The wrong kind of intelligence

Editorial Intelligence uses “intelligence” more in the sense of “things we have on the editorial” than “the intelligence of the editorial”. It’s a sort of introductions bureau, brokering relationships between the “commentariat” and corporate clients – so when it comes to their Comment Awards nominations, the selection criteria veer towards writers who are prominent enough to be useful, rather than writers who are particularly insightful and brilliant. The few good commentators on there (Chris Dillow and Peter Preston are among the obviously exceptional, and there are a couple of others I rate besides) feel almost accidental, surrounded as they are by thought-shy ranters (Guido and Littlejohn) and flapping purveyors of illogic (Aaro and Hari). Many of the nominees are the sort of supremely hobbyhorsical writers whose “controversial” offerings supposedly spark “debate” – when actually, the sound of fact-free opinion knocking into fact-free opinion is less “worlds meeting”, and more “two bollocks colliding in a soggy ballsack”.

Related: “Making the difference in reporting”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

The culture we make

I don’t like waking up to Nick Griffin being interviewed on the Today Programme one tiny bit, and since you’re reading my blog, you probably don’t like it either. That’s the thing about an ultra-stratified media world: your readers choose you, and they probably choose you because they agree with you already. Or, maybe, because they’re looking for an opponent to their own beliefs – but either way, it’s unlikely that many minds are going to be changed. On Sunday night, my Twitter feed was full of people worrying that the approach they’d taken to the BNP was the wrong one: maybe shouting “fascists” doesn’t work after all, they muttered.

Well, it depends who you’re saying it to. And saying it to a self-selecting group of Twitter-followers and blog readers probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. People who vote BNP have got their own outlets, and it seems that they like to spend a lot of time there, having their prejudices reinforced. Talking among ourselves is useful, it solidifies purpose, it makes action possible – but it only rises above being a pointless stunt if you make it a prelude to doing more.

6% of a one-third turnout is hardly a resounding embrace of fascist politics, but it’s enough to win them money and prominence to present their arguments. The BNP know about the shortcomings in journalism, and they’re keen to exploit them: even a local council candidate appreciates the value of the newswire in broadcasting his message.

Challenging mainstream press and broadcasters over unproven assertion presented as fact might be a good start. Checking their sources. Confirming whether the pictures they use are accurate. Pressuring them to move away from reporting how they think people feel (thereby turning those perceived feelings into confirmed grievances) and towards reporting what actually is, with a critical eye on statistics and surveys. And when you find a mistake, not just blogging about it, but writing to the publisher or broadcaster and pointing out where they’ve gone wrong. Culture isn’t inborn (despite what the BNP say), it’s made. At the moment, we have a news culture that fosters half-truths, lies and unchallenged agendas: I think that can be remade. I think it has to be remade.

Broken bloggers

The big blogger story of the weekend isn’t interesting because it shows that online communications are crucial to UK politics (obviously they are), or because it shows a freakishly self-destructive willingness in Labour staffers to experiment with badly-handled smear tactics (although it’s astonishing that this was done so badly), or because it showed how itchy the media are for a good story to stick it to Labour (that’s four days now that the news has been preoccupied with not just a smear but a meta-smear).

Anyway, the thing that’s interesting about the story, which is actually a pretty petty, depressing and self-involved bit of Westminster toss – and anyway, was anyone actually thinking of voting Labour even before this came out? I’m considering moving into Vince Cable’s constituency as I can’t think of anyone else I could bear to stick an X on. The thing, anyway, that stops this stupid story from being totally, irredeemably nothingish is that between themselves, Draper and Guido have pretty much consummated what Adam Curtis said about blogging in this interview with The Register:

First of all, the people who do blogging, for example, are self-selecting. Quite frankly it’s quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies. The internet has removed a lot of constraints on them. You know what they’re like: they’re deeply emotional, they’re bullies, and they often don’t get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information – they do little research of their own.

What then happens is this idea of the ‘hive mind’, instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, leads to a growing simplicity. The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.

So you end up with a rigid, simplified view of the world, which is negotiated by mainstream media in response to the bullying extremities. Far from being “the wisdom of crowds”, it’s the stupidity of crowds. Collectively what we are doing is creating a more simplified world.

Discrediting Nadine Dorries shouldn’t require unsubstantiated slurs. It should be sufficient to say that she’s incompetent with evidence, ideologially driven and weirdly prickly about democracy. But that’s the opportunity cost of this sort of politics: there’s no place to discuss ideas or policy or capability, only insult and counter-insult. Fucking blogosphere.

The new journalism

Abandoned newspaper racks via newspaperdeathwatch.com

Last Saturday, James Harkin published a ‘Facebook is rubbish, let’s go to the pub’ column in the Guardian which, six days latter, looks pretty tattered:

Last week, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Dunblane massacre, a reporter from the Sunday Express managed to inveigle her way into a Facebook friendship with teenagers from the town and write a salacious piece about their “antics”, based on information culled from their profiles. The blogosphere went ballistic, but it was too late.

What use, then, are imaginary friends like these? Set up to pass information speedily from one place to another, it is hardly surprising that electronic networks turn out to be a very potent way of ferrying our information around. Very few of us had been in the habit of phoning up numbers from the telephone book at random to impart information, for example, but now we are more than happy to pass it on to our network of weak electronic ties.

But not all of our imaginary friends are out to stitch us up and sell us to the Express. My friend Rachel is imaginary friends with comedian Chris Addison, and he’s friends with Father Ted and IT Crowd scriptwriter Graham Linehan – so when Linehan tweeted the link to his plan of direct action against the Express, his followers (including Addison) re-tweeted it, and their followers (including Rachel) retweeted it, and I read it, retweeted it, blogged it, signed the petition and wrote my letters of complaint. And this quick dispersal of information through a collection of loose affiliates had an effect: 6000 signatures, and whispers that an apology is on its way. Which is not the reform of journalism or anything, but it’s a start.

So if social networking facilitated both an intrusion and a response, then it seems like a pretty neutral creation. Invasive journalism and reader kerfuffles weren’t born with web 2.0 – it’s just that now they can both be bigger, faster and more aggressive than paper and telephones allowed. And bloggers have done some pretty impressive digging recently – Ben Goldacre lists some of their triumphs in his talk “in praise of puerile, chaotic, disseminated investigative journalism.”

The only thing is that all of the examples he comes up with (and the Express outrage could be added to them) seem to cohere around a mainstream media outlet. Yes, the newspapers and radio stations often look slow and stupid, but they’re still a point of contact for lots of people who are otherwise frisking information from hundreds and thousands of disparate sources. And for every blogger who cautiously tries to extract some truth from the sources, there’ll be another one carelessly inciting fear, and little incentive for the reader to go anywhere that challenges their prior assumptions. There are journalists online who easily outpunch some of the big names on the nationals, but if newspapers really are on the fade, I wonder how long it will take for culture to stop organising around their mastheads.