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Category Archives: Journalism

The failure to explain

In the wake of the recent UK elections for members of the European Parliament, I am unbelievably fed up of hearing that the rise of undesirable parties is the fault of non-voters.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

It is not.

I am fed up of being told that if I don’t vote I am not entitled to an opinion.

I am.

Let me be clear – I have an opinion, and I am not going to stop having one because you believe that you have the right to tell me what you think I should do about it.

There are two strands here which bind together in an ever-quicker plunge into a vortex of dumb that will doom us all. Not that I want to over-cook it, but I mean it this time – this is the stuff that is going to fuck us right up… The first strand you know, already. C’mon, deep down you know it. And you know it isn’t just you or me. It’s the people you’ve been listening to, too. C’mon, it’s OK. We can let it go. Together.

1. The trend towards “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP”

You do not know what you are talking about. You looked something up on Google. You listened to a friend’s rant in the pub; you read something by that columnist you like. You took an opinion – someone’s interpretation of the facts that they arranged into a pleasing narrative – and you made that opinion your own. I do this all the time and so do you.

To pick a UKIP topic, everyone has an opinion on the EU. Do you know what makes it work? Why it exists? Do you even know that some of it might function adequately and appropriately? Or have you only been listening to all the fun, easy-to-remember bits about stupid rules and corrupt bureaucracies?

Seriously, this woman was a freak with a vision of a world that ignores what 90% of the population are actually like. And people adopt her narrative as if it's the only thing in the world worth listening to.

It’s always at least partly Ayn Rand’s fault.

What’s your take on the effect leaving the EU would have on the UK economy? What do you think about tax cuts? Interest rates? House prices? Perhaps you completed your PHD in economics after a decade of study and research and followed it up with a decade of experience in practically applying it to be able to deduce an adequate opinion.

No? Oh, so you have an economics-based background of some sort, right? Or perhaps, at least, you’ve read a good few of the classics of economic literature? You read quite a bit about economic theory other than just leader columns in newspapers or leaflets that came through the letterbox? Maybe just a few contemporary thought-leaders in… wait – hang on, I get the feeling you never did any of those things. Why do you think your opinion is valuable again? Have you checked it against the leading opposing argument to see how it stacks up? No?

Fuck off, then.

We all follow up the tendency to think we know what we’re talking about but this is going beyond mere debate and exploration and delving into deep pools of madness.

So, the latest round of politically and morally bankrupt narratives surrounding immigration and the time-honoured tradition of blaming Johnny Foreigner for everything comes around again. Never mind that nobody really knows any of the immigration facts; never mind that the reality of the economy is that it is made of many complex threads which can barely be affected by governments and policies, dependent as they are on global circumstances beyond our understanding.

Instead, people buy the pleasing, easy-to-understand narrative. And because it is pleasing, because it “chimes” they will tell you that they “know what they know and shut up.” The power of the narrative has become all-encompassing.

If the narrative sounds right to you, it must follow that it is right.

This brings us to strand 2:

2. “The Failure To Explain”

Go on, tell me why free education is important. Then tell me about the importance of healthcare. Tell me why the banks shouldn’t pay bonuses; later, you can give me your explanation of why Michael Gove is an arse or Ed Miliband is whatever he is or why Nick Clegg is just a house-can’t-use-that-word-any-more. Then you can explain why you can’t use “that word” any more, right?

Offensive? Maybe. But not as offensive as enabling the most ideological parliament in recent UK history despite that party's ideology having been voted for by a minority of the population. Good work, Lib Dems!

Nick Clegg, yesterday. Just helping out the massas.

Except for the most part, you can’t.

Because either you actually don’t have a cogent argument (because it is a belief you have grown up with and adopted – see above) or because you don’t have the ability to communicate with your audience.

Try explaining why welfare or taxation are important to a 14 year old at the bus stop. Or maybe just someone who isn’t as middle class as you are. No fucking chance, mate. Then try it with someone just as middle class as you are. Then, when you’ve listened to them drone on about whatever version of the narrative they last heard on 5 Live / Radio 4 / Match of The Day, you can deduce that there is no substance whatsoever. Mainly because they can’t quite remember the exact words, the salient points, just their own slightly corrupted, waffly and inconsistent version. They don’t have to try hard to remember these things because “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP.”

These issues were important 50 years ago because people had lived through the circumstances these policies were designed to eradicate. Now the same people these policies are meant to help no longer realise or understand that they affect them. They have no idea. And you are not helping.

Bankrupt and dead ideologies – party politics and religion alike, philosophies that were imagined to explain an era long in the past, are simply not equipped to adopt to change. And like it or not, the world always changes. And it is changing quicker than ever.

But when you combine the polarisation – which comes as a result of everyone thinking they are right without the need to hear another side to the argument  – with the failure to properly explain their own argument, then GUESS WHAT! People just drop both sides. Or take the easy argument that appeals. The pleasing narrative, the one they actually understand.

Voting? Fuck off. The old jokes of “the government always wins” are writ large; they all end up tasting like shit – just slightly different flavours of shit. A choice between a big plate of shit and a big plate of shit with extra cheese is not a choice. You want some shit? No? But it’s got extra cheese!

You want me to vote? Explain why. Explain what you have that is meant to be appealing to me and my values. Maybe explain why I should have any values at all. A lot of talk based on opinion polls is just politics, not government. There is no choice, so why choose?

The illusion of this kind of choice and why people get involved is something I wrote about a long time ago in a music magazine far, far away. At the time it was all “Kylie vs. Posh Spice” and “Blur vs. Oasis.” If you’d asked me if I liked Kylie I would have said no. Likewise for Posh. But ask me which one I’d prefer and suddenly I have to make a choice. I didn’t like either, but I did feel the need to choose. The same went for Oasis and Blue – the implicit polarisation in the question drove people to choose and this helped both sides’ record sales. Disinterested fence-sitters became fans. Nice trick. Behavioural economics at work, right?

Well, I fucking hated all 4 of them. And I wouldn’t have voted for any of them, either.

This, of course, is where people step in and say “But you need to vote for those guys – or those other guys will get in!!” So let me say this straight:

If the best reason you have for someone to vote for your party is that the other guy is shit then you have nothing worth voting for.

You are the Dave channel, showing the Top Gear rerun for the 3098th time, knowing full well that you will pick up sufficient viewers who will choose you as the least-shit thing on. And that will do. You know people won’t just shut the TV off – just like Labour and Tories,  Republicans and Democrats; they know you won’t shut off their bullshit game, either.

But the game has changed.

The masses are people you do not know. I see them in the data I work with, but they are practically unrecognised in the media. UKIP tipped the nod to many who may be unengaged with politics, but they still had to be registered to vote and know what to do. There really is a silent majority out there and they do not know how to vote or – most importantly – why the hell they should. And I’m not talking about underclasses or squeezed middles or any of that narrative-driven crap. I’m talking about all kinds of people who are out there living their lives without any reference to newspapers or news programmes, Westminster or whatever.

With thanks to a random B3ta user whose name I could not find

Plane-crashing twat.

They don’t vote because nobody has ever given them a good reason why they should. If you don’t know what it’s like not to have free education, you don’t know what it’s like to want it. If you didn’t live through polio epidemics you probably don’t have an idea what it’s like to see your friends die. The explanations that worked for generations that did experience those things are not going to work for those that did not.

The arrogance of people going around telling them that they know they should vote, that people died for it, that not voting causes cancer – whatever narrative works for them, huh? – you really think that’s going to work? That the world will change because of such weak premises?

When voter turnout is so low, when the debate is so criminally under-informed, it is time to hit the reset button. The old arguments are done; they are boring; if they are important, they need a rewrite and a re-representation. But if you are clinging to the current crop of political parties, you are the problem. You are just a ripple in the far reaches of the pond, far from where the original rock was dropped, the last dribbled smear of a once-joyful but long-spent ejaculation.

You have a point of view? EXPLAIN. Convince me using evidence you came up with through investigation, checking facts, using experience you have actually earned. Stop bullshitting based on other people’s bullshit.

But tell me again that my failure to vote for your favoured shitty candidate is responsible for whatever ills you perceive in society and watch what response you get. I assure you, it won’t be an especially democratic one.

The failure to explain is everywhere.

And that is the real threat to democracy.

 

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When Hari Got Sullied

I’ve written before about what I see as the danger inherent in subscribing to a particular set of beliefs. The Johann Hari saga has been yet one more example of why this is, frankly, spot-on.

We’ve got all excited about phone-hacking in the last few weeks and rightly so. In comparison, Johann Hari’s little saga has had relatively little coverage but it is part of the same problem. Politicians are meant to respect the Rule of Law. You have principles about how people go about their business? They apply to you too. I quite like Johann Hari’s writing and his passion, but he’s let the latter get the better of him and, as a result, his work has suffered. Every time I try and cut him some slack there’s another revelation of some appalling journalistic practices which are indefensible. If I’m going to be pissed at Murdoch’s minions, I have to be pissed at Hari too.

The problem is, people love to kick their enemies, but they feel uncomfortable turning the attention to one of their own – it’s as if they feel it weakens their point of view to have one of its exponents taken down. This, to my eyes, undermines their legitimacy. You can’t forgive Cameron for something you’d never have forgiven Gordon Brown; you can’t forgive the Guardian something you wouldn’t forgive the Mail. Yet, a long line of well-known Twitterati lined up to defend him, seemingly willing to overlook his misdeeds for the benefit of the bigger picture. And I’m not naming them here because…

Then there’s another side to it – using ad hominem (i.e. personal) attacks to undermine a point of view. You see this all day long in politics – that person’s point of view is invalid because he used to be a socialist; this MP’s point on unemployment is illegitimate because he has a second home. And the unravelling of Hari’s work has been similar – a lot of the attacks seem motivated by a desire to give him back some of the kickings he’s given other people. Hari has done some brilliant things – watch him tear Richard Littlejohn a new arse – and it’s a shame to think that we have to judge him as either “good” or “bad,” wholly legitimate or wholly illegitimate. Human beings are rarely so easily categorised.

I must admit, as time has gone on and more and more of his work – including his Orwell Prize piece – has been torn down, I feel less like making this point but it needs to be made, irrespective of Hari:

You have to separate the art and the artist.

Just because someone is a total arse, it does not make their work illegitimate. James Brown was a wife-beater but his music is still amazing. Picasso was a misogynist and womaniser but you wouldn’t want to take all his paintings off the walls and disregard him from art history because of it. Just because you love Michael Jackson’s music doesn’t mean you have to defend him as a person – I am constantly baffled as to why people can’t separate the two things. Hari is an idiot but it doesn’t mean everything he’s ever said or done is illegitimate. That will come down to an examination of the facts alone.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2011 in Journalism, PR, Social Media, Society

 

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Blocked on Twitter / Am I just bitter?

Tempting tho’ it was to end that title with “You can’t get fitter / Than a Kwik-Fit fitter,” I’ll move right along. An odd thing happened this morning – I woke up and found that the writer & broadcaster Andrew Collins had blocked me on Twitter, following a conversation we had yesterday.

I thought there was a point worth exploring for a blog post – that of celebrities who are happy to use Twitter when it benefits them but rankle when their audience dares to be anything less than celebratory about their output, as well as the difficulty of engaging (as a mere punter) with people you like and remaining sufficiently critical of whatever they have to say. However, the difficult thing is to ask the question without sounding as if there’s a bitter tinge to anything I say.

I passive-aggressively respond by failing to provide a photo credit. TAKE THAT COLLINS!

So to be clear – I was already writing some notes on the topic with regards to Johann Hari. In case you’ve missed it here’s a summary.  Now, I quite like his writing, I like the passion and invective as well as his hunger for facts. But the reasonable side of my brain also notes that he’s occasionally wayward in both evidence and style – call it artistic license or personality at one end of the scale or inaccuracy / following an agenda at the other. Is it possible to like someone’s writing even though you know they aren’t 100% “correct”?

Of course it is. Writing is not (always) like science. Science communication needs to be accurate because it concerns the transmission of facts; but facts alone simply do not win arguments outside of evidence-based practitioners like scientists. So there’s a need for some art – and Hari does his job well. This article is a good example – some good use of economics and history, packaged in a way his audience is likely to understand it. But at the end, he loses it a bit and gets all shouty. That’s his style, and it’s very effective. And then you read someone else’s take on the article and wonder if it was as good as you thought it was. And let’s face it – there is rarely such a thing as “100% correct” when you’re not talking about maths or physics.

But if you’re style is passion, don’t be surprised when the naysayers react passionately when you fuck up. You can’t hold other people to high standards and expect people to just instantly forgive you. I was especially surprised that a lot of the people who usually are first in line to bash inaccurate reporting were also first in line to defend Hari. Why? Because they tend to agree with his point of view. (It’s also wholly valid to say that Hari’s mistakes are not on a par with those who falsify / ignore evidence to support their point of view, a position I agree with, but the boy did wrong and admitting it doesn’t weaken his talent). This blog post from the excellent David Allen Green pretty much sums it up for me re Johann Hari, by the way.

Similarly, I like Andrew Collins’ broadcasting & writing. He’s pretty funny, has some interesting stuff to say about films and his 6 Music stuff with Richard Herring is excellent, as are the podcasts. He also is a defender of homeopathy, which I loathe. That does not (nor should it) stop me finding the rest of his work worthwhile. If I read the Guardian, I may be in line with 50% of its opinions; the fact I find the other 50% unpalatable is no reason not to read the rest. There’s barely anyone you will ever meet and call a friend that you agree with 100% on everything.

The great thing about Twitter is that it gives people a chance to discuss their work in a way that has rarely been possible before. Some are good at commenting on their own blog / newspaper website pieces and responding to criticism. Some never do. My feeling is that, in this day and age, you need to do it. No work goes without question, nor should it. If Melanie Phillips is to have the freedom to spout complete crap, then the crowd should have the right of reply. When your work is published to a potential readership in the millions, it’s irresponsible to be misquoting evidence and downright wrong to be fraudulent. People being able to challenge, clarify, respond – that’s just what happens in a free society, right?

If you write on a site with a big audience, the rules are different; you have an audience which is using you as a shortcut to opinion and information. Good writers are those that can take a complex issue and translate it for the rest of us. Not everybody is an economist or a scientist or a politician, and those issues need some explaining for most people – and that is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Social media should help sort the wheat from the chaff. In the past, a writer could get by with a modicum of skill and written charisma; they could present something as a fait accompli and most of their audience wouldn’t know any better. Now, however, those in the crowd that know what they’re on about can challenge those assertions and the discussion around it becomes as informative as the original article.

So, then, Andrew Collins. Why would anyone post this?

Innocent enough

Note the question mark at the end. Almost looks like it’s inviting a discussion. Either you post something about what you’re working on to invite discussion or you do it because… what? You think people are just interested without comment? Isn’t that the equivalent of “I’m having a coffee” type status updates? “Look at me! I’m interesting by virtue of my very existence!”

OK, we all do it. I’m as guilty as anyone. But I don’t care if someone wants to pick me up on it or criticise me for it. I’m posting in public so I must surely expect it, right?

So, I politely (I thought) questioned the validity of a writer for a big site reviewing Top Gear when they’ve never watched it before. This is a series that has run for years, so what’s the point of a review based on watching one episode? Context is everything – the examples I mentioned in reply stood up as far as I was concerned. Have a look at Collins’ timeline for details – I’d Storify it, but I’m blocked. Haha. 

But what I find amazing is how personally he took it – and how I was then “a Top Gear fan” and, basically, an utter arse for even daring to question his work. I don’t mind a bit of Top Gear, despite the fact I think 2/3 of the presenter team are total arseholes. Same deal as with reading a newspaper or liking Andrew Collins’ work… but I’m no fanboy, and I wasn’t defending Top Gear, I was questioning the editorial policy of reviewing based on one person’s watching one episode  – surely then it becomes about the writer (and their experience) rather than the subject in question? Maybe that’s OK, but I didn’t see Collins in the same bracket as, say, Charlie Brooker, where the experience is all about him personally.

I don’t doubt that there are circumstances where mere “broadcast” is suitable for Twitter, but it’s not really making the most of the format. News feeds as broadcast work fine, but human beings on Twitter become part of the bigger conversation. If you don’t like talking to people or can’t stand criticism then it’s a strange place to put yourself. Everything has a price and the price of gaining profile, traffic and adulation on the one hand is being open to criticism and questioning on the other.

Let’s be clear about this – if you give, you receive. Both the good stuff and the bad. Blocking people is fine for spammers, but if you don’t like someone’s opinion, just ignore it. Or unfollow them. I prefer to follow people from all walks of life – I like to know what people who don’t naturally agree with me think – it’s a big world and restricting your field of vision seems rather narrow-minded. In this case, I think it’s a little bit babyish / Stalinist to block someone simply because you don’t agree with their point of view.

Of course, the rule is: don’t feed the trolls. But I wasn’t trolling, even if I was being marginally cheeky. If I wanted to troll Andrew Collins, I’d have mentioned that, by homeopathic principles, his watching one episode probably imbues him with the knowledge of the entire canon of Top Gear works…

 
 

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