Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

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Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Wed Aug 07, 2013 10:38 am

Obligatory disclaimer:

Via: ... vice=print

How the spooks took over the news

In his controversial new book, Nick Davies argues that shadowy intelligence agencies are pumping out black propaganda to manipulate public opinion – and that the media simply swallow it wholesale

Monday, 11 February 2008

Onthe morning of 9 February 2004, The New York Times carried an exclusive and alarming story. The paper's Baghdad correspondent, Dexter Filkins, reported that US officials had obtained a 17-page letter, believed to have been written by the notorious terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi to the "inner circle" of al-Qa'ida's leadership, urging them to accept that the best way to beat US forces in Iraq was effectively to start a civil war.

The letter argued that al-Qa'ida, which is a Sunni network, should attack the Shia population of Iraq: "It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us. If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis."

Later that day, at a regular US press briefing in Baghdad, US General Mark Kimmitt dealt with a string of questions about The New York Times report: "We believe the report and the document is credible, and we take the report seriously... It is clearly a plan on the part of outsiders to come in to this country and spark civil war, create sectarian violence, try to expose fissures in this society." The story went on to news agency wires and, within 24 hours, it was running around the world.

There is very good reason to believe that that letter was a fake – and a significant one because there is equally good reason to believe that it was one product among many from a new machinery of propaganda which has been created by the United States and its allies since the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

For the first time in human history, there is a concerted strategy to manipulate global perception. And the mass media are operating as its compliant assistants, failing both to resist it and to expose it.

The sheer ease with which this machinery has been able to do its work reflects a creeping structural weakness which now afflicts the production of our news. I've spent the last two years researching a book about falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media.

The "Zarqawi letter" which made it on to the front page of The New York Times in February 2004 was one of a sequence of highly suspect documents which were said to have been written either by or to Zarqawi and which were fed into news media.

This material is being generated, in part, by intelligence agencies who continue to work without effective oversight; and also by a new and essentially benign structure of "strategic communications" which was originally designed by doves in the Pentagon and Nato who wanted to use subtle and non-violent tactics to deal with Islamist terrorism but whose efforts are poorly regulated and badly supervised with the result that some of its practitioners are breaking loose and engaging in the black arts of propaganda.

Like the new propaganda machine as a whole, the Zarqawi story was born in the high tension after the attacks of September 2001. At that time, he was a painful thorn in the side of the Jordanian authorities, an Islamist radical who was determined to overthrow the royal family. But he was nothing to do with al-Q'aida. Indeed, he had specifically rejected attempts by Bin Laden to recruit him, because he was not interested in targeting the West.

Nevertheless, when US intelligence battered on the doors of allied governments in search of information about al-Q'aida, the Jordanian authorities – anxious to please the Americans and perhaps keen to make life more difficult for their native enemy – threw up his name along with other suspects. Soon he started to show up as a minor figure in US news stories – stories which were factually weak, often contradictory and already using the Jordanians as a tool of political convenience.

Then, on 7 October 2002, for the first time, somebody referred to him on the record. In a nationally televised speech in Cincinnati, President George Bush spoke of "high-level contacts" between al-Q'aida and Iraq and said: "Some al-Q'aida leaders who fled Afghanistan, went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Q'aida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."

This coincided with a crucial vote in Congress in which the president was seeking authority to use military force against Iraq. Bush never named the man he was referring to but, as the Los Angeles Times among many others soon reported: "In a speech [on] Monday, Bush referred to a senior member of al-Q'aida who received medical treatment in Iraq. US officials said yesterday that was Abu al Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who lost a leg during the US war in Afghanistan."

Even now, Zarqawi was a footnote, not a headline, but the flow of stories about him finally broke through and flooded the global media on 5 February 2003, when the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, addressed the UN Security Council, arguing that Iraq must be invaded: first, to stop its development of weapons of mass destruction; and second, to break its ties with al-Q'aida.

Powell claimed that "Iraq today harbours a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi"; that Zarqawi's base in Iraq was a camp for "poison and explosive training"; that he was "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Q'aida lieutenants"; that he "fought in the Afghan war more than a decade ago"; that "Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against countries, including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia".

Courtesy of post-war Senate intelligence inquiries; evidence disclosed in several European trials; and the courageous work of a handful of journalists who broke away from the pack, we now know that every single one of those statements was entirely false. But that didn't matter: it was a big story. News organisations sucked it in and regurgitated it for their trusting consumers.

So, who exactly is producing fiction for the media? Who wrote the Zarqawi letters? Who created the fantasy story about Osama bin Laden using a network of subterranean bases in Afghanistan, complete with offices, dormitories, arms depots, electricity and ventilation systems? Who fed the media with tales of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, suffering brain seizures and sitting in stationery cars turning the wheel and making a noise like an engine? Who came up with the idea that Iranian ayatollahs have been encouraging sex with animals and girls of only nine?

Some of this comes from freelance political agitators. It was an Iranian opposition group, for example, which was behind the story that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was jailing people for texting each other jokes about him. And notoriously it was Iraqi exiles who supplied the global media with a dirty stream of disinformation about Saddam Hussein.

But clearly a great deal of this carries the fingerprints of officialdom. The Pentagon has now designated "information operations" as its fifth "core competency" alongside land, sea, air and special forces. Since October 2006, every brigade, division and corps in the US military has had its own "psyop" element producing output for local media. This military activity is linked to the State Department's campaign of "public diplomacy" which includes funding radio stations and news websites. In Britain, the Directorate of Targeting and Information Operations in the Ministry of Defence works with specialists from 15 UK psyops, based at the Defence Intelligence and Security School at Chicksands in Bedfordshire.

In the case of British intelligence, you can see this combination of reckless propaganda and failure of oversight at work in the case of Operation Mass Appeal. This was exposed by the former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter, who describes in his book, Iraq Confidential, how, in London in June 1998, he was introduced to two "black propaganda specialists" from MI6 who wanted him to give them material which they could spread through "editors and writers who work with us from time to time".

In interviews for Flat Earth News, Ritter described how, between December 1997 and June 1998, he had three meetings with MI6 officers who wanted him to give them raw intelligence reports on Iraqi arms procurement. The significance of these reports was that they were all unconfirmed and so none was being used in assessing Iraqi activity. Yet MI6 was happy to use them to plant stories in the media. Beyond that, there is worrying evidence that, when Lord Butler asked MI6 about this during his inquiry into intelligence around the invasion of Iraq, MI6 lied to him.

Ultimately, the US has run into trouble with its propaganda in Iraq, particularly with its use of the Zarqawi story. In May 2006, when yet another of his alleged letters was handed out to reporters in the Combined Press Information Centre in Baghdad, finally it was widely regarded as suspect and ignored by just about every single media outlet.

Arguably, even worse than this loss of credibility, according to British defence sources, the US campaign on Zarqawi eventually succeeded in creating its own reality. By elevating him from his position as one fighter among a mass of conflicting groups, the US campaign to "villainise Zarqawi" glamorised him with its enemy audience, making it easier for him to raise funds, to attract "unsponsored" foreign fighters, to make alliances with Sunni Iraqis and to score huge impact with his own media manoeuvres. Finally, in December 2004, Osama bin Laden gave in to this constructed reality, buried his differences with the Jordanian and declared him the leader of al-Q'aida's resistance to the American occupation.


The Press Association's wire service has a long-standing reputation for its integrity and fast, fair and accurate reporting. Much of his criticism is anonymously sourced – which is something we strive to avoid.


Thanks to the internet there's a constant source of news stories pumping into newsrooms. Stories are simply rewritten. It produces an airless cycle of information. Papers too rarely have news stories of their own.


The media has ceded a lot of the power of setting the agenda; the definition of news has broadened to include celebrities and new products (the iPhone is a big story). But I don't join in the hand-wringing or say it's desperate that people outside newspapers have got a say.


Davies is right to point to the lack of investigative rigour: the primary purpose of journalism is to rattle cages. I was always struck at the extent to which political journalists yearned to be spoon fed. Having said that, I think he uses too broad a brush.


I'm not saying this is a golden age, but there's a strong investigative drive in the British press. A lot of papers put a strong value on such stories. I suspect we're about the most invigilated establishment in Europe.


I'm disappointed that a book which has as its premise the dictation of the news agenda by PRs should contain in it an anonymous quote from a PR criticising theStandard's coverage of the Natwest Three.


It's not entirely true what Davies is saying. In the past, we just got scrutiny from newspapers and now think tanks publish results of investigations. But there's an assumption that the public aren't interested in government, just Amy Winehouse.


Davies is spot on. It's reasonable that newspapers carry PA accounts of court hearings, but he's right that there's more "churn" now. Reporters don't get out of the office the way they did once – partly a reflection of reduced budgets.

This is an edited extract from "Flat Earth News: an award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media", published by Chatto & Windus, price £17.99. To order this title for the special price of £16, including postage and packaging, call Independent Books Direct: 08700 798 897

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Re: Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

Postby JackRiddler » Wed Aug 07, 2013 12:43 pm

We meet at the borders of our being, we dream something of each others reality. - Harvey of R.I.

To Justice my maker from on high did incline:
I am by virtue of its might divine,
The highest Wisdom and the first Love.

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Re: Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Aug 08, 2013 12:04 pm

Relevant to a sub-forum I am cultivating. Wanna fight about it?


Thank you for reformatting the OP though.

As this gets fleshed out with interviews it will become pretty obvious Nick Davies carefully avoids the "spooks" altogether, and aside from that one headline, he's not really discussing the MilIntel/Media relationship, at all.
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Re: Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Aug 08, 2013 12:10 pm

Via: ... Earth_News

Flat Earth News was greeted in the London Review of Books on its publication as "a genuinely important book, one which is likely to change, permanently, the way anyone who reads it looks at the British newspaper industry". The LRB highlighted the analysis showing that 60% of the content of UK papers was based mainly on wire copy or press releases, while only 12% are original stories and only 12% of stories showed evidence that the central statement had been corroborated (see Churnalism). Mary Riddell in The Observer disputed some of the charges against British journalism in the book, and described it as "unduly pessimistic". Peter Oborne in The Spectator concentrated on the use of illegal techniques to invade privacy rather than declining standards, describing Flat Earth News as "hypnotically readable" and praising the collection of evidence that the practice of journalism is "bent", although qualifying this somewhat by suggesting that Davies "ignores a great deal of journalism that is salient and good".


Churnalism is a form of journalism in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking. The neologism "churnalism" has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008.

Churnalism has increased to the point that many stories found in the press are not original. The decline of original journalism has been associated with a corresponding rise in public relations.

In his book Flat Earth News, the British journalist Nick Davies reported a study at Cardiff University by Professor Justin Lewis and a team of researchers which found that 80% of the stories in Britain's quality press were not original and that only 12% of stories were generated by reporters. The result is a reduction of quality and accuracy as the articles are open to manipulation and distortion.
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Re: Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Aug 08, 2013 12:18 pm

Via: ... and_paste/

WiReD editor 'fesses to churnalism
Information wants to be stolen
By Andrew Orlowski, 25th June 2009

WiReD magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson has copped to lifting chunks of material for his second book Free from Wikipedia and other sources without credit. But it could be about to get a lot worse.

In addition to the Wikipedia cut'n'pastes, Anderson appears to have lifted passages from several other texts too. And in a quite surreal twist, we discover that the Long Tail author had left a hard drive backup wide open and unsecured for Google to index, then accused one of his accusers of "hacking".

Does the WiReD editor and New Economy guru need basic lessons in how to use a computer?

Waldo Jaquith of Virginia Quarterly Review unearthed a dozen suspect passages after what he called "a cursory investigation", and posted his findings here on Tuesday. Wikipedia entries for 'There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch', 'Learning Curve' and 'Usury' had been pasted into Anderson's book.

In addition to Wikipedia citations, which Anderson reproduced with the errors intact (oops), Jacquith suggests he also lifted from an essay and a recent book. Presented with the evidence, Anderson blamed haste and (curiously) not being able to decide on a presentation format for citations, for his decision to omit the citations altogether. Other examples were "writethroughs", he said.

Then lit blogger Edward Champion documented several more examples which he says show "a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim." Champion's examples of churnalism include blog posts, a corporate websites and (again) Wikipedia.

Handbags at dawn

In a memorable exchange with the humourless Anderson, Champion responded:

"Even accounting for the fool’s weight that Wikipedia has in even the most generalized research situation, surely an 'according to Wikipedia' would have solved the problem. Except that if you actually copped to the fact that you cadged from Wikipedia, you’d be a laughing stock, wouldn’t you? Your 'expertise' — that country bumpkin approach to slinging conceptual generalizations around — would be called into question, wouldn’t it?".

Champion also discovered that Anderson had shared a backup of his personal hard drive with the entire universe. Anderson said he'd accidentally left the password off the backup, and then accused Champion of depositing files on the hard drive. Paging tech support for Mr Anderson...

And the rest of the iceberg has yet to be measured. One correspondent noted yesterday that in The Long Fail, Anderson's first hit, Anderson describes a walk he supposedly took around a Wal-Mart in Oakland, where "There are no copies of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street or Nirvana's Nevermind".

This bears a remarkable resemblance to a 2004 article in Rolling Stone magazine by Warren Cohen, who says: "At a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Thorton, Colorado, for example, there were no copies of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street or Nirvana's Nevermind."

The papers have been having great fun with the story, which has gained legs because of Anderson's dog-ate-my-footnotes defence. But maybe they shouldn't cast the first stone.
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Re: Nick Davies - How the Spooks Took Over the News

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Thu Aug 08, 2013 12:21 pm

Via: ... arth-flat/

- Describe the initial reaction to Flat Earth News

It came in two parts. There was a month or two at the beginning when some of the 'bad guys' in the book were fantastically hostile - people such as Peter Preston from The Guardian and Roger Alton and Kamal Ahmed at The Observer. After a month or two it changed and there was a second wave of reaction, which was hugely supportive.

- Did you find that hostility surprising considering you have written extensively for both The Guardian and The Observer?

The Guardian and Observer staff generally were hugely supportive and had helped me write the chapters that infuriated the 'bad guys' there. People in newspapers generally have been very supportive and phoned me saying they were working for an organisation that would not allow them to do their jobs properly. People did not become journalists to write bad or false stories, they want to write good stories.

- As a freelance journalist, were you concerned the opinions you expressed about Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre could affect future commissions?

I would not feel comfortable working for Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre. I do not blame people who do work for Paul Dacre. But I would not work for him and I am pretty sure he would not employ me.

- Melanie Riley, director of Bell Yard, was one of the PR professionals you named in the book for her work with the NatWest Three. She sent a letter to PRWeek on 15 February 2008 expressing concerns about how you had portrayed the case. How would you respond to that?

I did a radio interview and Melanie rang up and claimed I had written about Bell Yard and never spoken to her. She must have known I spent two hours in the Bell Yard office with a partner and that my researcher had numerous email conversations with her. I think the book showed Bell Yard in a good light.

- How can that be the case?

If PR professionals do their jobs well, they will serve the interests of the people who have paid them. There is a direct conflict between how they operate and the way journalists are supposed to operate, which is to serve the interests of readers, viewers and listeners. It is not about saying people who work in PR are bad. There is conflict between the objectives of PR and the objectives of journalism. Melanie did a good job for her client and I believe she comes out of the story well. In fact, I would have thought she got a lot of business out of it.

- Has anything changed over the past two years?

If you look at what the book is saying, which is why are we publishing so many stories that are not true, you have to look at the commercial factors. These have become more and more destructive, for three reasons. Firstly, big corporations have made our news organisations more commercial. Secondly, the internet has made the financial impact on commercial organisations worse and, thirdly, the credit crisis.

- What has the impact of those three factors been?

Newsrooms have fewer journalists in them and they are having to produce more material. The way in which they select stories and angles is more compromised than it was before and the likelihood they will run stories that are false or distorted is greater.

- Can we solve this problem, or is it too late?

That is the big question and in newspapers, everyone is asking it. I feel we need to be realistic and admit that it is possible we cannot solve the problem. That does not mean we cannot, but that it is possible we cannot.

- So, to put it another way, it is possible we can solve the problem. How?

Either we find a way of reviewing the traditional business model of advertising and circulation, or we find a new business model, for example paywalls on websites. At the moment, it is not obvious that either of these routes will be the future.

- There is an emerging trend for local authority-funded titles, billed as presenting local news and views, and with a local authority budget. But they will not report on issues that reflect the council in a negative light. Could this be a route to explore?

Newspapers like this cannot claim to be telling people the truth about their council. However, there is a wider issue in that reporting of local government is one of the areas that has gone. There is a national shortage of local government reporters - there is not one on any national newspaper or at the PA. The only national coverage of local politics is in Private Eye.

- How does the PR industry fit into the picture you are painting?

At the moment, the extent to which we rely on the PR industry for our stories has increased and will carry on doing so. If the PR industry does its job well, as a service industry of the people who are paying it, this presents a bigger problem for journalists. PR professionals and journalists are serving different interests. If a reporter is overworked and given the chance of rewriting a press release in half an hour or going out, making contacts, finding a story, researching and developing it, it will take days. It's likely they'll use the press release.

- But PR is not necessarily a bad source of news?

Most PR activity is not dishonest. Most is true, but it deals in truths that are selected to show the client in a good light. If you are a press officer in the police force and you have a story about an officer who was drunk on duty, or a story about an officer getting an award for bravery, you can perfectly legitimately choose to put out the story about the award - it's a true story.

A journalist will be grateful to receive it, but we will never get the opportunity to see the story about the drunk officer and we will never get to exercise our judgment about which story we should be running.

- You say 'most' PR activity is true. Do you think some PR professionals lie?

As a matter of professional experience, it can happen that PR people tell lies. If you have a PR person at a government office and you go to them with an embarrassing story, they will, in my experience, tell lies.

- Do you feel your book has made you unpopular with PR professionals?

I have spoken at events held by the PR industry and have had an audience made up entirely of PR people. They were 95 per cent sympathetic. I have come across one or two negative PR people but, in general, they are very supportive.

- Do you think you have helped the PR profession?

A lot of PR people have been journalists. But a lot of PR people will say it is ridiculous to write a press release and then see a paper and read that very same press release. A lot of PR folk see the bigger picture. Yes, a PR person is trying to represent the organisation for which they work, but in the rest of their lives they are citizens. If they see a paper and read about the threat of swine flu and wonder whether or not they should go to Mexico, they need to know what they are reading is a product of journalism, not fed to journalists by pharmaceutical firms trying to promote themselves.


- Graham Goodkind, Chairman and founder, Frank PR

The book was a vital contribution to the interesting, frustrating and endless debate about the role of media in society and its alleged decline. Davies raised some troubling points for people concerned with the media, showing how the press have often ceased to inform public debate and how cutbacks have badly damaged news gathering. There are examples where a PR-influenced story, such as the Millennium Bug, got out of hand.

The book is quite negatively biased about PR, especially corporate and public affairs. That said, much of the 'PR' detailed is of the crude, rather unethical and often stupid variety that doesn't work in a social media-enabled landscape. The big thing that has changed since publication is the emergence of social media as a counterweight to the problems in the book. Lazy media and dodgy PROs can get away with far less than they could two years ago.

- Nick Rabin, Head of broadcast, Weber Shandwick

As a former journalist working in PR, I approached the book with a degree of trepidation - I feared a character assassination of the industries in which I have spent most of my working life.

Yes, it does make some valid points, but I dispute the view of journalism's halcyon days where journalists were unencumbered by other people's agendas - Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere were hardly shrinking violets when it came to their papers' editorial policies.

There is, and has always been, bad journalism, just as there is bad PR. In the relationship between the two, each has to understand that the other has an agenda - the problem is that Davies appears to believe the journalist's has more value. Good PR can, and does, help journalists write better stories without having to resort to 'churnalism'.
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