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Review: Truthteller – An Investigative Reporter’s Journey through the World of Truth Prevention, Fake News and Conspiracy Theories

By MARK PEARSON

Truthteller: An Investigative Reporter’s Journey through the World of Truth Prevention, Fake News and Conspiracy Theories, Stephen Davis (2019)

Dunedin and Chatswood: Exisle Publishing, 264 pp.,

ISBN 978-1-92533-589-7, p/bk, USD 29.99

[This review was first published in Australian Journalism Review, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2019]

Timing of the publication of the page-turning paperback Truthteller could not have been better, with the subsequent Australian Federal Police raids on the ABC offices and News Corporation journalist Annika Smethurst’s home offering a haunting currency to many of its themes.

Former journalism educator at Macleay College, Stephen Davis, has seen the craft from all angles over an impressive career as investigative reporter on the Sunday Times’ Insight team, producer for 60 Minutes, and editor of the New Zealand Herald.

Three decades of reporting international wars, espionage, crime and intrigue make for a riveting read as Davis reveals the lengths to which governments and agencies and their functionaries will go to mislead and deceive the media when they have something to hide.

Davis structures Truthteller into an introduction and conclusion plus 10 chapters taken from the ‘toolbox for lies and deception’ – each centred on a case study from his reporting career where the authorities have used a different technique of spin or outright censorship.

Highlights include:

  • The UK Government’s cover up of the truth behind British Airways flight BA149 which was given permission to land in Kuwait with 367 passengers in 1990 despite the Iraqi invasion of that nation having already commenced. The passengers were subsequently used as human shields by the Iraqis but the British government denied them compensation despite evidence the flight had been landed to deploy a troop of undercover special forces operatives;

  • The world exclusive that oil giant BP was using a Brazilian subsidiary to rape huge swathes of Amazonian rainforest and the subsequent attacks by authorities on Davis’s prime NGO source in a classic case of shooting the messenger rather than addressing the problem; and

  • The multi-government conspiracy to cover up the real reasons for the 1994 sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea with the loss of 852 passengers and crew amidst allegations that the captain had been whisked away and that the ship had been carrying Russian arms.

Davis’s ‘toolbox’ of techniques used by governments and big corporates include character assassination, targeting sources, generating alternative theories, delay, distance, cover-ups, legal suppression, secret deals and media manipulation.

His stated aim is “to inspire truth seekers of the future, because the battle between those seeking to expose the truth and those seeking to prevent it is an unequal struggle”. Sadly, I could not find much inspiration in the dark picture Davis paints in his case studies, most of which remain clouded in the confusing mystery of spin despite the best efforts of some of the world’s best investigative teams.

The book’s subtitle ‘An investigative reporter’s journey through the world of truth prevention, fake news and conspiracy theories’ promises to shed light on false news in the modern ‘post truth’ era. However, while Davis offers some insights into bots and trolling and a short chapter on the 2017 fake news conspiracy theory about a secret anti-Trump society in the FBI, the bulk of the book is centred on analogue media manipulation from the 1990s and early 2000s when Davis was doing most of his international reporting.

There is a paucity of references and a gimmicky technique of listing random other news items from the particular case study’s news day at the start of each chapter which contribute to the impression it is a popular read rather than a worthy set text or reference work.

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating memoir and a useful vehicle for the media literacy of the masses, whose eyes will be opened to the methods governments and multinational companies have used to keep truth from their citizenry.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2020 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.

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Mindful journalism – Bhutanese style

[This review was first published in Media International Australia, May 2016; 159 (1) as ‘Book Review: The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan’]

By MARK PEARSON

Few of us would pass up the chance to spend a year working in the Kingdom of Bhutan – mythologized in media coverage as a Shangri-La nestled in the Himalayas with its own Gross National Happiness Index.

Australian journalist and academic Bunty Avieson seized that opportunity and travelled (with her partner and young daughter) to work on a fledgling private newspaper in that tiny nation soon after its Fourth King had licensed it as part of a modernisation initiative.

The Dragon’s Voice – How Modern Media Found Bhutan (available here) is Avieson’s memoir of that experience. It is an entertaining work of popular non-fiction reflecting the author’s writing acumen and sense of narrative as a former editor of Woman’s Day and editorial director of New Idea. Yet it also has a depth of scholarship drawing upon Avieson’s more recent work as an academic researcher and journalism educator.

The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan

Author: Bunty Avieson

University of Queensland Press, 2015, 240pp

ISBN: 978 0 7022 5357 7

DragonsVoiceCoverThe people of Bhutan are predominantly Buddhist and this navigation of opposites in life’s course is what Buddhists call the ‘Middle Path’. There are numerous examples throughout the book of Avieson and her Bhutanese newspaper colleagues endeavouring to find such a middle way between extremes.

Avieson takes up the challenge of portraying the deeper layers of a country whose image is over-simplified by its international media framing as a quaint oddity whose citizens are happily trapped in a bygone era on top of the world.

She does not shy away from important issues of censorship (including self-censorship), crime, poverty, natural disasters, domestic violence and the toll of the rapid pace of modernization.

Several threads run through the work, but one of the most important is the paradox centred upon the birth of a newspaper in Bhutan; coinciding with the death of printed newspapers in much of the developed world.

It is a particularly Buddhist and Bhutanese approach to journalism adopted by the Observer’s leadership team – mindful journalism in action. (See the reviewer’s own work on mindful journalism here.)

Avieson explains the newspaper’s owners Tenzin Wangdi and Phuntsho Wangmo asked some of the nation’s wisest and most ethical intellectuals to help develop guiding principles for the newspaper.

The resulting mission statement began with a Buddhist assertion “that all things exist in interdependence is an age-old wisdom”, before vowing to “uphold and strengthen the values and principles that bind this small but great kingdom together”. It continued: “We are a voice with a conscience, and our efforts are aimed at enriching people’s lives through unbiased content intended to inform, educate and entertain.”

Avieson proceeds to chronicle the successes gained and the challenges faced by the newspaper’s journalists and other staff as they set about redefining reporting about Bhutanese people in a Bhutanese style. She details the very practical problems of distribution to remote regions and the inexperience of staff, along with bizarre news topics including one about a town where men believe their wives have crooked vaginas and another about a ghost that lives in a rock.

The newspaper relied largely on government advertising, creating a fear of retaliation over critical stories, a situation not unique to Bhutan. Buddhist principles even influenced the types of advertisements the owners will carry. For example, the Observer would not run ads for cars because “it would be unkind to make villagers desire something they can’t afford”.

Occasionally the reader gets an insight into the profound influence Avieson had on the newspaper in her short time there – drawing upon her many years of experience as a magazine editor with layout, design, photography commissioning and selection and in the production of themed editions and special magazines.

While her modest approach is in keeping with the Buddhist theme, the reader is left wondering how involved Avieson became in the day to day journalism of the operation.

Successful memoirs need to do much more than document a passage of the author’s life. Avieson has achieved this in The Dragon’s Voice. It is purportedly about a year in Bhutan but in the telling it prompts important questions about the media, society and life.

We are left pondering how we would do journalism differently if we had the chance to reinvent it, and then it dawns upon us that that is exactly what journalists in the developed world are trying to do right now. There is much they can learn from Avieson’s account of her time with the Bhutan Observer.

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** Listen to author Bunty Avieson’s interview about the book with ABC Radio National Media Report host Richard Aedy here.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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