In the world of knowledge, judgement and choice we can live in a world of data, but no facts.

Whatever your sympathies are (or aren’t) for UK Labour, Tuesday’s Abbott interview on LBC was a particularly hideous event. This gladiatorial pit style of journalism is one reason why Mrs May (because she can) has ruled out meaningful engagement (aka, questions) with the press.

There has, as John Lloyd put it in his seminal assay of the relations between the British press and the UK’s politicians What the media is doing to our politics, been “an evident struggle for power between media and government, that over people’s hearts and minds”.

He goes on to say that “context is a choice”, so that “the same incident can be transformed through rearranging the context”. So, for a minute, let’s shift focus to a broader and more usefully benign view of the context of this incident from Chris Dillow:

How great was Ms Abbott’s mistake? Errors are ubiquitous in politics and inevitable. And by those standards, Ms Abbott’s incoherence barely registers. Boris Johnson wasted £37m of taxpayers’ money on a non-existent bridge; the last government wasted over £1bn on the cancer drugs fund; George Osborne cost the economy tens of billions in needless austerity; David Cameron called a needless referendum in the mistaken belief he could win it; Tony Blair took us to war on the basis of errors of judgment which should have been widely known. And so on and on.

All those errors were due to persistent and corrigble mistakes, rather than to heat of the moment confusion. And all had effects which were orders of magnitude worse than Ms Abbott’s.

That’s not to dampen the reverberative effects of the original sin.  Ms Abbott will have had a prompt sheet with her. As Shadow Home Secretary, she should have known. But the senior point here is cultural, not political (party, or otherwise):

The same professional and amateur pundits who are getting hysterical about a “car crash interview” (these people love their clichés) also regard Johnson, Blair and Osborne as “credible” despite making much more expensive mistakes, without the excuse of momentary lapses.

What pundits want from politicians is slickness and confidence, and just don’t care that this might well be a front for grotesque incompetence.

In failing to provide this, Ms Abbott committed a solecism as grave as that of the man who wears brown shoes in the City or who tries to get into a gentleman’s club without wearing a tie – something which is utterly unforgivable.

But which leaves the rest of us with a polis whose depth of inquiry barely reaches the ankles.

In his final chapter, he highlighted a lack of expertise within the media giving rise, in turn, to a complaisance which fears letting the tap run interviews and not “making public figures feel obliged to talk through their projects and proposals in depth and with evidence”.

Chris Dillow again:

What pundits want from politicians is slickness and confidence, and just don’t care that this might well be a front for grotesque incompetence. In failing to provide this, Ms Abbott committed a solecism as grave as that of the man who wears brown shoes in the City or who tries to get into a gentleman’s club without wearing a tie – something which is utterly unforgivable.

If you need proof that this war of mannerliness provides increasingly arid ground for political discourse, behold the Twitter troll who many honest Americans have convinced themselves is the Primus Inter Pares. 

William Davies offers this rather chilling observation on how the wider world of knowledge, judgement and choice (aka, politics) is quietly being re-engineered beneath our digital feet:

It is possible to live in a world of data but no facts. Think of how we employ weather forecasts: We understand that it is not a fact that it will be 75 degrees on Thursday, and that figure will fluctuate all the time.

Weather forecasting works in a similar way to sentiment analysis, bringing data from a wide range of sensory devices, and converting this into a constantly evolving narrative about the near future.

However, this produces some chilling possibilities for politics.

Once numbers are viewed more as indicators of current sentiment, rather than as statements about reality, how are we to achieve any consensus on the nature of social, economic and environmental problems, never mind agree on the solutions?

Conspiracy theories prosper under such conditions. And while we will have far greater means of knowing how many people believe those theories, we will have far fewer means of persuading them to abandon them. [Emphasis added]

In other words, knowledge now flows in conversations more than sits in stocks or silos of facts. Fluffing your ill-practised lines in an ill-tempered, intolerant, hectoring interview may soon become the least of our politicians’ problems…

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  • T.E.Lawrence

    Absolutely depressing to see the Labour Party in such a state ! The founding fathers of this once great movement would “turn in their graves” today watching it implode ! I have got to the stage now were I just hope it gets tanked in June Elections and the Phoenix rises again from the ashes !

  • mickfealty

    And the, er, main, er, topic of the piece?

  • Abbott was on the line, and from the sound of shuffling papers had her brief available to her. The ‘what will it cost’ approach already on media and an easy one ask to get a good piece on the shambolic Labour Party. The media only has itself to blame. It has decided to go for the quick headline – ask a rhetorical question to which there cannot be a straight answer except to hang yourself and then claim evasion. Policy is dead in this respect. Or go for the faux outrage on the basis of a single line or briefest of comment in a wider piece and make that the story – Slugger’s overnight attack on Jim Well’s a few years back a prime example in an enthusiastic over-reach to ‘set the news agenda’ as an over-arching priority. What should the media do? Try reporting what is said and leave it to commentators to interpret.

  • Cináed mac Artri

    The media needs to fill the space it has created. Also the yabooary of the online world tends towards pillorying obvious, succinct fluffs – even radio shows have the visuals on the side to drive the story. Watching Diane Abbot is at least half the ‘fun’.

    The news cycle is driven by narratives and a story that plays to the established editorial line always plays well. English Labour is incompetent, English Tories unfeeling brutes. Within the partisan algorithm driven bubbles of personal choice (the context?) you pay your money and the story will satisfy.

    Clickbait needs to be a mouth-sized morsel as consumers seem to have the attention span of a gnat. The more ‘challenging’ stories, like the Borisbridge, take too long to explain, need the backstory to aid understanding and (perhaps most importantly) are not readily shareable on social media.

    Lamenting these changes is depressingly pointless.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    The sense I was left with from the Abbott interview was that she appeared not to have a sufficient personal stake in being part of a new Government. Her excuse that she had already been interviewed about 7 times that morning should have honed her interviewee status and put her even more on top of her brief – I’d have thought. It struck me as negligent on her part given that she has formerly been a relatively polished performer while in the albeit less pressured environment of the back benches. That interview may have been ‘car crash’ but she has looked comparatively destabilised on a number of recent encounters with journalists.

    Watching the French presidential debate last night, I was struck by how unflappable the two remaining candidates appeared despite the ad hominem ping pong. Macron had the edge on facts and looked in command. Le Pen adopted a sneering, mocking attitude about her opponent’s erstwhile cosiness with Hollande which is his greatest vulnerability. While remaining calm she struggled to hit killer blows. In short Macron was style and substance whereas LePen was bluster.
    Obviously politicians in interviews with journalists (who speak truth onto power – on our behalf) have to take on a less adversarial approach than in head to heads with political opponents but a politician not being on top of an essential brief (Arlene & RHI?) seems to me to show a contempt for the electorate.

  • mickfealty

    Your point about the personal stake, I think, is key Ben. In this digital in-the-round world commitment is a given, certainly. And the audience now are very quick to pick up on the gap between profession and genuine belief.

    Though the obsession with authenticity that that gives rise to surfaces other big political problems.

  • mickfealty

    Take your point on that Wells story TD (no one is perfect). And I pretty much agree on the rest.

  • mickfealty

    The irony is that it neither can nor needs to fill all that space. This interplay between newly arrived abundance and the sudden scarcity of straight policy literate story-telling is at the core of the problem.

    Why do journalists get angry with politicians who make relatively minor mistakes on detail? Is it because they are afraid to ask the necessary why question in case it takes them out of their own depths?

  • Nevin

    Here’s a link to the LBC interview [6m 48s], including a part transcript. I don’t view it as a gladiatorial pit one, more an interviewee completely out of her depth.

  • mickfealty

    You don’t think the interviewer is a tad grateful for the gaffe (and thereby free to abandon any forensic questioning of the subject)? If so, I disagree.

  • murdockp

    The thing about Macron is he would have been steam rollered by the press in Northern Ireland and the UK, a boy having relations with his teacher starting when he was 15?

    His wife would get so much abuse in the press about her predatory nature and he being a victim they would be both politically wiped out.

    The French are very different, has to be said.

  • Nevin

    Nick had to wade through a litany of gaffes.

  • mickfealty

    The gaffe is the point of political discourse now is it? What I’m getting at Nevin is that her politics remain unquestioned and her believers believe a lot less in the media institution, not least because of the gross unkindliness of the whole affair.

  • Nevin

    “a politician not being on top of an essential brief (Arlene & RHI?) seems to me to show a contempt for the electorate.”

    Competence isn’t a requirement when candidates stand for election and voters show a measure of contempt for governance when they vote for the transparently incompetent.

  • mickfealty

    That’s profoundly misleading in the sense that you are presuming everything else is working normally and acceptably, except politics.

    The whole point of Lloyd’s book is that the reporting mechanism is broken, and journalism is in the process of chasing popularity (and using clickbait to buy it), with little regard to matters of competence.

    See, The Market for Lemons: https://goo.gl/aJWrPR?

    See also DIllow’s list of things the media misses when it loads everything on manners and the metaphorical club tie?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    While French attitudes to ‘unconventional’ sexual relations/encounters etc. are indeed different from the puerile yet prudish Anglo Saxon’s there are rules in France that make a clear division between what can and can’t be broadcast and published.
    Although both aimed to engage to some degree in character assassination, Le Pen didn’t once mention the ‘inappropriacy’ or otherwise of her opposite’s marriage.
    In fact I’m inclined to think that this places him in an advantageous position with her. The patricide free Oedipus who is a ‘respecter of women’ never descended to the paternalistic patronising approach that a more old school homme politique might have done. Interestingly she adopted the patronising stance throughout.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    This perception of ‘authenticity’ by both the media and the public is an interesting one. How often do we listen to a politician and not listen to the message but consume the meta-message? Alistair Campbell was the master of creating these illusions: almost anticipating clickbait while perhaps encouraging the online trolling of the conspiracy theorist.

    I’m sure there’s a quote somewhere about being suspicious/cynical while simultaneously suggestible/gullible. Perhaps Chesterton suffices: the death of religion does not mean we believe in nothing, instead we believe in anything – or something like that.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Following French politics should give you a very different perspective. Having said that, support for the Front National doesn’t reflect the competence of their candidates. But that’s what happens when the politics of fear are dabbled with – which should sound familiar.

  • Nevin

    Discourses take many and varied forms. In this interview, there was no unkindliness.

  • mickfealty

    That’s an evasion.

  • Nevin

    “you are presuming everything else is working normally and acceptably, except politics.”

    Not at all. I don’t need to read John Lloyd’s book to know that journalism, especially investigative journalism, is in a very weak state.

  • mickfealty

    In a democratic market for lemons, the voters are not in a position to judge important matters like competence if it is not reported on, yet your statement assumes fault lies with the buyers.

  • Nevin

    Well I am a kindly political animal, though not a party political one.

  • Nevin

    As a voter, I don’t have blind faith in politicians or journalists. I suppose buyer beware remains a useful motto.

  • Nevin

    Ben, here is the G K Chesterton quote:

    “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Thank you

  • Reader

    thedissenter: Abbott was on the line, and from the sound of shuffling papers had her brief available to her.
    Politicians can stumble and forget numbers and dates and names all day long so far as I am concerned – big deal. Abbott’s main failure in my eyes was that she was unable to give any sort of sensible figure while trying to recover.

  • Cináed mac Artri

    There are some smart cookies in the media. It would be the few and far between politico who would be able to challenge intellectually.

    But being smart the average media journo knows which side their bread is buttered. I expect there are lots of inhouse focus groups and programme editors get it in the neck if their show is not getting the ‘hits’.

    I fear this drives down depth in reporting. Is it not the case that ‘slow’ news with space to explore issues is going out of style, i.e. broadsheet newspapers? Does that not indicate where the market is?

  • Erewhon888

    Test your ability to choose to label some items of evidence as “data”, “facts”, “knowledge”, or “conspiracy theory” in this investigation by a lawyer of the inability of governments to prosecute financial criminals. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gK3s5j7PgA Note the unusual role of George Osborne and the damning text extracted from the Bank of International Settlements. Is this “defamation” as legally defined? Would any mainstream publication make reference to these accusations and, if not, why not – they would seem to be very newsworthy.

  • Nevin

    “Errors are ubiquitous in politics and inevitable.”

    Just to widen the context, governance contains sound decisions, errors, lies and cover-ups. It’s most unfortunate when the media transmits information under pressure, information that it knows to be false. This can lead to public action and reaction against innocent parties rather than the culprits.

    Modern media now makes it more difficult for those in authority to control the transmission of information, fact and fiction. Investigative journalists may be starved of some of their customary resources but some are now collaborating with whistle-blowers and bloggers to get behind the official walls of silence. The News Letter’s Sam McBride has just unearthed a fascinating insight re.RHI Inquiry:

    https://twitter.com/SJAMcBride/status/860389597850865664

    We speak of open governance but governance needs to be opened up – and conspiracies exposed.