Flat Earth News

I note a spate of attention paid to a recent book by the journalist Nick Davies, entitled Flat Earth News. From the various reviews, his central point seems to be that much newspaper journalism is what he christens ‘churnalism’: the recycling of Associated Press material and press releases from interested organisations and PR firms. Allied to this is a broader point: that this is mainly due to the commercial pressure under which newspapers operate. This pressure seems to issue in a reluctance, sometimes hardening into a aversion, to reporting complexity, and a predilection for disaster and conflict of opinion.

Davies’ book is not a historical study, and two of its main critics have accused it of harking back to a never-existent ‘golden age.’ [see Peter Preston and Simon Jenkins, and John Lloyd on the debate.] It strikes me, though, that there is some interesting work to be done, for historians of religion at least. The conservative religious analysis of the media in the last 40 years has tended to see a decay in the mainstream media, due to a wilful, almost gleeful, pushing of the boundaries of taste and religious reference by broadcasters, and a corresponding decline in ‘serious’ coverage of religious issues. If Davies’ analysis is correct, then we might need to think of the change in more two-way terms: for instance, the media storm that followed Honest to God in 1963 was not purely driven by the media organisations, but also reflected what it was that readers wanted. The signals from readers and viewers are by no means clearly channelled by sales and advertising revenue, but there is a relationship nonetheless, which we might need to take into account in thinking about the apparent secularisation of the media.

There may also be some food for thought here in relation to the reception to Rowan Williams’ comments on sharia law a couple of months ago.

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