Flat Earth News by Nick Davies Chatto & Windus, HK$288 Westerners are fond of trumpeting the virtues of a free press. We love to inform the rest of the world that our media is based on independence and integrity, a vigilant watchdog of the abuses of power. However, is the reality so independent and uncensored? Does the press really search for the truth? Flat Earth News by former Guardian correspondent Nick Davies provides an incisive expose of the malaise of global mainstream media, compelling the reader to abandon comfortable illusions and media mythology about our so-called free press. In a world dominated by global market forces, information and journalism are increasingly traded as commodities for sale. The idea of the media being a public service imbued with professional ethics and values to uphold has been under relentless attack, with even the former oasis of the BBC under siege. The takeover of London's The Sunday Times by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and the demise of the newspaper's reputation as a world beacon for investigative journalism is cited in the book as a prime example. In the 1970s, The Sunday Times and its Insight team became internationally acclaimed for their courageous expose of the Thalidomide drug scandal, revelations about torture by the British Army in Northern Ireland, and other important scoops. The author vividly recalls the day in 1981 when the new Murdoch management team marched through The Sunday Times newsroom and he overheard them contemptuously berating the investigative reporting team that had brought the newspaper so much respect for its fearless reporting. (Davies was previously with The Sunday Times). This journalistic ethos was quickly dropped by Murdoch, the best journalists fled the newspaper or were fired and the paper's circulation became driven by aggressive marketing and populist, glossy appeal. The notion that a newsroom is constantly chasing stories, checking facts and delivering a high standard of reliable and balanced news and features is debunked here. Davies commissioned Cardiff University to conduct a survey of 2,000 British news stories from the four quality daily papers (The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent) plus the Daily Mail. The survey found that about 80 per cent of stories were culled from second-hand sources, mainly press agencies and public relations firms. Davies presents a depressing portrait of a media industry in which journalists no longer have time to be active gatherers of news, but have become passive recyclers obliged to churn out rewrites from press agencies and press releases, and argues that this should not be called journalism but 'churnalism'. And 'churnalism' could never be geared to checking, for example, allegations of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. It is more conducive to media collusion and compliance with an official government propaganda to sell a war on the basis of bogus claims and calculated disinformation. The miserable reporting failure of The New York Times in covering the path to war in Iraq has been admitted by the newspaper, resulting in a rare apology for a betrayal of its readers. In Britain The Observer's terrorism correspondent dutifully reported spin from military intelligence MI6 and lent support to the British government's propaganda. Now he admits to being duped by polluted sources that co-opted much of the newspaper's Iraq coverage into cheerleading for then British prime minister Tony Blair's war. If it is not government press officers and their spin manipulating the news, then it is public relations companies. Only wealthy individuals and corporations can afford to hire public relations firms to promote their side of a story, one of many reasons why workers and trade unions, for instance, seldom manage a look-in unless coverage is based on vilifying picket lines and strikers. The watchdog role of the press over the state, big corporations, the police, civil service and all other institutions that habitually abuse their powers is vital to the health of a democracy. But Flat Earth News demonstrates that all too often the press watchdog is not watching and has long been thrown off the scent by the freebie bones tossed its way to distract media attention from the usual real plot: a whiff of scandal and injustice and the stench of corruption in high places. This is known as 'speaking truth to power'. This pioneering critique of journalism has brought predictable howls of protest from editors and reporters, especially those in the ranks of the right-wing Sunday Times and Daily Mail. But it has also unleashed an unprecedented debate on the media. Is there a way out of the malaise? Davies is pessimistic. The BBC is in decline. Celebrity, sensationalism, audience ratings and circulation rule the media waves, disrupting the flow of authentic news journalism. At a time when schools of journalism are proliferating around the world, it is ironic that investigative reporters have become an endangered species. Sadly, an industry whose primary task is often to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.