Tag: media


January 9, 2016


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I repeated on twitter a point I’ve made before:

I consider local stories from far away as none of my business and refuse to consider them

It was a response to bswud talking about the “Clock Boy” story / hoax

If someone were actually concerned to assess a situation accurately and respond with appropriate action, individual outrages, such as Clock Boy or Tamir Rice, would not be of any use. Instead, you would need actual statistics of how often various kinds of event occurred. Selecting only newsworthy events for your data set would be counterproductive.

Imagine a machine learning algorithm trained only on the outliers; this is your brain on news media.

There are two problems with ignoring outrage stories in favour of statistics. The obvious one is that statistics do not arouse the general public in the way outrage stories do. So, if your intent is propaganda rather than assessing the situation, statistics are less useful. The second problem is that statistics are more obviously mediated by others who may or may not be trustworthy than anecdotes are.  What the stories above suggest is that outrage stories are in reality no more likely to be accurate than published statistics, but it doesn’t feel that way. You are always conscious that a statistic is potentially suspect, but a story of a reported event feels more like a fact than a claim, even though you read it from the same page as the statistic.

To emphasize, the real problem with outrage porn is not that it is not true. Reasoning based on selected outrage stories would be wrong even if they were all true and accurately reported. They are less akin to lies, and more akin to Frankfurterian “bullshit”, in that it is irrelevant to the purposes for which they are used whether they are true or not.

For now, propaganda by outrage story is working, but the tenuous link between outrage and truth, because it is not a fundamental requirement of the process, can be completely broken. This seems to be what some on the WN side have undertaken to do:

Outrage stories are, necessarily, retailed and commented on without scrutiny, actual scrutiny being impractical. But there is still a widespread assumption that, while slanted reporting and hoaxes happen, most stories (or at least, most stories that are useful to my propaganda purposes) are somewhat true.  That assumption can be attacked by flooding social media with false stories. If the public doesn’t know what to believe, and is unable to ever find out what is actually going on in some town a thousand miles away, and aware of that inability, then they would actually be better-informed than they are now.

As a postscript, do note that outrage porn is common across the political spectrum. Cologne New Year’s Eve is outrage porn.

If I do comment on outrage porn, what I am interested in is patterns of reporting. Not the truth, or even the relationship of the reporting to the truth (since I don’t know the truth), but the way reports are promoted or suppressed, and their relationships with each other. It is interesting that the Cologne story was kept quiet for a week, then escaped and became major (but not dominating) news. It is interesting that the BBC quoted a police officer one day that police said the attackers were mainly migrants carrying migrant papers, and reported the following day that there was no evidence they were migrants. If I draw conclusions from outrage porn, I am looking for conclusions that are independent of the validity of the reporting.


Back in 2012, I looked at the concept of peer-to-peer blogging. It is definitely time to revisit
the environment.

Back then, the main threat I was concerned with was state action directed against service providers being used for copyright infringement. Since then, my political views have become more extreme, while the intolerance of the mainstream left has escalated alarmingly, and so the main threat today is censorship by service providers, based on their own politics or pressure from users and/or advertisers.

Actually publishing content has become easier, due to cheap virtualised hosting and fast residential broadband, making a few megabytes of data available is not likely to be a problem. The difficult bit is reaching an audience. The demise of Bloglines and then Google Reader has been either a cause or a symptom of the decline of RSS, and the main channels for reaching an audience today are facebook and twitter. I don’t actually use facebook, so for me twitter is the vital battleground. If you can build up a following linked to a twitter ID, you can move your content hosting around and followers will barely be aware it’s moved. Last week’s Chuck Johnson affair defines the situation we face. We require a robust alternative to twitter—not urgently but ideally within a 12–24 month timeframe.

I’ve been running the Twister peer-to-peer twitter clone for a couple of weeks, and I think it is OK.

Primarily, it is built on top of the bittorrent protocol. Messages are passed from node to node, and nodes collect messages that are relevant to them.

In addition, it uses the bitcoin blockchain protocol. This is not for content, but for the ID database. Content published by an ID must be signed by the key associated with that ID, and the association of keys with IDs is made via writing entries into the blockchain. Ownership of IDs is therefore “first come, first served”, with the ordering of claims determined by the blockchain (just as the order of transaction attempts is determined for bitcoin, preventing double spends).

As an incentive to build the blockchain, each block can include a “spam message” which will be presented to users.

What that means is that there is no authority who can disable a user ID or take it over. If the ID is registered on the twister blockchain with your public key, it is yours forever.

The application runs, like the bitcoin reference client it is based on, as a daemon offering a JSON-RPC socket interface. It also serves some static web pages over HTTP on the same port, providing a working twitter-lookalike web client.

As far as I can see, it works properly and reliably. I am running it over Tor, and that works fine.

Current Shortcomings

It’s still treated as experimental by the authors, so it’s not surprising if it’s not complete.

The biggest shortcoming is that it’s inconvenient to run. Like bittorrent, it needs to find peers and build a network to exchange data with, and, like bitcoin, it needs to keep up with a blockchain. (It is not necessary to “mine” or build the blockchain to use the service). You really need to start it up and leave it running, if not 24/7, at least for hours at a time.

For the same reason, it doesn’t run on mobile devices. It could be ported, but staying on the peer-to-peer networks would be an inconveniently heavy use of data, battery and processor resources.

Fundamentally, you don’t see all the traffic (that wouldn’t scale), so you can’t conveniently search it. You need to advertise that you are interested in something (by following a user, for instance), and gradually it will start to flow your way.

Future Shortcomings

The network is currently very small-scale, so it remains to be seen how well it would scale up to a useful size. I don’t understand the torrent / DHT side of things all that well, but as far as I can see it should hold up.

The ID blockchain functionality seems more reasonable. If each new user requires of the order of 64 bytes of blockchain space, then ten million users would need about a gigabyte of disk space to archive. A lot, but not prohibitive. As with bitcoin, the hope would be that users would be able to use lightweight clients, with the heavy network functions semi-centralised.

[The useful feature of a peer-to-peer protocol for us in this scenario is not that there is no trust in the system at all, or that there is no centralisation at all; it is that there is no single thing that must be trusted or relied on. The user has the option of doing everything themselves, and, more useful to the ordinary user, they have the option of temporarily and conditionally trusting a provider of their choice]

Also as with bitcoin, the most difficult obstacle is key management. When you want to start using twister, you generate a key pair, and post a transaction associating your public key with your chosen twister ID. You need the private key to post twists, or to see private messages. If you lose the key, you’ve lost your ID. If someone gets your key, they can post as you and read your private messages. Handling keys securely is difficult. For a casual user who isn’t too concerned about surveillance or censorship, it’s prohibitive.

Like bitcoin, the network node, blockchain archive and wallet (user ID) are all managed by a single process. Logically, the private operations of creating authenticated transactions/messages ought to be separate from the maintenance of the network node.

Twister is designed for those who are concerned about surveillance or censorship, but we need to be able to talk to those who aren’t. It needs to provide security for those who need it, while being as easy as possible for those who don’t.

The system seems fairly robust to attacks, including denial-of-service attacks. Media companies have attempted to interfere with bittorrent, but have not as far as I know blocked an actual running torrent, rather concentrating on the chokepoints of communicating knowledge of specific torrents.

The ID subsystem could be flooded with new id requests. There is a proof-of-work requirement on individual “transactions” (new id assignments), separate from the actual block proof-of-work, but that cannot be too onerous, so a determined adversary could probably produce tens of thousands. However, miners could respond by being fussier about what they accept, without breaking the protocol.

The blockchain itself is vulnerable. The hashrate at present is about one quarter-millionth of Litecoin’s (which uses the same hash method), so one block of the twister blockchain currently costs about the same in compute resources as a thirtieth of a cent worth of Litecoin. (I have mined dozens of blocks myself over the past week). Anyone with a serious GPU-based mining rig could mine hundreds of blocks in minutes. The incentive for legitimate miners is always going to be weak, since a customised client can trivially ignore the “spam” messages.  However, it does not seem obvious that that is a real problem. The value of the blockchain is that it established ownership of IDs, but an ID is not really valuable until it has been used for a considerable period, so to take over a valuable ID, you have to fork the blockchain from a long period in the past. Even if you have the hashpower to do that, your blocks are likely to be ignored simply by virtue of being so old.

Suggested Enhancements

The main author has suggested taking the cryptography out of the daemon and into the web client (in javascript). That would be an improvement and a step towards usable lightweight clients.

However, there is another requirement to do that, which is more sophisticated key management. Mobile devices and third-party service providers would hugely improve the convenience and usability of the service, but at a cost of crippling the security, since neither one is sufficiently trustworthy to hold the private key.

What I have suggested is a system of subkeys, with restricted delegated authority.  I create my key pair and post it to the network with my chosen ID, as per the current protocol. Then, I can create a new key pair, and create a transaction signed by my original key (which I call the “master” key), delegating the authority to make posts for a limited time (a week, say) to this new key (which I call a “subkey”). I transfer the private key of the subkey to my phone app, or to a service-provider I trust, and can then make posts using the subkey.

After the week, that subkey is expired and posts made with it will no longer be accepted as valid by other clients or network nodes. If the key is compromised, the damage is limited. I could even post a “revoke” transaction signed by my master key.


@jokeocracy has pointed at Trsst. Also, GnuSocial is quite well established. Both of these are federated client-server architectures. See quitter.se as an example GnuSocial-based service provider. (It would be funny if we were to all move en bloc onto some lefty-oriented “free from capitalism” platform, and perhaps instructive, but not necessarily a long-term solution).

There is some resistance to censorship there, in that if one service provider blocks you, you can switch to another. However, your persistent ID is tied to the service provider you choose, which could take a dislike to you or (equally likely in the early stages) just go away, so it makes it harder to maintain continuity. Also, the federation model does not necessarily prevent the consumer’s service provider from censoring your messages to its customers. The customers can switch if they want to, but not trivially.

In the case of Trsst, it strikes me that this is a mistake: users have private keys, but the association of keys to IDs, unlike in the case of twister, is made by the service provider. If mentions, replies, and subscriptions were by public key instead of by “nickname”, users could migrate more painlessly. However, that registry would have to be distributed, adding complexity.

In the long run, what I would hope to see is a service that looks like quitter.se or Trssst, but acting as a proxy onto the Twister network, ideally with short-lived subkeys as I describe above.

Other relevant projects not ready yet would are Urbit (of course), and chatless (by @_raptros).

The Modern Structure

Moldbug’s coining “The Cathedral” has caught on and been the subject of much debate, but his other term “The Modern Structure” less so, which is a shame.
The Modern Structure is the constitution of the United States of America, in the sense that that term was originally used — a description of how the government of that country operates. Other Western Democracies have very similar constitutions.
The centre of the Modern Structure is the Civil Service. They actually carry out the business of government.
In theory, they are under the control of Politicians, but in reality the politicians are at most peers of the civil service, and in many cases completely subservient.
In theory again, the Politicians are controlled by the Electorate. However, the influence of the Electorate is slight: enough to tip the balance occasionally when the issue is close, but not to dictate anything. Further, on any issue, the majority of the electorate are completely ignorant, and depend on the media for information about the issue and how they should vote.
Meanwhile, business has at least as much influence on the politicians, and additionally has direct influence on the civil service (through lobbying and other forms of corruption).
In terms of power over government policy, then, the map of influences look something like this:

That is less than half the story, however. In the long run, what matters is not how the noisy controversies of the moment get resolved, but rather what is or is not controversial in the first place. That is the matter of the dominant ideology — what all the people in this network believe about what is and what should be.
The ideology is not fixed: it has changed enormously over mere decades. Who has influence over ideology?
The high status of the organs of the modern structure make them significant, but there are other important influences, and other directions of influence within the network.
This diagram shows the flows of ideological influence. For this purpose I have broken out of “Education” the most crucial organ of ideological influence — “Elite Academia”. This is where ideology comes from.

It is true that, in a sense, everything influences everything else. However, a fully-connected undirected graph has little information content, so the diagram only shows what I think are the biggest influences on what people believe.
I have left out business from the ideology diagram. My view is that while business and lobbyists are able to significantly affect policy, they has very little influence on what people believe. They perhaps have the capability of causing such influence, but in practice businesses are primarily in competition with each other, and it is much more profitable for each player to spend his influence on favouring his own narrow interests rather than on promoting a general business-oriented ideology. To the extent that a business-oriented ideology exists, it is developed by enthusiasts, and funded more by a few eccentrics such as the Kochs rather than by moneyed interests as a whole.
However, this is a disputed point, so here’s the diagram with them added back in, and with the Conservative media broken out from the respectable media.

With or without business interests, it is in the network of ideological influence that we see “The Cathedral” — Elite Academia and Respectable Media — at the core. Ideology flows out from them.
It should go without saying, that this is not intended to be the last word: it is my interpretation of what is mostly general knowledge, and there is a lot of room for refinement, correction and expansion.


March 19, 2013


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My twitter stream tells me that three hundred odd years of a free press are at an end, that blogs like this one are going to be regulated by the government.

It might even be true. The establishment is quite capable of riding a popular wave and then doing something completely unrelated when they actually get around to acting. After the Dunblane massacre, the government banned crossbows. After the World Trade Centre bombing, the government passed a law giving itself the power to seize the assets of Icelandic banks. It is perfectly plausible that the government would respond to the News of the World accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail by silencing bloggers.

On the other hand, the cross-party negotiations that produced the agreement yesterday appear to be the usual symbolic battle about nothing at all, this time in the form of a pointless distinction between “statutory” and “non-statutory” regulatory frameworks. Some some of the commentary takes that argument seriously, making me doubt whether the commentators concerned are actually paying attention.

I don’t know. I’m perfectly fine with not knowing. If this new thing really is going to restrict my blogging, I’ll find out soon enough. The only case in which I would need to know now would be if I could actually do something useful about it. It is that illusion that causes all the ignorant flapping speculation about something that will be perfectly obvious within a few months.

In any case I can’t get too worked up because, while I believe that basic freedom of communication is an important freedom which governments should respect if they want the society and economy to function smoothly, I don’t believe in the “political right” of free speech as a way of opposing the government. I don’t believe in any political rights, and if the government tries to shut me up, it is making my own argument for me.

Effectively, my ignorance is doubled. As well as not knowing whether the government is or isn’t going to seriously clamp down on the press and/or blogs, I do not know, in the full context, whether that would be a bad thing or a good thing. I might be fairly sure that, other things being equal, it would be a bad thing, but other things are not equal. The end of press freedom might cause a major reactionary swing, which might hasten the downfall of the democratic regime and the restoration of Royalism, which might be a good thing. It might cause a major liberal swing, which might preserve the democratic regime longer than otherwise, which might cause a better successor regime to replace it than would otherwise be the case, which might be a good thing. Not only can I not judge how likely these outcomes are, I can’t imagine the depth and breadth of knowledge that would make it possible to judge how likely those outcomes are. It’s preposterous for me to sit here and claim to know whether this is good or bad.

Finally, of course, and looking only at the short term effects that it is actually possible to estimate, the government is far too incompetent to actually be able to suppress opposition media. Not only that, Western governments have gone to great lengths to provide mechanisms for dissidents in non-democratic countries to publish electronically without effective control. Either we can use those, or the non-democratic governments themselves will provide a mirror-image in order to show up the incoherence of the West. Imagine the UK trying to lean on China to shut down websites used by British dissidents — they would laugh their arses off.

The real suppression we face is by society refusing employment or otherwise acting informally against those who hold unfashionable opinion. That is the reason I write anonymously. But that exists already, and we are coping with that — I don’t think the law will produce nearly as much oppression as exists already in the form of unwritten liberal blasphemy law.

Louise Mensch

August 11, 2012


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I maintain that day-to-day party politics is completely unimportant. Because of that, when the name “Louise Mensch” kept cropping up on twitter I didn’t know anything about her: I gathered that she was an MP, and more or less got it straight in my head that she was a Tory, and that was about it until she hit the headlines this week for resigning to spend more time with her family.

It was only at that point that I discovered she was a successful novelist, writing books under the name “Louise Bagshawe” which I have seen people reading on the train.

Having missed the fuss when she ran for and won the seat of Corby, I was not in a position to make the link to Esther Rantzen, who ran as an independent in my own constituency (and therefore had come to my attention).

In the context of Rantzen, I wrote:

I have suspected for a while that media figures are capable of moving into politics very successfully, through the more normal mechanism of joining major parties rather than running as independents. In the long run, the question is not so much whether celebrities will be able to win seats in parliament, as why they would want to.

Had I known what was going on in Corby, I might have said something prophetic…

The unthinkable

I wrote in the last post that the unthinkable can become thinkable shockingly fast.

We can see an example of that on any day’s news at the moment. As the current Private Eye reports, in 2002 the Mirror Group Chairman held a lunch, at which the then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan made a speech featuring jokes about various celebrities, based on the voicemails he had heard. These included even references to messages between then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and former TV weathergirl Ulkrika Jonsson, who was present at the event.

Private Eye is bringing it all up to prove the dishonesty of all those who are now denying that they knew or suspected anything at all of such outrageous activity as phone-hacking going on. But to me the fact that they’re now hiding it is much less significant than the fact that only ten years ago they didn’t feel any need at all to hide it. Almost overnight (and I particularly noticed how sudden it was because I left the country for three weeks in 2011 and it happened while I was away), what had previously been taken for granted became a huge scandal.

Another example was raised recently — that within living memory, leading US evangelical Christians were in favour of legalising abortion. I read an article a month or two back which explained how, like the 2002 Mirror Group lunch, writings of prominent protestants have been dropped from the narrative, not because they’re embarrasing to the people involved, but because they simply does not make sense in the context of the narrative as it is presented today by everyone.

The conventional wisdom, as modulated by the popular media (but I’m not  sure their role is all that vital) is governed by the following constraints.

  • Everyone wants to say something interesting
  • Nobody wants to be seen to be wrong
  • People have very short memories

The result is that there are remarkably few public arguments about substance. It is much more effective, whether you are a media pundit or a political practitioner, to show that you are the most in tune with the conventional wisdom than to claim that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Since everyone important agreed with the conventional wisdom of five years ago, it is in nobody important’s interest to remind people that it’s the opposite of what everyone agrees with today.

Where there are disagreements, the number of things that have to be assumed on all sides — because they are part of the current conventional wisdom — but which are blatantly untrue make realistic argument about the facts impossible. So instead, we have emotional arguments about meaningless abstractions — things like “Austerity” or “Europe”, that are safely divorced from the things that are actually going on, and can be consistently supported or opposed while one fictional narrative after another sweeps through the newspapers.

(It is also safe to argue about weak foreign countries. It doesn’t matter what’s really going on in Bosnia or Egypt or Syria: we can have an argument about who to kill, based on our fantasy conventional wisdom, and nobody who matters will ever know or care what was actually happening.)

There is, at the same time, a kind of debate among the elite that deals with facts rather than imaginary narratives, but it is not independent of the fantasy. It would be nice to think that the people who really run things could get together at a Bildeberg meeting or something and actually try to work out what real solutions exist for real problems, but if that was ever the case, it probably isn’t now. I rather suspect that that was always an aspiration for those meetings rather than a reliable achievement.

As I said in a comment recently, P.R. is fundamental to government. Most of the hard problems in government are about how you get group X to accept A or group Y to support B. Many of the people who rise high in the elite are those who are able to solve those hard problems, and in many cases I suspect they are good at that because they honestly believe the fantasy narratives. If the media and the mob were really having their strings pulled by a secretive cabal of cynical technocrats, things would probably work a lot better than they do. It’s much more likely that the tail is wagging the dog.

But the upshot of all this is that democracy can be thrown under the bus just as quickly and as decisively as The News of the World and Yugoslavia were. It doesn’t even have to be for a good reason. By 2017, saying we should still have elections for government would be as odd as saying that journalists guessing celebrities’ voicemail passwords isn’t a big deal or that Yugoslavia was a sovereign country and forcibly breaking it up from outside was illegal.

Unfortunately, while I can see that it could happen, that’s not the same as knowing how to make it happen. Predicting herd behaviour, contra Isaac Asimov, is probably the hardest thing there is.

 It might be worth collecting a list of huge non-partisan shifts in belief.

  • I’ve mentioned previously the idea that humanitarian political action can only be taken with UN approval. That went from not being suggested at the time of the bombing of Belgrade, to being generally accepted by the buildup to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
  • The notion that children up into their young teens can never be left unsupervised (as opposed by Lenore Skenazy) has arrived somewhere in the last 20 years, not sure exactly where.

neutrino-cannon contributes:

Honour Given and Taken

February 4, 2012


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Not long ago, Fred Goodwin was a Knight, his successor Stephen Hester was in line for a £900K bonus, and Chris Huhne was a cabinet minister.

It would be neat in a literary way to show that these three withdrawn honours are part of the same thing, but it’s more interesting, and more true, to see how they’re all different.

Going in reverse chronogical order, Huhne is in some ways the most straightforward. He was in a position of trust, and he is accused of criminal dishonesty.

On more detailed reflection, oddities emerge. For one thing, while it would be nice to think that laws and policies are being made by people who are honest and trustworthy, the idea that any of his rivals or colleagues are honest enough to admit their mistakes or crimes is laughable.

For another thing, why is it the decision of the police to prosecute that triggers his resignation? The facts are not really any better known than they were before.

I suspect that what forced him out was the media deciding to claim that he must be forced out. That doesn’t necessarily indicate any particular animus to him on behalf of the media; a cabinet resignation is worth pushing for just for story value. It might be that earlier, there were reasons for the press not to try to do him in, but those are now gone.

I could suggest a couple of possible reasons: one is that the media seemed somewhat invested in the coalition, but is now more soured on it. (The 2010 story of David Laws tells against that theory somewhat, but he might have been more specifically unpopular to the media). Another theory might be that Huhne’s activity on climate change protected him, but that has mysteriously become less of a concern.

Ultimately, I don’t think we can know what’s really going on, and that’s why day-to-day party politics isn’t worth paying attention to.

On to Goodwin then. On the one hand, if Goodwin was rewarded for benefiting British Banking, it is fair to say that the any benefit he bestowed was more than undone. On the other, the whole process did not seem to have much to do with either justice or wise decision-making; rather it had all the appearance of a stampede.

Whatever knighthoods are for these days, it can’t be what they were originally for. It’s a bit murky. Interestingly, knighthoods would fit well into a formalist system, as a treatment of the coalition problems I just wrote about. It could serve as a formalisation of informal power: a recognition that the recipient has some power, is loyal to the sovereign, and is being rewarded for that loyalty. If that were the basis of honours, they would not be withdrawn for incompetence, or even for criminality, but only for disloyalty. It would mean that that person ought not be permitted to obtain any power again.

Finally Hester. Hester is CEO of a bank which is making modest profits in a difficult market. As such, he would normally expect a substantial bonus. The same stampede which took away his predecessor’s knighthood took that as well.

There are legitimate questions about the amount of money made by banks and their employees, which I am not going to address — anyone worth reading on the issue would be either more knowledgable or less personally interested than me.

The question of bonuses per se is a separate one, though. What it amounts to is that companies that award large bonuses (relative to salary) are run in a more formalist manner than most other corporations. In many organisations, valuable employees are rewarded with more responsibilities, or better job security. Arnold Kling recently raised the point that this can produce bad outcomes. These companies avoid that, giving responsibilies as tasks rather than rewards, and rewarding valuable employees more directly with cash. This is the appropriate response to the sort of issue that Arnold Kling raised, and which Aretae picked up on as a widely applicable example of bad governance.

The fact that this formalist measure to improve governance arouses such opposition (again, independently of the actual sums involved; Hester’s salary for 2011 was over a million pounds, and attracted little attention), says a lot about what is wrong with modern political culture.

So, three very different honours: a minor position in our corrupted and ineffective system of government, an anachronism that might once have been a formalist recoginition of power and reward for loyalty, and a straightforward, honest payment for value. All removed, for better or worse, in the same way, by an unthinking popular stampede, triggered by a media driven not primarily by ideology but by a need for drama.

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.

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