Numbers are important, but government (and journalism) needs to find and act upon real stories too

Wicked problems always occur in a social context — the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.
Jeff Conklin

The weekend papers in Ireland are full of speculation based almost entirely on those most chancey of numbers, the latest polling figures. It leaves, even in an avid anorak type like yours truly, a sense that the world must be happening somewhere else.

A friend, who is firmly ensconced inside the Irish political bubble, periodically likes to remind me that everything in politics is about numbers. And, in the strictest sense of party politics, he’s absolutely right.

Examine Sinn Fein’s southern success in 2016, and what improved was an ability to convert a static vote share into more seats. Without a rigorous, numbers-driven focus on setting down local roots, STV PR treats new parties scornfully.

Fianna Fail who, despite trailing SF in polls for large parts of the 2011-16 term, focused unremittingly on the constituency and more than doubled their Dail representation (a neat little Lazurusian act which is already being discounted by the Irish media).

Numbers will always matter in a democracy. Winning the right numbers matters even more. Gaining the popular vote in the US (even by the huge margins that Hillary did in 2016) is a pointless distraction if your opponent is focused on winning the Electoral College.

But, particularly after my workshop for the Irish Writer’s Centre in Derry at the weekend, I’m convinced that stories matter too.

Polls are like drones, they hover above and give us a broad outline of how people think/feel about a small range of pre-defined choices. They cannot tell us what people are actually thinking, out with the restrictive bounds of the pollster’s polished questions.

Our fixation on numbers (or in more elevated terms, the hard numerical realities that underly “facts”), invites us to ignore the value of qualitative units of knowledge, particularly the commonplace sort which lie outside our traditional institutions of knowledge.

Whilst we are all comfortably sharing the opinion that suits us, our friends, folks of “our type” via Facebook, Google and the open Commons function of the uncensored internet has been slowly stripping us of our ability to gather actual stories.

Stories about who we are, how we live, the problems we encounter and what our aspirations might be for the future.

Most of our traditional means for this sort of qualitative accounting are in decline. Local journalists are dropping in numbers, but more importantly, so is their capacity to source “unofficial” stories outside the flow of “official” Press Release.

Strung out between the opinions of the knowledgeable (and so-called unknowledgeable), as Maria Popova notes below, we are operating in a world where knowledge may be abundant but wisdom is becoming scarce…

Starved of the benefits of local journalism’s role as qualitative accountants we see an increasingly simplistic and reductive view on the rise of the job journalism is actually there to do at the top end. “What’s the narrative?” one journo asks another in Downing Street.

In his most recent book on journalism, John Lloyd spotlights how the transition from communism to democracy in the Czech Republic – which might relate to some of what we’ve seen here in Northern Ireland – had been seen by journalists:

…as a relatively simple process of substituting truth for lies, freedom to inquire against prohibition on inquiry. openness to the world as against confinement to the communist bloc.  They stepped confidently into the new era – and found themselves unarmed.

Shallowness of understanding is journalism’s greatest bane. Journalists in authoritarian societies do not need to understand too much: it is enough that they obey.

For those journalists who work in news media which exist in relative freedom, scepticism must be their default position, but it is one requiring a working knowledge of the subjects covered or it becomes mere cynicism…

For some time, Lloyd’s bugbear has been that in its self-promoting role as speakers of truth to power, journalism is increasingly eschewing any prior need to develop a workable understanding of the dilemmas facing those in power.

In a recent conversation with Slugger, he commented that:

…a working knowledge means awareness of the complexities of, for example, governing – and that without that, journalism even if done in the best of faiths,  is bound to become, at least at times, unconsciously inaccurate.

But against that is the need to be comprehensible; to attract attention; and above all to be confined to small spaces, or short bursts of time. the only thing to do is your best, which is never good enough.

The tragedy of journalism, also unacknowledged, is that it claims to hold power to account and does so, often, on flimsy bases. Yet as we know, power itself often rests on flimsy bases.

Diagram by “The Dissenter” blog

As UUP leader Robin Swann has noted, “devolution has been left to wither on the vine” after a relatively modest policy story, which had lingered in the public square for seven months, exploded onto TV and radio taking our northern democracy with it. No credible account for this disappearance currently exists.

In the quest to create and maintain a narrative connection with ordinary people, daily journalistic insight is forged through the strictures of controversialist phone-ins, the partisan chatter of the lobby, a periodic injection of polling numbers and tested for relevance (or rather for resonance) by social media.

But underneath that, for me at least, it is the dearth of local stories which is slowly choking us as social beings. Take the decision by the UK Home Office to expel people who had come to Britain on the Windrush two generations previously.

Why, or rather, how did it happen?

Simply answered, and conscientiously laying all party political concerns to one side, it was that department’s dysfunctional and disproportional focus on numbers over stories. A point very well made in the FT this morning by Professor Satvinder S Juss.

He argues that:

Immigration policy has always been discussed in numbers and always with a view to keeping these down. Yet, for those obsessed with numbers, any number is too high. The result is an ‘exclusion policy’ not an immigration policy worthy of its name.

Had the policy been sound, the Prof says, the Windrush generation would not have been treated so shabbily. But perhaps the policy would not have been so shabby had former Perm Sec Mark Sedwill had a story-based account of how it would affect real people.

He (and his former political boss, now PM) clearly were getting very little narrative feedback through his department’s internal systems. Nor was he likely to get any kind of a priori check from the UK’s free-floating “independent” political press.

Nearer to home, I’ve not found a single account explaining why a mildly controversial, but largely environmentally sound policy up-ended our own micro-democracy, other than journalists and rival pols endlessly shouting: “hey look big scary numbers”.

The key to this is to understand that accountability (and through accountablity trust) is what underwrites the authority of our institutions. It does not simply apply to the public sector. As Willis Harman has noted:

Built into the concept of capitalism and free enterprise from the beginning was the assumption that the actions of many units of individual enterprise, responding to market forces and guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, would somehow add up to desirable outcomes.

But in the last decade of the twentieth century, It has become clear that the ‘invisible hand’ is faltering. It depended upon a consensus of overarching meanings and values that is no longer present.

So business has to adopt a tradition it has never had throughout the entire history of capitalism: to share responsibility for the whole. Every decision that is made, every action that is taken, must be viewed in the light of that kind of responsibility.”

In my view, we need to hear the real (not prefabricated) stories of ordinary folks, and we need them, at least, in the scale local journalists used to be able to produce them. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling for the kind of stories that make nations sick.

The feeling amongst our admittedly modestly sized and self-selected group of writers in Derry was that the major divide in Northern Ireland now is between ordinary people who are expected to take the rough with the smooth and politicians, who aren’t.

That may sound like a corrosive narrative, but it is an honest and truthful observation of a dilemma that our journalism seems to struggle to articulate to what passes for power locally. And, crucially, back again.

It is long past time we looked to find a way to build sustainable narrative bridges between the centre (or, wherever the resources are) and the edge (or wherever real life and real needs actually occur).

Original photo: Daniel McCullough

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