flat-earth-news1One of the best books to come out of 2009 so far is Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, subtitled ‘An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media’. The title comes from the assertion that for millennia everbody thought the earth was flat – until someone could be bothered to go and find out that it wasn’t. Davies says that loads of ‘stories’ in the media are perceived as true until anyone looks into them properly. One of his complaints about contemporary journalism is the culture that pressurises journalists to produce stories without the facility or time to check their veracity. he’s even set up a website to pursue these things.

His big one is the so-called Millennium Bug. In the run-up to the turn of the millennium there was a widespread fear that computers would malfunction with global catastrophic effects becasue of a suspected inability of the computers to properly read the double-digit turn from 99 to 00. Millions of pounds were spent in attending to this ‘problem’ – only for nothing to happen. So, asks davies, how did this story become so ubiquitously powerful when there was never any truth behind it? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

cctv1Well, in yesterday’s Times David Aaronovitch wrote about the ‘strange case of the surveillance cameras’. The oft-repeated ‘fact’ is that we can be caught on camera in London 300 times per day: that is how pervasive the surveillance society is now. I have often used this ‘fact’ myself. However, Aaronovitch decided to find out where this ‘fact’ has come from and eventually discovered it was, in fact, fiction. Yet we all believe it, apparently.

Three elements of this interest me:

1. Every journalist I know wants to do good, intelligent and useful journalism, but is constrained by the pressures of time, money and numbers to get stories the truth of which is not always ascertainable in the time or circumstances that pertain. This is bad for journalists, bad for journalism and very bad for society which needs to be intelligently and accurately informed.

2. We are too happy to be gullible and, as media consumers, too easily lose our critical and interpretative faculties. What is often confidently stated as fact is often baseless in reality or given a suggestive slant that affects the way a ‘fact’ is understood. A quick example was also to be found in yesterday’s Times in a tiny piece about the Pope’s nominee for Bishop of Linz. The implication of the piece is that the Pope has withdrawn his appointment from the bishop because he had said Harry Potter was ‘satanic’. Indeed, the bishop had said such things, but that was not the reason his appointment had been rescinded. It was his membership of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, his anti-semitism and the fact that the priests in Linz set up a petition against him that did the trick. So, why the Times piece?

brandedarms3. The Church is often preoccuppied with ‘moral’ issues that are difficult and divisive. yet, one of the biggest moral issues we face in the UK right now is the so-called ‘surveillance society’. Even if the cameras aren’t filming us 300 times each day, so many records are now being kept that the notion of privacy is being slowly eroded. The government wants to keep our phone records and emails just in case. Fear of terrorism trumps all other concerns. And we still don’t learn that in 1930s Germany (for example) while the Church was concerned with sorting out ‘moral’ issues such as sexual behaviour and other ‘corruptions’ they missed the big stuff that was coming in its wake.

Does anyone see ‘surveillance‘ as a moral issue? I think it needs more serious attention that it has hitherto been given by people who find it easier to obsess about sexier subjects like sex. But, I suggest, it goes deeper and will require more attention from serious-minded moralists. Even if we are only being filmed 100 times each day.