Why has the British MSM forsaken their vital ‘crap detectors’?

Mark asks why does a ginger group like the Taxpayers Alliance get so much coverage in the UK press. I’m tempted to offer the trite response that it’s simply because the Brits are too thick to tell the difference between sound social science and yet another dodgy dossier.

But that would not only be a grave disservice to the intelligence of the great British public, but to the wily coruscation of the Taxpayer’s Alliance: not least because they are smaller, smarter and much more fast moving than the sluggish press corps they so consistently and easily ‘out smart’…

Yet there is a more slender truth in the idea, and it lies partly in the legal code of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland as much as in any shortcomings of the cultural mores of the UK press.

Our tight libel laws have created an impression that we have little need to resort to Ernest Hemmingway’s advice that “To invent out of knowledge means to produce inventions that are true. Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.”. Something that was hammered home by Howard Rheingold at the close of Reboot Britain…

Materializing answers from the air turns out to be the easy part – the part a machine can do. The real difficulty kicks in when you click down into your search results. At that point, it’s up to you to sort the accurate bits from the misinfo, disinfo, spam, scams, urban legends, and hoaxes. “Crap detection,” as Hemingway called it half a century ago, is more important than ever before, now that the automation of crapcasting has generated its own word: “spamming.”

I recommend people read more on this from a web optimist who has strong doubts about the wider public’s capacity to think critically about the material spun them by ‘big machines’. Mickey Kaus is even more an optimist. His view is that ‘crap’ (in the more contemporary US vernacular in which ‘shit’ just means ‘stuff’) is better publicly examined and verified or annulled in the public space than trounced around in the backrooms of some honourable hall of press respectability:

…the line between “checking out” tips and open discussion of at least the non-actionable rumors can’t really be maintained and shouldn’t be, given the truth-divining virtues of widespread publicity (which functions as an APB to the citizenry to come up with evidence).

In the US, they are further down the road of having vibrant pluralist blogosphere than the UK has. And it is not the fault of the centre right that they have claimed the lion’s share of the online public mind space (despite the impression created by some within the serried Labour ranks huddled fearfully inside their own hastily fashion landing crafts).

I am not in the least suggesting that everything the TPA puts out is ‘crap’. Frankly, I don’t know whether it is or not. And until I come across another story which forces me to critically examine their outputs, I’m not sure I will look seriously into it again.

What I can say in their favour that they have provided a useful stimulus to the questioning of rising tax burdens on private business and the sharpening of questions about how the money so raised is actually spent at a time when mainstream politicians and media heads have been reluctant to expose themselves on the same subject.

But the problem is not really the TPA’s. They are a campaigning lobby group, it is their job to change minds and influence the debate. If the mainstream media swallows half cooked research as a piece of full blown social science, it is primarily problem for the mainstream media and for those of us who rely upon them to bring us hard news and sound judgement, rather than just more opinion (which is now even freer than it ever was).

Yet, as Roy Greenslade ruefully notes of HL Mencken’s famous quote: “nobody’s ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the general public”. That’s fine if all you’re selling is bums and tits… But if the MSM expect the rest of us to cherish their role as ‘speakers of truth unto power’, they need to get their old crap detectors out and give them a good brushing down.

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  • barnshee

    Tax payers alliance exposes waste and incompetence in the public sector –there is lots of it about. Vested interests hate exposure politicians hate being made accountable (and stupid) for halfwitted ill considered acts -there a lot of it about,— Senior civil servants and politician collude to avoid blame.

    Tax payers alliance— unpopular no badly needed because “nobody’s ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the general public”

  • Scamallach


    What exactly does “a ginger group” mean?

  • Mick Fealty
  • willis

    An’ there was me thinking this was a ginger group.


    It is no wonder the TPA are everywhere. They could out MOPE most of us.


    “Susie Squires, spokeswoman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said the penalty was entirely out of proportion to the scale of the offence.

    She said: ”This fine seems unreasonably large. Obviously the council does not want to encourage seagulls but this is ridiculous.

    ”You do not want to heckle and nanny people. £2,500 is out of all proportion and the punishment does not fit the crime.

    ”While seagulls are a pest children are very capable of dropping a chip, resulting in parents or grandparents getting stuck with a fine.” “

  • Willis

    I’d venture this little shindig cost a few more doubloons than £2,500.

    Yes, it’s the catchily titled “CNE Capitalist Ball”; CNE being the centre for the New Europe, a pleasent little libertarian organisation which apparently took $120,000 of Exxon for its “Global Climate Change Education Efforts”.

    Nice work. That’s Tim Evans of CNE beside the fragrant Susie, by the way. I’m afraid I’ve know idea who the ron Howard a-like is, but heee’s dreeammmy… Presumably he’s an “ordinary British taxpayer”…

    On a more serious note, I can’t recommend Sourcewatch enough – a great way to keep on top of the incestuous pile that is modern lobbying.

  • Big Maggie


    “the wily coruscation of the Taxpayer’s Alliance”

    That’s almost poetry! I’ve no idea what it means, but in my book fine turns of phrase don’t always have to make sense :^)

  • Big Maggie, diamonds coruscating in the candlelight giving forth flashes of light; a flautist whose music coruscated throughout the concert hall exhibiting sparkling virtuosity. Peter Mandelson is the personification of wily coruscation 🙂

    Does ‘wily coruscation’ underpin the Stratagem sponsored Slugger Awards? Can Slugger bloggers freely criticise Stratagem’s wealthy clientèle or organisations for which it does pro bono work?

  • Mick Fealty

    You can criticise whomever you like Nev. So long as you play the ball. As you well know…

  • Mick, I’m posing unanswered questions, possibly questions with no easy answers. I agree with your observation on lobbying: “it is their job to change minds and influence the debate.” Slugger bloggers represent quite a wide spectrum of opinion but can they bite the hand that feeds a lobbyist such as Stratagem? It will be interesting for me to see how many of them are prepared to deal with these questions.

  • Mark McGreg


    That’s a question I’ve raised with Mick and others involved in Slugger especially as other link ups are on the horizon. When a blog becomes or attempts to become a ‘going concern’ the need to ensure funders will be repeat customers is a possible issue.

    At present the only possible conflict of interest was the one that relates to the TPA when Mick leapt to the defence of Strategem. Knowing Mick I accept his pursuit of the story was driven by finding the issue interesting even though he may have been more inclined to investigate or get a line to investigate due to the relationship with that company.

    I think Mick has enough integrity to work his way through the new relationships with a financial aspect Slugger is developing but I’d like to see him waxing lyrical on how he thinks this stuff through, could make for an interesting series of blogs over a period of time – how do you get a bit of sponsorship without becoming a bitch to the banker?

  • Mark McGreg

    Adds: I’d also like to see the discussion on becvoming dependent on funding related to the control of community sector projects that bent themselves to fit the criteria demanded of funders and changed beyond all recognition as a result – another area Mick is aware of where discussing his thoughts on funding of Slugger public could make for some interesting and wonderfully open and enlightening discussion on an area that I’m concerned about.

    What say you Fealty? Go ultra-transparent and interesting or keep this aspect of Slugger between you and the cadre?

    (sorry, to be a pain but I know while I have your car keys I’ll get some leeway ;0)