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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty