Quick summary of some tweets in response to this article about how hard news is moving behind paywalls
The tone of the articles is that journalism is moving to paywalls so the poor underprivileged folks will be denied all this valuable journalism, and suffer as a result.
If the mass population were to be denied access to journalism, that would be about the best thing that could possibly happen, but of course it is not conceivable. They will continue to get what they want to consume; the stuff that is moving behind paywalls is the niche stuff that the profitable mass media no long sees a reason to subsidise.
Nevertheless, that is significant and could have large effects in the long run. I wrote about some of the issues a decade ago, when I reviewed “Flat Earth News”.
Mass-market news is primarily entertainment. Most people watch news to engage their minds and have something to talk about, not because they actually benefit from the information. (see also: Politics as Entertainment).
There is a long tradition, though never dominant and much reduced in recent decades, of including true information in news media. This was a product of paternalism, idealism, and the fact that actual news was kicking around anyway and was easy to throw in.
There has always been a minority of news consumers who actually need true information from the news for practical reasons. They used to be served by the same media industry as the mass market. (Not necessarily the same publications, but the same organisations and meta-organisations of media).
When the same industry produced facts for the minority and entertainment for the majority, that made it cheap to include facts in entertainment. If it bifurcates, the infotainment side will no longer have access to or focus on true information.
It is not clear that “premium news” of the type described in the axios piece is the factual news I am discussing, as opposed to just being a market segment of infotainment. It might be, but “business intelligence” services are more obvious candidates.
The “factual news consumers” I am thinking of are primarily business and government. If you want to know what is really going on in the world today, in order to make business decisions, do you read a daily newspaper or watch TV news? I don’t think so — you read specialised industry analyses.
The story is interesting in its own right. Youtube observs responses from users, both to videos being listed in their screens, and to actually watching the videos, runs some Machine Learning models1 over that feedback information, and selects what to list to them next to keep them watching and engaging. (This is widely understood)
(In a tiny, tiny fraction of high-profile cases, it then applies human moderation to advance the company’s interests, its political and social biases, and so on. That’s not what I’m writing about today)
As is known, this feedback loop can lead people in some highly unexpected directions. Recreational lock-picking, really? There are also some less mysterious tendencies — any activity is more watchable if it’s being done by attractive young women. But the particular instance Pargin finds — of an innocuous third-world fishing video getting ten times the views if it mildly hints at a tiny bit of indecency that isn’t even really there — would have been very difficult to predict. Note that it’s not as simple as “ten times as many people want to see the videos with the not-quite-upskirt thumnail”. Because of the feedback, more people get the suggestion to watch that video, and many of them might have equally watched the other ones too, but didn’t get the opportunity. The behaviour of a smaller number of unambitious creeps is driving the behaviour of a (probably) larger number of ordinary viewers.
Pargin makes the wider point that this same system of user feedback and ML-generated recommendation is shaping the content across all digital media. Whatever you have to do to get the views, those are the rules, even though nobody chose those rules, even though nobody knows what all the rules are, if you are in the business you just have to do your best to learn them.
I want to make a wider point still. We can understand, roughly, how this particular mode of media comes to produce some kinds of content and not others. That does not mean that without this particular mode of media, you get “normal, natural” kinds of content. You just get different incentives on producers, and consequently different content.
It’s not just media, either. Different structures of organisation and information flow produce different incentives for participants, and consequently different behaviour. Financing a business by selling equity into a highly liquid public market produces certain specific behaviours in management. Running a sport where teams can prevent players moving between them produces certain behaviours in the players. Organisations may be designed to incentivise certain desired behaviours, but many others will arise spontaneously because the system as a whole unexpectedly rewards them.
This is what Moldbug means when he says “The ideology of the oligarchy is an epiphenomenon of its organic structure.” We do not have woke ideology because a deep centuries-long woke conspiracy has taken over. We do not have it because someone sat down and worked out that a particular structural relationship between civil service, universities, and television would tend to promote ideological shifts of particular kinds. We have it because a structural relationship was created between civil service, universities, and newspapers and it turns out that that structural relationship just happens to result in this kind of insanity. You can trace through all the details — the career path of academics, the social environment of civil servants. You can spot historical parallels — this bit Chris Arnade found on pre-revolutionary French intellectuals. Moldbug attributes this epiphenomenon primarily to the separation of power from responsibility. I’m sure he’s right, but it’s a bit like Jason Pargin saying “yes, the internet really is that horny”. The particular ways in which irresponsibility or horniness express themselves in systems are still somewhat unexpected.
This is just an addendum to the previous post — a few tweets from three years ago
My tweet reads,
Early 20th century politics was organised around printing presses. To be a party, you needed printing equipment. Today’s establishment is the group of people who got control of television. There’s no other worthwhile definition.
An earlier Tweet from Carl Miller said
Whatever the ‘mainstream’ is, it’ll never again have a monopoly on an ability to raising large amounts of money quickly, reaching millions of people, coordinating logistics on the ground. The money, experience and machinery of the political mainstream matters a lot less now.
Half my timeline is now trying to fight to keep that true. I think they’re going to lose.
Tweetable link: https://t.co/t5qlk2FaZG?amp=1
The Internet began somewhere around 1970
The World Wide Web began somewhere around 1990
Mass participation in the internet was reached a little before 2000
With that, anyone could communicate with anyone else, or with any group, easily and free of charge.
That did not mean that anyone could whip up ordinary people with ordinary interests into political hysteria like Black Lives Matter or QAnon. Ordinary people with ordinary interests would not pay attention to that stuff.
Facebook hit a billion users a bit after 2010. It is Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that meant that anyone, if they pitched it just right, could reach a mass audience. And that sent politics insane.
The Trump presidency was a glorious carnival, but a carnival is all that it was. When the Saturnalia ends the slaves go back to work. I said when he was elected that it was a setback for neoreaction, and it probably was.
I got a lot wrong though. I did not expect the anti-Trump hysteria to endure. Facebook-era politics was too new, then, for me to have understood how it works.
The Facebook era of politics ends today. As with the Trump presidency, I will miss the fun and excitement. I miss eating a packet of biscuits a day too. But man was not meant to eat that much sugar, and democracy was not meant to exist with uncontrolled access to mass media. From the invention of journalism until the twenty-first century, ability to reach the public with your propaganda was power, and power had its say on who could do it. A decade of unconstrained mass media gave us Trump and Brexit and the Gilet Jaunes1, and it also gave us Open Borders, Trans Rights, Russiagate2 BLM, PornHub, and QAnon. It was destroying our society, and it was going to be stopped sooner or later.
We only really had one thing to say to the normies – that democracy was an illusion, and they were not in charge. I don’t think we need Twitter to tell them that any more. The events of the last week have exposed the relationship between government and media much more obviously than weird technical blog posts.
I spent the night bitching about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the censors. I suppose I had to get it out of my system.
The pogrom will go a bit wider at first, but in the end I don’t think it will do more than roll back to 2005 or so. I do not expect to be censored, because I do not speak to voters. It was the frictionlessness of the Facebook news feed that pulled normies into these games — if you have to go out of your way to find me, then I am doing the regime no harm, and I expect to be ignored, at least if I get through the next few months.
This, of course, is also the system in China. And I admire the Chinese system. When I tried to imagine neoreactionary victory, I struggled a bit with how a monarchical regime could exist in a world of uncensored internet. I don’t have to worry now.
Some practical resilience steps are sensible. Back up everything. Try not to depend on the Silicon Valley giants (GMail is nice, but you’re not the customer you’re the product). It’s possible that something like RSS could make a comeback if it’s awkward enough to use that the normies aren’t included, but don’t chase after the holy grail of a censorship-resistant mass media because that’s a coup-complete problem. Keep your head down, keep the channels open. I had this blog working as a Tor hidden service once, I’ll revisit that but I don’t expect to need it.
Back in 2014 I wrote a short piece on the somewhat forgotten fact that when sexual liberation was being pushed in a big way in the 60s and 70s, sex with children was part of the movement, and was supported by mainstream liberal voices — the National Council for Civil Liberties, and so forth.
The question for historians to ask about the 1970s is not, “how could respectable people have supported paedophilia back then?”, rather, it is “how did they not succeed?” My original answer was that as the rebels became the establishment, they were forced to take some small measure of responsibility for keeping society together, and withdrew from a few of their most dangerous demands. That’s no more than a hypothesis really, since I have no particular evidence for it. The truth could possibly be even more interesting.
PARIS — The French writer Gabriel Matzneff never hid the fact that he engaged in sex with girls and boys in their early teens or even younger. He wrote countless books detailing his insatiable pursuits and appeared on television boasting about them. “Under 16 Years Old,” was the title of an early book that left no ambiguity.
Still, he never spent a day in jail for his actions or suffered any repercussion. Instead, he won acclaim again and again. Much of France’s literary and journalism elite celebrated him and his work for decades. Now 83, Mr. Matzneff was awarded a major literary prize in 2013 and, just two months ago, one of France’s most prestigious publishing houses published his latest work.
As I said in 2014, the question is not how the cultural revolutionaries who overthrew much of what society had previously thought right or moral could possibly have supported this, it’s how they failed, when they succeeded in so much else. Not only did they fail, but paedophilia inspires a level of opposition and revulsion today that to me always feels a little bit deranged. I’m perfectly happy to say that it’s harmful to young people to have sexual relations with adults and should be illegal. I’m also OK with saying that at least sex with younger children — say 13-year-olds and younger — is not just harmful but perverse (though I’m not clear why that counts for anything in 2020). But I struggle with the aura of evil — and that’s most often the word that’s used — when pretty much nothing else you can think of is today considered evil.
That attitude clearly wasn’t around in the 70s. I think it really dates from the late 80s onwards.
In discussion, though, I came up with a much more boring answer. I think the explanation is that a series of very heavily reported child murders created a strong association in the popular consciousness between paedophiles and murderers, and that’s what caused attitudes to harden so dramatically.
This theory is disproved if there was repeated heavy coverage of child sex murders before the 1970s. The biggest story, in the UK, is the Moors Murders, for which Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were arrested in 1965. If that was the beginning, and I vaguely remember it being a repeating theme through the 70s and 80s, it works as an explanation. (It doesn’t matter if there actually were murders before Brady, only if they got the same kind of media treatment).
It can also be looked at internationally. The USA seems to have followed a similar pattern, of it being naughty stuff done by wild rock stars in the 60s and early 70s, and being the definition of evil from the 90s on. I don’t know the specific cases, but they have the “missing children on milk cartons” thing going, at least from the 80s.
Maybe France hasn’t had that kind of crime, or not the same kind of media treatment, and that explains the softer attitude there.
It also gives clues to the future. Over the years I’ve often seen suggestions that “they” are going to be making paedophilia mainstream next, and I’ve tended to pooh-pooh them on the grounds that “they tried that before and failed”. But if there aren’t murdered kids in the papers, maybe they have a chance. In the UK, the last big media circus was Soham, almost 10 years ago now. Maddie McCann who disappeared in 2007 is probably still higher in the public consciousness, because nobody knows what happened to her. A few more years might be enough.
I don’t understand Syria, and I’m not going to, and I’m OK with that. Trump’s pullout may be bad for America for all I know.
The concrete harmful impact of Russia having a lot of influence in Syria (as it did in the 1980s) isn’t spelled out, instead we just get innuendo.
I tweeted that Kurds will always be allies in destabilising, and always be enemies of peace, because of their situation as a stateless cross-border group. That’s simplistic, but if it’s not true someone needs to explain how. Peace in any of the countries in which they have large populations has to include either (a) they give up their claim to statehood, or (b) they achieve their own state, and I have never heard anyone suggest that (b) is a realistic possibility. There is a chance in any one country that you could get an autonomy-based settlement short of statehood which is beneficial for them, but while the other countries in which they have large populations are unstable, that can’t be a peaceful settlement, because they will still be fighting in the others. As I tweeted, none of this is their fault — it seems they were completely screwed in the 20th Century but this is the position today.
If there’s any coherent view coming from the US establishment, it’s anti-Iran. They may have a good reason for that, but I don’t know what it is. The reason probably has a lot to do with either Israel or Saudi or both, but I don’t expect to ever find an answer I can be sure is true.
Syria has been a bloodbath since the beginning of the Arab Spring attempt to depose Assad. Anyone suddenly upset about the humanitarian impact this week can be dismissed out of hand.
“Kurds were our allies”. How is that, exactly? I asked on twitter, sarcastically, for links to the announcements of and debates of this policy. It was made ad-hoc by the military and civil service. The president never talked to the electorate about it. Quite possibly the president (Obama) never even knew about it. Which is perfectly OK. But there is sleight of hand here. The line we are getting is: “We allied with the Kurds and relied on them, now we need to stand up for them”. The two “we” in there are two different groups. The opaque Washington foreign-policy establishment allied with the Kurds, without input from or notification of the general public. Now the voters are being asked by the media to stand by some implied commitment they played no part in making.
1) So much context has been lost and recent history revised in the coverage of this growing crisis between Turkey and Syria. US always assured Ankara that their support for the YPG was ‘temporary, tactical and transactional’ – a US diplomat quoted here in my new book on Erdogan@hannahluci https://twitter.com/hannahluci/status/1184012129562775552
From around 14th October, the Kurds have made some kind of arrangement with the Syrian Government, and the narrative has switched from “it’s terrible to abandon the Kurds” to “Now the Russians are winning”. This is utterly disgraceful. It entirely proves that the complaints about the fate of the Kurds the previous days were insincere. Had the concern really been for the Kurds, then Monday would have been a day of rejoicing at their safety. Instead, the opposition to the withdrawl policy stays the same but the reasons change.
It is because of this sort of thing that I automatically disregard all foreign policy arguments that are made on humanitarian grounds. I don’t even consider the possibility that they might be well-founded. The concept of intervening internationally to protect civilians is 100% discredited in my eyes.
Around 500,000 human beings were killed in Syria while Barack Obama was president and leading for a “political settlement” to that civil war Media has been more outraged in the last 72 hours over our Syria policy than they were at any point during 7 years of slaughter@BuckSexton https://twitter.com/BuckSexton/status/1183812563261382656
Kinda telling that the intensity of Online Outrage expressed by Smart People today over the Kingsman-meme isn’t any perceptibly different than the Online Outrage they were emoting yesterday or the day before over, like, The Kurds being slaughtered@soncharm https://twitter.com/soncharm/status/1183750875321438208
it’s all a video game
Trump, though I find him amusing, I consider no more trustworthy than the rest of them. I am not able to judge whether his policies are good or bad, but he is the only person who makes arguments for his Syria policy which make sense. The arguments against are always obviously dishonest (like the ABC gun show footage), insincere, or rest on vague unstated assumptions (such as that nothing that Russia wants can be allowed).
The FSA leader who John McCain took a picture with is now part of the invasion of Northern Syria, which the hawks are insisting we must oppose.@j_arthur_bloom https://twitter.com/j_arthur_bloom/status/1183364011708080128
There’s another related point, more subtle but much more general. Modern thought does not admit of a distinction between crimes of commission and crimes of omission. To a naive rationalist, causing harm and allowing harm to happen are equivalent. But like so many arguments you hear today, the equivalence rests on an entirely unrealistic level of certainty towards the assumptions that are being made about the results of action or inaction. The potential for very large unexpected harmful effects is very much greater in military action than it is in inaction, and the expected benefits of action have to be large enough to outweigh that category of risk. That is equally true whether the harms and benefits in question are political, financial or humanitarian.
A few years back, some American sportsmen made a big deal about pushing their politics — basically BLM — during events and interviews and things.
On the right, this was quite widely seen as unpleasant. For example, “Lion of the Blogosphere” wrote two years ago on his blog:
The average NFL player is paid $1.9 million/year to entertain prole whites who love the American flag, and part of the show is that they are supposed act patriotic when the National Anthem is playing.
If I inflicted my political opinions on my employer’s customers I’d be fired, and I get paid a lot less than $1.9 million/year.https://lionoftheblogosphere.wordpress.com/2017/09/24/boycottnfl-part-2/
I happen to have picked @LionBlogosphere — I follow a whole lot of weirdos on twitter, but he is much closer to a mainstream American Conservative.
Anyway, not that it’s really any of my business, I agree with him entirely; I think that’s a totally reasonable position for him to take. And, while the whole issue has dragged on, not 100% resolved, his side has at any rate not definitively lost. I think it has come out slightly ahead, and the leagues and teams have mostly taken the view that their players should not insult their spectators.
But now, of course, we have the China thing. NBA basketball is huge in China, and there’s some kind of protest movement in Hong Kong that I don’t know much about, and some basketball people made sympathetic noises about the HK protesters, and the Chinese government was very upset.
I’m trying hard to remain ignorant of the Hong Kong thing. A new extradition law was brought in, or something, and that’s maybe against what the Chinese government had previously promised in terms of HK’s autonomy, and there have been protests going on for a month or three, which have been getting the whole unquestioning popular support in the West that I hate so much. So my reflex view is on the side of the CPC, but of course they may really be doing something bad for all I know.
Either way, right or wrong, the Chinese government are not going to be friendly to foreigners who take sides against them. They are not going to allow them a public platform in their country, any more than they allow their enemies within the country a public platform. And if you are a basketball team that’s going to do tours and broadcast games in China, the Chinese government is your customer. And, as @LionBlogosphere said, “If I inflicted my political opinions on my employer’s customers I’d be fired”.
So I think we’re all agreed.
Except, of course, that @LionBlogosphere today retweeted Ted Cruz saying,
It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States:https://www.tedcruz.org/news/the-hill-ocasio-cortez-ted-cruz-join-colleagues-blasting-nba-for-outrageous-response-to-china/
Again, I’m not especially objecting to Lion, I just follow him and not, say, Ted Cruz, who in September 2016 said
Here’s a peaceful protest: never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey of rich spoiled athletes who dishonor our flag. https://t.co/GrGPYX8HCh
If you are putting economic pressure on sports teams, and you expect them to respond, well, so can their other customers, and maybe it’s reasonable for the teams and leagues to respond to that too.
Surely, you can draw a distinction between #BLM and “Free Hong Kong”. The teams in question are all American, and you can demand of them a loyalty to America while they have no equivalent duty of loyalty to China. But they would no doubt claim they were being loyal to America by seeking to change it in the way they sought — the real objection is they were offending their customers. Another distinction is that it wasn’t the US government putting pressure on the teams to censor themselves, but the Chinese government is doing so. Well, the relationship between citizens and government is different in China than it is in the US. International sport has long depended on not bringing one country’s politics into another. Most Americans probably think that China should be a democracy with free speech. But it isn’t. If Ted Cruz thinks that means the NBA shouldn’t do business with China, that’s a coherent position. But if he doesn’t think that, then obviously the NBA will take steps to make their product marketable there, if there is commercial reason to. And if he thinks that this is a matter of the principle of free speech, which should outweigh that commercial reason — then why did he think the opposite in 2016?
Now, you can point to a contradiction between the relative willingness of the entertainment industry to allow opposition to the US government, and their very rapid arse-covering with respect to the Chinese government. That reflects both their own political biases, and the relative power of the US and Chinese governments over their ability to do business. But if the other side is contradicting itself, it doesn’t help to contradict yourself, even worse, in the opposite direction. Ted Cruz was right in 2016, he (and @LionBlogosphere) could very justifiably spend these weeks banging on about the inconsistency in sportsmen demanding the right to insult symbols of the American nation while being careful to avoid insulting the Chinese nation. Instead they just destroy their own previous arguments.
Finally, the 2016 argument was the more important of the two. By flipping now, they are putting themselves in the wrong for next time. You said that political protests at sporting events was a matter of free speech.
[context: I never actually made a decision to step away from blogging and twitter, I just had more interesting things to do]
Ten to twenty years ago, one of the big buzzwords was decentralisation. New communication technology means that things that used to have to be organised by a central body can now be done spontaneously between users.
By decentralising an activity, you remove the bottleneck of the central coordinator. You reduce the status war of having a “leader” (who leads Extinction Rebellion?) You can evade countermeasures.
Also, it was generally assumed, you create choice. If you can have one decentralised network, you can have two, or ten, or a million.
Some of that was hype, some of it is true. But the issue of choice has turned out to be the most interesting. Replacing a hierarchical organisation (of authority, or of communication framework) with a decentralised network does do away with the nominal leader or controller. But it doesn’t do away with network effects. Indeed, by removing some of the barriers to scale it can greatly increase them.
The result of decentralisation plus network effects is the decentralised monopoly.
Outside of one special case I’ll come back to, I think the best examples of decentralised monopolies are open-source software projects. The essence of these projects is that there is no control; anyone can take the source code, change it, build it, and distribute it. That goes even for large widely-used things like the Linux kernel or the Apache webserver. But, most of the time, there’s no good reason to do so. The result is a voluntary centralisation.
The recent trend has been to recentralisation: the old centralised Television and newspapers give way to decentralised blogs and podcasts, which gives way to recentralised Facebook and Youtube. But that is still voluntary. The newspapers and television stations had control because they owned the actual infrastructure. Facebook and Google own some infrastructure, but in comparison to their actual business that’s negligible. Alphabet market cap is apparently USD 825bn, their balance sheet lists plant & equipment at USD 60bn.
That’s not really counterintuitive. It’s just network effects, and/or Schelling points. I’d love to see that recentralisation reversed, but I don’t think it’s possible — if there’s going to be a monopoly because of network effects, then a business that can pay to market its network is bound to outcompete a network that doesn’t have a central owner.
Where you have something that is made of decentralised contributions, the network effects get so much stronger than they do for pure consumers. You have to put real work into contributing, and the return on doing that work depends on the contributions of others.
Wikipedia is a prime example of this. Now it isn’t 100% decentralized, as somebody owns the servers and the domain name, so while anyone can contribute, there is an actual hierarchy with a root of sorts. But if you could design out that root authority, I don’t think it would change much. There is still just one Wikipedia, and all the work that is contributed to it can’t be contributed anywhere else instead without severely reducing its value. The decentralised selection of content (selection is of course the main work of an encyclopedia) still has to be done by those people who show up to do it, coordinated in some way that enough of them can put up with. If you fork it to produce some rival, as has been done a few times, your rival has none of the value.
That’s not to deny Wikipedia’s many flaws. There are many areas where it is systematically bad. But I think Wikipedia is what it necessarily must be. That’s the real point of decentralised monopoly — if it is not under some central control, then there is nobody who can make it other than what it is. This echoes, somewhat, the repost about political parties: how can one political party, open to anyone and run by its members, be different from any other political party open to anyone and run by its members? In a sense, complete openness is the most unyielding authority of all.
The one special case of decentralised monopoly is, of course, the bitcoin blockchain. It’s special because being decentralised and a monopoly are not incidental attributes, but the central aims of its design. As such, it bears the same relationship to a study of decentralised monopoly as dog breeding does to natural selection.
I explained the essence of what makes bitcoin before: it’s a voting system where you are fined for voting on the losing side. That rule is guaranteed to produce a consensus, and the consensus is likely to be “correct” from the point of view of the contributors. That’s the design aim, but see how similar it is to making a contribution to any other open collaborative project. Work that is put into maintaining a Myspace page, or keeping a presence on Gab, is nearly as wasted as the work spent mining an orphan bitcoin block. Either I’m contributing to the project that everyone else is using, or I’m shouting in the wilderness.
The most important aspect that drives this authority is probably not decentralisation as such, or even openness to contributions, it’s being public. Ed West tweeted yesterday that he wished he could maintain different “flavours” of his twitter stream — a toned-down one for the normies, and a more hard-hitting one for the fans. I’ve tried to do that sort of thing numerous times, but it never worked; it failed on the same point: if I wasn’t blogging or tweeting as AnomalyUK, I was losing most of my audience. Moldbug outed himself because he couldn’t resist discussing his technical work on UR. He didn’t have to do that — it is possible to be two people online, but it’s not possible to be one person with two public faces. They automatically become one under the pressure of being public.
That basically is the same point as I made about the decline of conspiracy: the political mode we are now in is the one that you get when nobody conspires to prevent it. As such, you would expect it to be the historical norm, unless it destroys itself. And it isn’t the historical norm. (This is just a restatement of Jim on left singularities).
Note: This is a summary of several posts I wrote in late 2007/early 2008
I was watching Channel 4 news, and what struck me for the first time was that Channel 4 appeared to have a more clearly defined and clearly expressed position on the issue they were reporting than did any of the politicians they were interviewing.
But why should that be surprising? Channel 4 has more resources to devote to policy than does any political party. Channel 4 spends 54 million pounds a year on news, documentary and current affairs programming. The two main parties each spend something like 10 million a year, but most of that is spent not on “content”, but on content distribution – posters, leaflets, etc.
British political parties’ policies are being constructed on an almost totally amateur basis, compared to the media – and I think it shows. There are think tanks, but I don’t think they turn over tens of millions a year.
(It must be noted that in the US they spend a lot more on politics, but don’t seem to get noticeably better policies.)
MPs get paid by the government, which is extra resource to the parties not counted in their budgets, and The civil service plays a role in developing policies for the ruling party, but MPs are paid to be MPs, not to develop policy, and the civil service has its own goals and constraints and is not under the control of the Labour party.
It seems that Channel 4’s 2007 policy on higher education was the product of more research and investment than went into the Labour party’s. It’s also relevant that political parties have an incentive to be vague about policy, whereas media organisations can afford to be more specific and clearer – they gain more by being provocative than by being right. This means that media are in a way more motivated to work out detailed policies than parties are
What does this mean?
First, I should be less sceptical than I have been about the “power of the media”. I previously felt that, since the media is constrained to doing what gets it audience, its independent influence on policy is small. However, if what it needs to do is to provide some alternative policy with which to challenge politicians, but it has relative freedom to choose which alternative to develop, then its independent influence is greater than I had thought.
Next, why is it the case that we (as a society) invest more in reporting politics than we do in politics itself. Either something is seriously screwy, or we value politics as entertainment more than as a way of controlling government. Or both.
I think it’s quite clear that the population does treat politics mostly as entertainment. The resemblance between Question Time and Never Mind the Buzzcocks is too close to ignore. If someone arrived from another planet and had to work out which of the two concerns how the country is governed, I think they might find it tricky. (I think they get similar numbers of viewers). There are even hybrids like Have I Got News For You to make it more difficult still.
Further, I think voters are correct to see politics primarily as entertainment. Since my attempt to construct an argument that voting could have a non-negligible probability of affecting an election – the infamous correlation dodge – died a logical death, I am left with the usual reasons for voting – primarily how doing it makes me feel. Those reasons apply equally well to voting for Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing.
Boris Johnson’s election as Mayor of London in 2008 is consistent with the theory that politics is a branch of the entertainment industry. Boris won because people liked him on TV, not because they had any confidence he’d do a good job. In fact, it simply doesn’t matter whether he does a good job or not.
Whatever the budget of the GLA, the actual amount of cash he can shift from one activity to another over the next four years is probably on the order of only a few millions. He can change a few buses, approve a few “don’t knife each other, there’s good chaps” posters, approve or deny one or two large buildings.
On the other hand, he will be on television a lot, and get a lot more attention, because now he’s (drum roll) In Government. And if you treat each of his appearances as a light entertainment programme, value it as equivalent to an equally entertaining non-political celebrity appearance, and multiply up the number of such appearances over the four years, his entertainment value to the voters easily outweighs whatever costs might be imposed on the voters if he is a Bad Mayor in a policy sense.
And in fact the predictable cost of Boris vs Ken is near enough zero. Who knows, Boris might even be better. While the predictable difference in entertainment value is huge – not only is Boris more entertaining than Ken on a level playing field, but more importantly the Ken show has run for eight years and we’ve seen all the best bits.
My point is that (a) Boris has been elected because he’s funny and people are bored of Ken, and (b) This is, with apologies to Bryan Caplan, rational voting.
And of course, it is nothing new: Ken was elected in 2000 for just the same good reason.
In conclusion, I think our system of government is one which selects leaders and policies as a byproduct of the entertainment industry. This might not be a bad thing: the traditional alternative is to select leaders and policies as a byproduct of the defense industry, which has its own problems.
Original three posts:
- December 13, 2007 News and Politics and Money
- December 15, 2007 Democracy and Entertainment
- May 4, 2008 Entertainment and Policy
One of the most critical features of the Modern Structure is the relationship between the media as a capitalist business and the media as a channel of the Cathedral.
There’s a ton of history here. I saw it suggested recently (by @clarkmicah ?) that the BBC was deliberately constructed as a counterbalance to the right-of-centre newspaper industry. Hearst newspapers in the US also had a right-of-centre bias.
(I’m using the term “right-of-centre” not to imply that some tendencies on the right are closer to an objectively determined “centre” than some others on the left, which I don’t think is even meaningful, but because subjectively from an #nrx point of view, things like Fox News are still leftist, just a little less so.)
Since the early 20th C, the Cathedral has increased its control over media industries, but not completed it. In both Britain and the USA, Rupert Murdoch has established media business with right-of-centre alignment and significant market share.
There are two forces pushing these businesses to the right: First, the owners of media businesses tend to be right of centre, particularly in the 20th C, because the left and the right largely lined up with interests of labour and capital respectively, and business owners are by definition capitalist. Secondly, because the cultural elite are always to the left of the population, there is market pressure pushing media businesses towards the right to attract audiences.
In the 21st Century, the first of those forces has declined to the point that it can be practically ignored. What is crucial is the tension between market forces impinging on media and Cathedral orthodoxy.
It has been suggested that key parts of the media industry, notably Hollywood, are effectively insulated from market pressures. @Stoner_68 said on twitter:
“It takes more than cocktail parties to convince studio execs to take multimillion-dollar losses, over and over again.
It’s as if risk isn’t even a factor. But that can’t be true. They know someone will reimburse their costs.”
I remember Spandrell claiming something similar a month or two ago.
The theory is that either the government or another source of funding (Soros is often mentioned) are subsidising the media; that the only goal of Hollywood etc. is propaganda, and they are only pretending to be profitable businesses.
This is not insane. Obviously, the BBC is, by design, almost totally resistant to commercial pressures. A rich guy can own a newspaper and run it at a loss as a propaganda organ. It would be possible to subsidise movies that pushed a favoured point of view.
A key fact is that the movie industry is extremely opaque financially. Much is written about “Movie A cost X dollars” or “Movie B lost Y dollars”, but these are always guesses by people writing without direct knowledge of the actual receipts and spending on the movie. It is therefore not impossible that the movie industry is running on hidden subsidies and would otherwise be losing money.
However, I do not believe that is what is happening. The general assumption is that the studios are secretive about money because they are ripping off minor investors, writers, actors and everybody else in the world. That seems to me the more likely explanation. The stories become public often enough: The Lord of the Rings went to court and was settled, also the TV series Bones (good detail here),
The main reason for believing that American movies and TV are profitable industries is that they behave like profitable industries do. They pay shitloads of money for top performers. They copy the most successful products until everyone gets sick to death of them. Several of the big studios are public companies with very large market capitalisation.
That is not to say that the movie industry is solely motivated by profit and uninfluenced by ideology. That is obviously untrue. The people in the industry are overwhelmingly left-wing, and their bias clearly influences their product.
There are films made which are not intended primarily, or necessarily at all, for commercial success, but to validate the film-makers view of themselves, and to impress their social and professional peers. “Oscar bait” and art house films both fall into that category. However, while not aimed at profit, these movies are made on limited budgets to at least limit the losses, and to make it possible for them to be profitable.
The big budget films are quite another matter. They are clearly made for profit, because they are managed in the same way as other profit-making enterprises. Actors are paid their market rate based on how likely they are to make the film successful. Huge amounts are spent on promotion and marketing. The studios push some of the financial risk onto top actors and directors by paying them percentages, and those actors and directors are willing to take the percentages because they expect them to be valuable, which they usually are.
Even these big movies carry political bias. They are made by the same people as the more indulgent films, but with the addition of big money and big investors. There is also the influence of the media culture, which also has a left-wing bias and therefore will reward bias in the films with favourable publicity. A film that is seen as having right-wing elements can cause social and professional problems for those involved.
But in spite of all that, nobody is putting hundreds of millions into movies that they don’t expect to make them a profit, and nobody is deliberately wrecking big-budget movies for political motives. Occasionally they accidentally wreck them, but not as often as some people seem to think.
The finances of movies are somewhat opaque, but there’s a lot of business interest and they’re not completely secret. There’s a rule of thumb that a film will break even if its worldwide box office gross is about two and a half times its production budget. That’s taking into account the cost of marketing and distribution, the payments that are made as percentages of the gross, and the other income from TV, DVD rights, spinoffs and so on.
This is a good site with estimates of movie financials.
It’s not possible to validate the truth of that rule of thumb, but the industry acts as if it’s true. Movies that appear to make profits are treated as successes, the people involved and the ideas involved are used again. Movies that appear to make losses by this rule are treated as failures; they aren’t repeated and the people involved will command lower payments for future projects. There are sometimes disputes about the shareout of the profits, these go to court with expensive lawyers and are generally settled quietly.
For this to be all an illusion would involve so many people that faking the moon landings would be easier. Most big-budget movies are profitable. The Last Jedi grossed 1.3 billion from a 220 million budget, so by the rule of thumb it made over half a billion in profit. 2016 Ghostbusters grossed 230 million from a 144 million budget, so it lost the studio money – one of those accidentally wrecked by political bias, in my view. Note that if The Last Jedi had lost money, that would also be put down to its social / political agenda, but the studios believed it was a good investment despite that agenda, and they were right.
Because of the big money going to the most successful, “tournament” style economics apply. Many of those involved in the industry outside of the blockbusters are doing badly; they are underpaid for their work, or losing money on their investments, but they accept that because they are trying to win their places in the top rank that makes the big money. Most fail, but the few who succeed make enough to make entering the tournament attractive. That is one part of the basis of the “art house” sector.
Could a less politically-correct Star Wars have made even more money? Quite possibly, but they would have needed actors, writers, and so on that would have been affected by media opposition to political incorrectness, and managing high-value, temperamental stars is difficult enough at the best of times.
As far as spending money on propaganda goes, blowing tens of millions of dollars on big-name actors who are already on your side anyway just isn’t a sensible use of funds. A few foundations like Soros’ are spending tens of millions a year on propaganda, but they’re making much better use of it than that.
The really interesting question is about the trends. Hollywood is making big money, but sometimes losing it too, and the business side can be held hostage by the demands of politically biased creatives. Audiences might get so irritated by the industry’s politically correct smugness that they lose interest. Ghostbusters is evidence that that is possible. Alternatively, someone might be able to compete with the whole Hollywood establishment by producing movies with the same attractive features but a political tone more in line with the audience. It’s easy to say that the iron grip of leftists is too strong to allow that, but don’t forget Rupert Murdoch managed to do it to the newspaper and cable TV industries. I think it’s significant that newspapers, even in the 1980s, were in decline, while cinema is strong and growing, but the precedent is there.