was widely believed that the earth was flat is itself a flat earth belief.

  • Saturday, February 02, 2008


    Having extolled the budget-conscious delights of the VHS in my previous post, the price of some great boxed sets are now
    becoming more affordable. So for the last two months its been New German Cinema season at chez nous in the company of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog.

    [I just discovered, the British Film Institute in London are halfway through a major Wenders season at present. It runs until the end of Feb: details here.]

    As a result, some interesting assessments of Wenders ouevre
    have appeared: Nick Roddick's essay - 'The Road Goes on Forever' - in Sight and Sound and 'King of the Road' by Chris Petit in The Guardian. James Mottram in The Independent takes what seems to be a widely-held view that Wenders recent output is weak. Hopes are high that his new collaboration with Dennis Hopper may see a return to form.

    Chris Petit, incidentally, does not rate 'Wings of Desire ' (which he calls 'a triumph of location over content') or 'Paris, Texas' ('on the evidence of websites, many are willing to subscribe to Paris, Texas as a profound statement on emptiness, rather than an empty film...'

    Petit is an interesting and innovative filmmaker in his own right. According to a profile in Screenonline, he 'interested Wim Wenders in backing his first feature, Radio On (1979). In spite - or perhaps because - of having no previous film-making experience, Petit pulled off an extraordinary debut, a highly 'European' road movie which, greatly aided by the cinematography of Wenders regular Martin Schafer, presented the British landscape, both rural and urban, in a manner quite unparalleled before or since. Moody and angst-ridden, it announced a singular talent - but also one that was clearly not destined to find a niche easily; as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith aptly put it, Radio On was "a film without a cinema"'

    The box set of Wenders contains 10 films - a mix of features and documentaries. Alongside 'Wings' and 'Paris' are two early works - 'Wrong Move' and 'The Scarlet Letter' (the first, a strange, wordy saga in which annnoying writer called Wilhelm sets out on a random journey and meets strange wierdos along the way; the second, a weird costume drama set in the Puritanical village of Salem, Massachusetts in the 18th century, drawn from the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne). Curios both.
    Original film still and paperback (The Generalist Archive)

    'The American Friend', on the other hand is, in my view, Wenders at his best. Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper star in this brilliant, edgy film based on the novel 'Ripley's Game' by Patricia Highsmith. Saw it on its first release back in the 1970s and found it happily still as great on a re-look. One of Hopper's best roles, combining cool and menace.

    Jean-Luc Godard in 'Room 666'. (1982) Now President of the European Film Academy, Wenders was to present Godard with the Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Godard, writes Petit, 'was a no-show, saying afterwards that his absence was in protest against a prize "imposed" on his entire career. Godard's snub (at Wender's expense) was done as a point of principle, but it generated far more publicity than if he had accepted. Godard and Wenders are both expert manipulators, curators of their own legends...'

    The documentaries are really interesting. 'Room 666' was shot at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. Wenders invited a number of film directors to talk directly to camera about the future of film in a hotel room set-up with a camera and tape. They come in, switch them both on, and start talking. The question was:"Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?" It begins with Jean Luc-Godard then, in no particular order, Antonioni, Herzog, Fassbinder, Spielberg, Monte Hellman and other younger voices. Superb and fascinating. Antonioni looks into the future and correctly predicts large-screen tv in the home. Herzog takes his shoes and socks of before answering such an important question Godard is a brilliant thinker and showman, Spielberg views are fascinating too in the light of the subsequent development of his career in particular and Hollywood in general.

    Two documentaries on Japan - 'Tokyo Ga' and 'Notebooks on Cities and Clothes'. The first is a portrait of the city using the films of Ozu as a framing device; Herzog appears also in this. The second I first saw on Arena many years ago, a portrait of the Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto as he prepares a new collection. Video was relatively new at this time and Wenders enjoys playing around with a whole range of new gadgets. Watching Yohji at work is fascinating. Funniest scenes: Yohji and Wim talking whilst playing pool; Wim is very tall and Yohji is very small.

    'A Trick of the Light' is a real discovery. A documentary about the Skladanowsky Brothers, the German-born duo responsible for inventing the 'bioskop', an early version of the film projector. Eclipsed by the fame of the Lumiere brothers, the S Brothers experimented with silent film and slapstick comedy. Wenders uses some wonderful inventive trick shots, animations and fictionalised episodes, built around the incredibly vivid testimony of 95-year-old Lucie Skladanowsky, the surviving daughter of Max, one of the brothers. [See IMDB for a more detailed account of this film]

    'Lightning Over Water' is a documentary Wenders made of Nicholas Ray, the legendary director of such classics as 'Rebel Without A Cause' and 'Johnny Guitar', as he lay dying of terminal cancer. I haven't had the heart to watch it all through yet.

    Ray and the late Samuel Fuller (read Wender's eulogy to him here) were Wender's mentors and icons - two rough, tough battle-hardened vets of the movie business, outsiders of great charisma. They both also acted in Wender's films: Ray played an art forger in 'The American Friend', Fuller a camerman in 'The State of Things', my other great favourite. (This black and white movie was shot in Portugal in a break during the long nightmare that was the filming of 'Hammett', Wenders tribute to the don of noir fiction Dashiell Hammett, at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in California.

    In conclusion: A valuable set. Shortcomings: No extras.
    Wim Wenders official web site

    Whilst I love Wenders work, find it fascinating and cool, I am in awe of Werner Herzog.

    His global search for what he calls the 'ecstatic truth' has produced both legendary features and a back catalog of extraordinary documentaries - more than 50 films in all. These two box sets are a good place to start getting to grips with this inspiring figure.

    Herzog/Kinski is dynamite. Here collected together are the are the five features that Herzog made with the legendary madman Klaus Kinski. Kinski made scores of films, in most of which he only appears in cameos. This was because he was absolutely impossible to work with. Only Herzog was able to control, cajole and threaten this monstrous man, corral his ferocious spirit, and capture performances that have a power unequalled in cinema.

    'Aguirre Wrath of God' and 'Fitzcarraldo' are rightly Herzog's best known films. Shot in the Amazon, they are not only terrifying to watch, you also know that there is no special effects trickery here. To make these films hundreds of people actually lived and worked under hazrdous condiitions to achieve movies that noone could now emulate. They wouldn't find the financing and the risk factors would be too high for any sane person to handle. The sheer determination it must have taken to realise these stunning films is almost beyond imagining.

    'Cobra Verde', based on the Bruce Chatwin book 'The Viceroy of Ouidah', sees Kinski leading an extraordinary army of black women warriors. In 'Nosferatu', he becomes a ghastly creature of the night, the scariest vampire ever put on screen. In 'Woyzeck' a hapless soldier, bullied and torturted beyond his limits. The set is completed with 'My Best Fiend', Herzog's documentary tribute to his deranged comrade.

    Many of the films have versions with commentary by Herzog and others. Never less than fascinating.

    Box 2 I'm still absorbing: It contains four features - 'Heart of Glass', 'The Enigma of Kasper Hauser', 'Stroszek', 'Even Dwafs Started Small' - and 'Fata Morgana', Herzog's strange documentary on desert mirages.

    A third box set is exclsuively available from the Werner Herzog Archive

    'Werner Herzog – The Documentary And Shorts Collection', they say, 'is a collection of twenty-five films which run the gamut from his first experimental short ('Herkales' from 1962) through to longer documentaries such as 'God's Angry Man' and 'How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck', making all sorts of quirky little cinematic stops along the way. Most of this work is new to DVD.'

    Much to my suprise, two weeks after I started watching these films, a brand new Herzog movie was released - 'Rescue Dawn' starring Christian Bale, who plays Dieter Dengler, a German-born American pilot, shot down in Laos duing the Vietnam War and tortured by his captors. He led a prison break-out and escaped, battling his way through the jungles to safety in Thailand.

    Obsessed by this real-life story and despairing at ever raising funding to make a feature, in 1997 Herzog made a documentary instead - 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly'.

    A good account of Herzog and this new project is Christopher Goodwin's 'Dangerous Waters' which appeared in the Sunday Times.

    Useful Wikipedia entry