Tag: media

Diane Abbot

January 7, 2012


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@bimadew White people love playing “divide & rule” We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism

Offensive? Of course not. How can that possibly be offensive? Just because it implies that it is possible to generalise about what “white people” like? You mean like this? What rubbish.

Well, is it wrong, then? I think so, but so what? She’s a Labour MP — saying things that are wrong is her job. Further, it’s worth arguing about.

Speaking on behalf of white people, we do not love playing “divide & rule”. It’s strictly a last resort — keeping track of different groups of black people gives us a headache. Which ones are the Tutsis again? We much prefer to have “community leaders” deal with all that stuff for us¹.

I would not have been able to say that had Diane Abbot not raised the issue. She was right to raise the issue, despite being wrong: like I said, that’s her job. She should not have been shut up or made to apologise.

The reflex to hang her out to dry is understandable: we are frustrated at not being allowed to say things about race, and when one of “them” does it, we take revenge. But I think that is a bad mistake — ironically, this is one time where we have to risk that headache and play “divide & rule”. Abbott is not one of “them” that want us to shut up about race. Rod Liddle says that she has used the same tactics in the past, but when he talked about black crime, she at least disagreed with him on the merits. Probably wrongly, mind, but, Labour MP, etc. Yes, she used the R-word as well, but if everyone complaining had also engaged the argument like her, they wouldn’t have been able to shout it down. It is the likes of Alex Massie and Bonnie Greer weighing in that make it near impossible to have such a discussion.

Non-white politicians are generally willing to talk about race. (Sometimes at enormous length). Being offended is Stuff White People Like. And that’s not something I’m going to apologise for saying.

¹ If it turns out that the “community leaders” are all from one group, and are using the power we give them to exterminate another, we would rather not know about it, thank you very much.

Behind the Phone Hacking story

July 21, 2011


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The story about the News of the World illicitly obtaining mobile phone voicemail messages for use in their stories has been around for years, but in the last couple of weeks it has gone stratospheric.

The sudden jump in perceived importance has looked suspicious to some — I was out of the country at the time, but it seems to have started up around the 4th of July, and none of the allegations involved were actually new, though possibly they were better substantiated than previously. (It is a hazard that faces every Private Eye subscriber that stories get mainstream attention only after one is bored of reading about them for years).

On the other hand the timing may be in significant part due to long delays in the criminal investigation; delays that are plausibly suspected to be due to the offenders’ close links to senior politicians in all parties and to the police.

There is a air of fake outrage about the whole thing. The facts of the case are reasonably clear, but the attitudes struck don’t quite ring true.

Every fictional investigative journalist has his contacts in the police to supply information, often in exchange for gifts. Telephone company contacts are a staple also. Further, the duo of the reporter and the private investigator/hacker describes the protagonists of the epochal Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

That probably isn’t the point though. Journalists get a lot of leeway when researching stories about the powerful that is denied them when dredging up sex scandals about celebrities and sob stories from crime victims — the sort of muck-raking that has been the News of the World’s core business for a century. The fictional journalists generally resort to the illegal acquisition of information at the dramatic stage in the story where they know roughly what they are going to print but just need a little more, which they can’t get any other way. They don’t usually just fish for dirt in celebrities’ voicemails because it’s less work than going outside, as their real-life counterparts seem to have been doing.

All the same, I am far from convinced that what has been going on was restricted to the News International stable, or that it is substantially different from what has happened for decades. Someone else must remember “Benji the Binman”, even if bribing servants for gossip is not as widespread an activity today as it was in the 1920s.

Obviously the most important questions are about the political power of the press — the power to topple governments, thwart investigations, shape the public perception of events. And I think that is source of the fakeness, because that is a subject which it is impossible to address rationally in public.

The reason is that even asking the question undermines the assumptions on which the rationale for democracy rests. Citizens have votes because they are autonomous. If voters can be swayed in large numbers by newspapers (as everyone knows is the case), then they are not autonomous at all. To ask who should be able to decide how other people vote, and under what conditions and restrictions, is to produce cognitive dissonance in any democrat.

The trick is to get outraged by the political power the press has, without admitting where that power actually comes from — the malleability of the irresponsible voter. Only when actual malpractice by the press is found can the suppressed outrage be expressed, and then it is multiplied, since at other times the evil of the press is just as real, but cannot be articulated without admitting the basic flaw in democracy. Vince Cable’s demise exemplified the previous situation: he could “declare war” on Rupert Murdoch, but he could not satisfactorily explain why. Everyone knew why, but it could not be put into words, and so he was sacked.

Hence the situation today. The malpractice was real, and deplorable, but the outrage is out of proportion, because the true crimes of the press are entirely respectable, and nobody can imagine a way to put a stop to them.

What a Shame

May 7, 2011


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Well, this is embarrassing.

Only weeks after explaining that I didn’t care about the AV referendum, I now find that I’m really pissed off with the result.

I haven’t actually changed my position, that “I think AV would give voters slightly more influence than they have now. I am quite unsure as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing”. I think what really has me upset is that it would have have been so interesting to see how party politics would have developed under AV.

Would any of the major parties have split? Would we have got a lot of independents running, and some of them winning? Would the total vote of the three main parties have dropped to about 50%, with several outsiders each picking up 10-20% of 1st preference votes in most constituencies? Now we’ll never know. It’s like having a favourite TV programme cancelled half way through.

In case that sounds shallow, I should point to a few old posts, where I developed the case that the entertainment value of voting actually outweighs any political value. Because this was back in 2007-8, it applies even if, unlike me today, you do believe that voting has some political value.

75 dead in power station disaster

18 months ago.  You do remember the weeks of non-stop media coverage, right?


Not a major disaster, of course.  Nothing can compare with the Banqiao Dam failure in China, which killed 26,000 people in 1975.

Of course, communist countries were notoriously careless about safety and the environment.  In Western countries, Hydro power is perfectly safe…

39 Dead in Georgia USA, 1977 from a decommissioned hydro plant.  Just because it’s not in use any more, doesn’t mean it’s not still dangerous.

And, of course, the only one of these I actually heard of without looking for it, the 2000 killed in Italy in 1963.  Hydro plants are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.

This isn’t meant to be an anti-hydro rant.  Hydroelectric power is the only proved form of renewable energy.  But all power stations of any kind, by their essential nature, concentrate large quantities of energy into a small volume.   That is intrinsically dangerous, whether its lakes of dammed water, radioisotopes, oil or natural gas…   The concentration of energy almost always has environmental impact, and always has risk.

No conceivable nuclear accident matches Banqiao dam.   No nuclear accident in the first world has matched Kelly Barnes Dam (unless something new goes seriously and unexpectedly wrong at Fukushima).  Arguably, no nuclear accident in history has matched Sushenskaya — and that wasn’t even kept secret, it just wasn’t newsworthy.

Home Education registration dropped

When I wrote my earlier post, the top reason in my mind why a Tory government would be slightly less unpleasant to me than a Labour one was that the Conservatives had promised to repeal the requirement in the new Education Act for home educators to be registered.

As I went through the “filling-in-the-links” stage of the post, I discovered that that clause had been knocked out by the Lords, and the bill had gone through without it.

I felt rather silly for having missed that. However, on checking I could not find one mainstream national news organisation had reported the change. Google News shows 19 stories on the subject, all of them either from specialists or not actually mentioning the home education part. It was also picked up by some local papers such as The St Albans and Harpenden Review

There is a conspiracy of silence on all sides about home education in the UK. Home educators prefer to keep a low profile, because of the risk of the government getting interested and putting in its big boot, particularly since Badman. The education establishment is equally quiet, because they don’t want to draw attention to the number of parents who value state education not merely at less than it costs the taxpayer to provide, but as so completely worthless that it is preferable to do the job themselves.

Agatha Christie in the 21st Century

Thanks to the cornucopia that is ITV3, and the regular addition to my living room of an elderly relative, I now find myself many an evening watching that staple of entertainment, the mystery drama. Taggart and Lewis make frequent appearances, but more evenings than not, of course, there is a television adaptation of the books of the best-selling author of all time, Agatha Christie.
Television has been adapting Agatha Christie for almost as long as there has been television. I first saw them played for laughs, in films with Margaret Rutherford or Peter Ustinov. Next, they was played very straight, in the early Joan Hickson Marples. The emphasis moved in the 1990s towards making them primarily period dramas, with a focus on costumes, cars, and architecture, particularly in the David Suchet Poirots with the strong Art Deco theme.
Recently, in the later Suchet Poirots and the Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie Marples, the producers have turned their attention to social commentary, and to showing off their own cleverness, rejecting the purist faithful-to-the-books approach that was dominant in the 1990s.The new spirit shows itself most crudely and obviously in the Russell-Daviesesque spicing of every story with a piquant extra sprinkle of gay sex. What’s more interesting is the adjusting of the social environment of the stories to be more like the programme makers’ (or the audience’s) impressions of the period, rather than those of Agatha Christie, who, after all, only lived in it.A good example is the recent Five Little Pigs. In this, Poirot (David Suchet) investigates the cold case of the murder of a celebrated painter, at the request of his daughter, who learned only on coming of age that her mother had been convicted of poisoning her father.The story is set in the 1930s. We all know murderers were hanged back then, so the 2003 TV production shows us the execution of Caroline Crale, complete with kicking feet, all the better for us to understand the inhumanity of all eras before the 1960s enlightenment. Agatha Christie, with no such agenda, had the sentence commuted, though the wrongly-convicted murderess dies of natural causes a few years later in order to keep her out of the way of Poirot’s investigation.The daughter, in the book, is concerned to reassure her fiance that she will not inherit insane or murderous tendencies. Such a concept is too far-fetched for the 21st century, much more so than the usual intricate coincidences of a whodunnit. The ITV girl is more interested in justice and vengance, and by pulling a gun on the real murderess, displays the very attributes that her literary counterpart was most anxious to disclaim.An even more interesting plot variation was in the 2009 Geraldine McEwan version of Nemesis, which I saw last week. This was the last Miss Marple novel written, published in 1971 – closer to our own time than to the long-gone world of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Like Christie’s other late novels, it expresses the culture shock to her generation caused by the demolition of class barriers and the other changes of the 1960s.The setting for the denoument of the novel is a house occupied by three sisters, living (like Miss Marple herself) on a small inherited income. Such rentiers were frequent characters in the Christie oeuvre, but they do not exist in the modern world, and are almost too alien to be understood by modern audiences. They were eliminated from Britain deliberately, as a matter of explicit government policy. (Indeed, their appearance in the late Christie novels is quite possibly an anachronism).The reason for eliminating the rentier class was that it was seen as parasitic and unjust. Why should some people be allowed to live while contributing nothing at all to society, when the vast majority have to work for a living? As taxes and inflation rose, the prospect of living long-term from capital alone was restricted to the super-rich.That certainly made sense at the time, and if we now lived in a society without a non-working parasite class, I think we could all look back at the destruction of the rentier and applaud. But in the context of the much larger class of parasites who live more richly than the Miss Marples of the world ever did, not from their own jealously preserved capital but on the taxes of the shrinking proportion of working people, envy of the spinster with her few hundred a year in 2½% consols seems as quaint as the air of suspicion and fear that surrounded Christie’s occasional homosexual characters.The rentiers cannot return, however. With a house and 25k a year in investment income, one could live and even raise a family. At current house prices and bond yields, that represents a capital of less than a million pounds – probably within reach of 1 or 2 percent of the population. It doesn’t happen, though. Inflation always threatens to wipe out any low-yielding investment, and after-tax inflation-adjusted returns are generally negative. The normal expectation of the better off is to build up a private pension and convert it to an annuity on retirement, but handing on a living income to the next generation is an impossibility.And indeed, even if it were possible to live from capital without consuming it, it would be stupid. Why attempt to preserve a windfall for the future, watching most of it leak away in taxes and inflation, when one can get full value for it today as a holiday, a car and a new TV, and the welfare state will fill up any gap in the future?The rentiers were raised to look down on working for a living — an attitude that cannot be said to be socially beneficial. But the partners of that attitude were thrift and independence, and it does not seem that those virtues can survive without the offer of a life of ease as a reward.And the destruction of inherited wealth has not even had much impact on inequality. The society that no longer accords status to those who preserve capital, instead gives it to the “wealth-creators” who make incomes a hundred times the average and burn through it in orgies of consumption, since it makes no more sense for them to save than it does for the successors of the rentiers. Is the executive who works 70 hours a week for his seven-figure package, most of which goes on supercars, jets, and designer clothes, really any better for the rest of us than the gentleman who dabbles in business while keeping his patrimony safe? Possibly a little, but not, I fear, enough to compensate for the example that is set for the rest of us.All that might seem a vast tangent from ITV3, but the questions I asked (and didn’t answer) are the ones that viewers will not be asking themselves, because Nemesis in the 2009 version strikes not in the now-mysterious surroundings of the last of the rentiers, but instead among the licensed weirdness of a religious order, whose sinister initates are, all regular ITV3 viewers know, capable of any crime.

Views changing?

Via JoNova, there has been a large shift in opinion against global warming in the UK.

There has been a lot of triumphalism on the sceptic side – James Delingpole talking about the “imminent death of the AGW scam”, and so on – but I think it is misplaced.

I would guess that the surge in scepticism in Britain owes a lot more to the exceptionally hard winter than to the revelations from East Anglia or the antics of Pachauri, none of which have made very much impact on the public.

The cold winter is not insignificant, of course. It may be just normal variation, but the popular presentation of AGW has mysteriously ignored the fact that the temperature changes they are talking about are barely even measurable, and nowhere near enough to actually notice compared to ordinary year-to-year variation. Therefore, while a cold winter in Britain tells us nothing about climate change as described in the journals, it is a clear falsification of global warming as it has been presented by the media since the 1990s

That is why the media has been uncharacteristically open to both sides during the present kerfuffle. Various scientists are scrambling, not for sake of the movement, but for their own jobs. The movement itself can just sit this out and wait. The IPCC isn’t going away (even if Pachauri does), nor are the politicians who have made climate concern a key part of their image. They’ll wait until summer, and if they get a warm one in the USA and Britain, they’ll crank up the machine again. They won’t bother arguing the toss about tree-rings, Indian glaciers or Chinese weather stations, they’ll just brush it all off as petty troublemaking in the face of the overwhelming threat. And the media will take sides, as they always do, on the basis of which politicians they want to gain and which they want to lose from the whole process.

The exposure of climate science’s guilty secrets, then, will not stop the process in the short term. In the long run, it may have an effect. As I discussed before, it has allowed some people who never believed the exaggerations to say so in public. This in turn may persuade a future generation of politicians that global warming is not what they want to attach their reputations to. For the Obama/Cameron/Milliband generation, it is too late. In a democracy, being indecisive is worse than being wrong, and they cannot afford to change their positions now. But the next decade’s politicians are constructing their positions now, and the choices they make will drive the media landscape of the 2020s.

Ironically, one of the biggest causes of the original AGW error cascade, as Eric Raymond calls it, was George W Bush. For the rank and file in the world’s science departments, Bush was pretty much the most despised figure in history, because of his association with fundamentalist Christianity and the resulting policies, above all against Stem Cell research. To the typical scientist, the theory that the president was attacking climate science because he was in league with oil interests was so intrinsically likely that it wouldn’t make sense to even question it. This was the man who prohibited park rangers from denying young-earth creationism at the Grand Canyon. From that point on, any criticism at all of global warming was presumptively an attack on science itself on behalf of religion and commerce and was to be dealt with on that basis, not studied and reasoned with as if it was part of a real scientific debate. The controversy fell into the pattern of the evolution/creation controversy, rather than the pattern of arguments over Dark Matter or Psychoanalysis. That attitude still persists, and will be very hard to shift, because once it is established, then evidence which strengthens the deniers, while it might start to persuade some of the faithful, will produce in most of the faithful a renewed determination to defeat the anti-science enemy which has become more dangerous through the unfortunate developments which have increased its appeal. Thus the error cascade is perpetuated.

The difficult thing is that I sympathise with these people. I can understand why they are doing what they are doing, and I can’t see a way to shake them out of it. They have learned over the decades that if they treat creationists and the like with respect, and argue honestly and fairly, they will be screwed by elected politicians. And they are applying that lesson. If they didn’t just happen to be wrong, they would be doing the right thing.

Pointless news

January 30, 2010


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Flat Earth News covered most of the reasons why I don’t read newspapers.

This video explains a good chunk of why I don’t watch TV news.

Flat Earth News

I have just read Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies.

It’s an excellent account of the forces distorting the news as reported by mainstream newspapers and television. He covers the ideological biases of owners and journalists, and the needs of both owners and journalists to ingratiate themselves with the politically powerful. However, the biggest distortion of all is the fact that finding out the truth takes time and resources, while printing whatever lands in your inbox is quick and cheap. Under commercial pressures, even the most respectable media sources rely heavily on wire services and press releases, while the wire services themselves mostly pass on the news that is given to them.

What is frustrating about the book is that Davies doesn’t look at the demand side. His thesis is that prior to the 1980s, newspapers and journalists sought out stories and checked them, out of professional pride, and that that diligence was squeezed out of the system under commercial competitive pressure from the 1980s onwards. He seems to assume that the media could have got away with that “churnalism” at any time, but chose in the good old days to assume higher standards.

What I wonder is whether there used to be pressure from customers to do proper journalism, and only in the last 20-30 years has it become profitable to print junk instead, due to changes in the audience. Basically, I would like to answer the following questions:

Do readers care whether what they read is true?

Do they believe that what they read is true?

My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that journalism was originally targeted at a market of people who really wanted the truth, though it may have supplied other people as a by-product. Today the people who need the truth have other ways of getting it, and the key newspaper audience simply doesn’t care whether the stories they read are true or not.

Another theory would be that a textbook Market for Lemons has developed – readers want the truth, and know that they’re not getting it, but they don’t have any way of getting it. A newspaper that spent more money to do proper journalism would cost more, but the consumer wouldn’t be able to tell that it was really any better, and so the expensive option would lose in the marketplace. I don’t think this is likely, because I think it would be fairly straightforward to establish a reputation for avoiding the kinds of bad journalism that Davies describes.

A third theory is that proper journalism has suffered from Baumol’s cost disease, and become too expensive. The early-20th century journalist came from the literate lower-middle class, and provided human judgement at low cost. Human judgement has become the critical component in the modern economy, and a journalist’s time is now too expensive for him to be sent around the country sniffing for interesting stories.

Nick Davies is a leftist, but I don’t think the book suffers from that. He tries hard to be fair, and his bias comes through mostly in his examples – it is much easier to spot abuses by one’s political opponents. However, one of the key results of the process he describes is that when there is controversy, both sides will manipulate the media in the ways that have become so easy, and so the reader of his book can easily spot the examples on the other side that he has missed. His argument includes the fact that the ideological bias of media owners, while still significant, is milder than in earlier eras.


Politics is a spectator sport

September 3, 2009


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More evidence for my claim that the main value of politics to ordinary people is as a spectator sport:

The Monkey Cage writes:

the actual audience for news wants to hear more about strategy. Why? Probably because they already know what candidate or, in this case, policy they favor — at least in broad terms (e.g., yea or nay on health care reform) — and so they want to know whether their preferred policy is “winning.” That’s what strategy coverage provides them.

via TGGP

(By the way, I’ve been quiet lately because I’m working on something that will revolutionalise the state of the art of zombie population modelling).

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