Art, otters and media racism

Part of the work of Lubaina Himid, the artist who won the Turner Prize 2017, consists of drawing attention to the ways in which the juxtaposition of texts and images in The Guardian newspaper can reveal implicit racist associations. Her work is infinitely more powerful for dealing with the liberal press rather than the undisguised bigotry of the tabloids. Some of the connections she uncovers are barely visible to the naked eye, and it is only through forensic (self?-) examination that one sees what she sees. Just as institutional racism may be of profound statistical significance but hard to register on an everyday level, it is only through the unforgiving lens of art that more subtle truths emerge. The heightened sensibilities that result from study of her work help us see better. Freud taught us to pay special attention to ‘accidents’ and ‘coincidences’, as they may reveal unconscious thinking. That unconscious can, to borrow from Jung, be a collective one.

What to say, then, of the following juxtaposition from a recent edition of (guess what?) The Guardian?

img-20181221-wa0005The (presumably ‘accidental’) coincidence of the two articles seems to embody two sets of hidden assumptions: one, that certain (or possibly all) species of sea mammals are able to use social media, to understand written human language even of a highly vernacular variety, to experience emotions including shame and outrage, to comprehend that human society regards body weight as a cause for humiliation, to grasp the insult implicit in the misappropriation of a non-standard and low-status language variety to speakers of that variety, and to appreciate the significance of apologies delivered by faceless institutions; and two, that the lives of foreigners don’t matter very much.

You would not believe how shit the Daily Telegraph is

DOqOnnOW4AET7ce.jpgI recently announced that I’d stopped reading the Guardian and adopted the Daily Telegraph as my journal of choice instead. This might seem like an odd decision for someone who spent the days after the Brexit coup listening to this. Partly I was being silly, but I also wanted to step across the divide and try to parlay with the opposition, genuinely listening to concerns which I’m inclined to dismiss out of hand. I admire and respect George Marshall’s exhortation to engage with Conservatives/Republicans, and so made up my mind that I would spend a couple of weeks using the Telegraph and not the Guardian as my principal news source.

I therefore entered into the experiement in relatively good faith. The problem was that I don’t feel the Telegraph kept its side of the bargain. After a few days I started to feel distinctly less informed about the world, such was the almost total dearth of original reporting. The term ‘churnalism’ was coined by the Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who didn’t exempt his own paper from his criticisms; the Telegraph takes it to another level, leaving even that online-only clickbait factory The Independent in the shade. The content seemed to be entirely sourced from elsewhere online and its substance was so thin it barely even did what it clearly aimed to do, viz. comfort the comfortable. As for afflicting the afflicted, which is the least you could expect of an avowedly right-wing publication, it had little to offer. There was the odd column by someone desperate to give the impresion she’d never left Surrey calling anyone who posted #metoo part of a feminazi death cult, the occasional piece by Toby ‘Look at meeee!’ Young or that comedy fascist Andrew Lilico calling for Corbyn to be flung out a helicopter, demanding war rather than negotiation over Brexit or claiming that 19th Century New Zealand will be the ideal trading partner to replace the EU, and, as a special treat, Charles Moore rambling on about Catholicism like Mel Gibson’s grandfather after four bottles of Merlot; however, examples of such effortful trolling were few and far between. One jewel among the shite is Michael Deacon. They must pay him a lot to be associated with such a poor excuse for a newspaper. It was partly thanks to his wry tweets that I thought of the idea in the first place. His columns are an exception. Most of what I came across was just bland.

In a sense, that may not be such a bad thing. Telegraph readers are not kept in a high state of splenetic anxiety like those the Mail and the Express. The focus was instead on lifestyle trivia of a sub-Sunday Times variety. The corresponding comments on Facebook and Twitter were, suprisingly, on the whole quite pleasant and some intelligent and thoughtful people chipped in. They were interspersed with the odd contribution which would be best classified as at least entertainingly horrible. However, such attitudes and opinions were not unfamilar given that so many obnoxious trollery is increasingly the default mode of below-the-line commentary, particularly on the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages.

I eventually got bored with all the promotional fluff, royal gossip and clickbait tittle-tattle and invented a minor game called ‘Bloody Islam!’, which consisted solely in posting that obnoxious but ubiquitous phrase in response to the most innocuous of stories which clearly had no connection with either politics or religion. Nobody ever batted an eyelid, but I was constantly outplayed by unwitting rivals, the kind of commentors who are able to turn a piece about a corgi getting a new haircut into a genocidal diatribe which would give Anders Breivik himself (PBUH) pause for thought. In my turn I would parody (or perhaps that should be troll) them by positing a domestic scenario from their life along the lines of:

‘- Would you like a cup of tea dear? 
– I BLOODY HATE JEWS!!!’

On the whole I was less annoyed with the Telegraph than bored. I’d read in Private Eye how its staff has been cut to the bone by its stingy Bond villain owners to the point where it barely has enough resources to report the cricket scores. In the end I was left with the impression that its staff consist of one bloke with a laptop, one or two interning daughters of the editor’s tennis partners, and a handful of Boris Johnson-imitating professional arseholes who periodically fax in their obnoxious opinions from the Home Counties. Like anyone, I do need to read a range of news sources and encounter opinions and perspectives that challenge my own, but I prefer to read publications which at the very least take their journalistic responsibilities seriously rather than ones that are only really a pale pastiche of what you can truly call a newspaper.

Why I’ve switched from the Guardian to the Telegraph

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One thing that’s characterised this website throughout its nearly a year! of existence is a puppy-like loyalty to the newspaper The Guardian. I do read other news sources (including the BBC, the WaPo and various outlets in Italian, Spanish and, you know, Welsh), but my mainstay has always been the favoured journal of pinko bleeding heart libtard scum. Having read Nick Davies’ book on churnalism, I’m not an unquestioning reader of the Guardian’s coverage, but I do have a strong emotional attachment to it, to the extent that in our house we have not one but two subscriber-only Guardian-branded shopping bags. Within my world the phrase ‘I read it in the paper’ is always understood to refer to one publication, and it’s definitely not the Daily f*cking Telegraph.

However, I’m increasingly aware, in this age of filter bubbles, that I should seek to broaden my ideological horizons by varying my media diet, to push through the algorithmic fences that limit and direct our online movements*. News coverage biases aside, there’s obviously a risk of being exposed to the party line if I only read whatever George Monbiot, Aditya Chakrabortty, Suzanne Moore, and Owen Jones think of the world. James Ball, in his book ‘Post Truth’, lists reading a wider range of news sites as one means of resisting the tide of bullshit news. He also argues that newspapers themselves should seek to represent a range of political viewpoints. To be fair, The Guardian has made some efforts in this direction, employing columnists such as Matthew Norman, Simon Jenkins, Max Hastings, and for one brief period in the mid-2000s, Nick Griffin**. It’s important to challenge readers’ preconceptions from time to time. Maybe, since he’s no longer at the Guardian, Seamus Milne now writes a weekly column for the Daily Express. I wouldn’t bet my Guardian shopping bags on it though.

The obvious counterpart to the Guardian is the Daily Mail. If you can get past the almost always hateful front page it does have some stories which are both entertaining and reassuring if you happen to share its splenetic worldview. However, even though I live in Rome I simply cannot take the risk of being seen by a compatriot looking at the Daily Mail website on my phone. Maybe it’s merely my own projection, but I would actively sneer at such a person. Then there’s The Times, which does have lots of quality journalism and thoughtful columnists such as Caitlin Moran and Matthew Parris. The problem there is the paywall:  I’m not paying Rupert Murdoch a fucking penny***. So, further to the right, without dropping down a level to the Dailies Express or Star, we have the Torygraph. Although I don’t have any Telegraph-reading friends, in my family history there was one: Duncan, my favourite uncle, who was extremely affable, fittingly avuncular and profoundly Conservative. He would not have been seen dead with a copy of the Guardian – indeed, he still hasn’t been in the five or so years since he passed on. While he was alive his relationship with the Telegraph mirrored mine with the Guardian. This letter gives a flavour not just of his character, but also that of a lot of Telegraph readers: slightly blimpish but jocular with it. The perfect audience for Boris Johnson’s ultimately ruinous shtick, essentially.

My uncle lived all his life in the provinces; you very rarely see people in London reading The Telegraph (and even fewer in Rome, oddly enough****). It’s the favoured newspaper of Tims-nice-but-dims and white-haired colonels living in Surrey. When I picture the archetypal reader it’s Jim Bergerac’s friend Charlie Hungerford that springs to mind: an image of blustering pomposity unmatched by intellectual brilliance. I once knew a journalist who told me that during her training she’d learnt that regardless of its range of vocabulary, the level of argumentative sophistication of Telegraph articles is equivalent to that of The Sun. But these are ultimately prejudices, ones I want to, if not overcome, subject to rigorous reexamination.

However, there’s an immediate problem, viz: if I even think about that c*ntrarian Toby Young my blood starts to simmer. Plus, whenever there’s a Telegraph journalist on ‘Question Time’ you can pretty much guarantee that he or she will agree with at least 80% of whatever verbal effluence Farage comes out with. The Telegraph provides a platform for people who it’s very, very hard not to regard as mere trolls. Its chief political commentator is Charles Moore, whose climate denial makes it very hard to take seriously anything he writes on other topics. In addition, the Brexit vote almost certainly wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column spreading outright lies about the EU. Then there’s episodes like this, not to mention the tone of snobbery endemic to the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, the Telegraph does also employ proper journalists, experienced fact-finders who assiduously follow professional guidelines to render the truth with accuracy and fairness, even though it’s presented in the form of articles whose editorial bias occasionally makes people who care about others want to vomit with rage :-P.

Another reason for becoming a Telegraph reader***** is that in contrast to the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages, pretty much all of whose content I’m primed to agree with, it would surely be more useful for me to engage with those with opposing views (insofar as I have to discuss newspaper articles online. Obviously I don’t.) However, as it happens there’s no shortage of right-winger commenters on CIF, in particular following articles written by women or those that dare to mention racism and/or climate change. Ideally, online debates on newspaper articles would be a meeting of minds and a serious engagement across the lines of political affiliation which would put our ideas and assumptions to the test; in reality, the internet doesn’t work like that, regardless of the masthead. At this point, anyone commenting below the line can be regarded as a troll unless they specifically prove otherwise.

It’s time to don the surgical gloves and get a forensic feel for the innards of this exotic creature, the Daily Telegraph website. As it happens, I’ve just received a handy email drawing my attention to the publication’s star columnists. When I click through to the site, however, I’m faced with an obstacle: much of what they write is only available to ‘Premium’ subscribers. I don’t have a problem with paying for online content – the Guardian will be forced to introduce something similar one day – but that particular word I find off-putting, designed to appeal to elitist values that I don’t subscribe to. There’s an echo of ‘How to spend it’, as though quality reporting and incisive commentary is a luxury. It turns out that unless I’m a paid-up subscriber I also can’t comment. But this is a club in whose leather-bound armchairs I don’t think I’d be very welcome to recline.

On the front page, however, I immediately feel more comfortable. There’s some bad news about Brexit, which is as it should be, and a report on George Sanders’ Booker Prize win. I really should get round to reading that novel, I think. I’m already starting to relax and feel that I’m simply reading a newspaper, rather than creeping through a rat-filled gas-reeking enemy trench. The Sanders article does have a particular angle which if I was feeling vexatious I could choose to regard as Typically Telegraph, the idea being that the Booker’s opening up to non-British and Commonwealth writers was misjudged. I could choose to get annoyed about this but on reflection its a fair point, and one I’ve come across elsewhere. There’s far more promising trigger material in an article by someone called Zoe Strimpel: an attack on the #MeToo meme, whereby women who’ve suffered sexual harrassment out themselves on social media. With its dismissive tone, references to “dated” 70s-style feminism, I soon find that the finger is starting to tighten. The whole piece seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to find in The Daily Telegraph website, or maybe it would, except I can’t read the whole piece because I’m not a subscriber. Oh well. I click instead on (part of ) an article by Michael Deacon, who I’ve come across on Twitter, where he’s constently thoughtful and smart. On the Telegraph site he’s literally smart, with an colourful oversized tie and a sardonic expression which is also present in his writing – it has the wry tone of a parliamentary sketch writer. The piece is enjoyable (he’s having a go at David Davis), but it’s also Premium, so it also stops halfway through. I can take out a trial subscription, easily cancellable if I decide that the Barclay Brothers are to be trusted. At this point I think about all the things I could be doing in life rather than signing up for the Daily Telegraph website, but then remind myself that (at the risk of sounding as pompous as a Telegraph leader writer) understanding what other people think is probably one of the top three most important things in life. I decide that I will give it a week: no Guardian for seven days, just a steady diet of p̶o̶m̶p̶o̶u̶s̶,̶ ̶b̶i̶g̶o̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶h̶o̶r̶s̶e̶s̶h̶i̶t̶  news and commentary from an unfamiliar source. Hopefully the experiment will serve to both broaden and refine my view of the world; if, on the other hand, I suddenly start sporting a bow tie, declare Brexit to be the best thing since the slave trade and proclaim Jacob Rees-Mogg to be the saviour of Western civilisation, you’ll know something’s gone horribly wrong.

*A clear example of, in the words of Thomas Pynchon, ‘unshaped freedom being rationalized into movement only in straight lines and at right angles and a progressive reduction of choices, until the final turn through the final gate that leads to the killing floor’ (Against the Day, 2006, p11).


**A clear example of fake history.

***Why are there far fewer pubs in the UK than there used to be? The reasons are manifold and well-understood: housing market pressures; the smoking ban; changing demographics; cheap supermarket booze; and, perhaps most importantly, the greed of Rupert Murdoch. Recently, in a conversation about Cardiff’s disappearing drinking establishments, a taxi driver told me about a pub he used to pick the staff up from. It was on the verge of shutting down, according to the duty manager, because the owners couldn’t keep up the payments on the Sky Sports package. They were paying, I shit you absolutely not, £600 a week. In case you’re too shocked to think, I’ve done the maths for you: that’s more than £30,000 a year. The effects of Murdoch’s social impoverishment of British society are akin to the damage that his Zimbabwean counterpart has done to his country’s economy.

****You may be able to buy a paper copy of the Telegraph from Roman newspaper kiosks, it’s never occurred to me to enquire. There’s always ‘Il Giornale’.


*****Apart, that is, from the cricket coverage.

Read the sequel here.

Word of the day: ‘kneejerk’

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“He released a statement on Twitter expressing his shock.” – The Guardian on Jeremy Corbyn’s reponse to the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park.

Twitter gathers instant responses to events faster than any other media, so conventional news outlets trail behind it rather like old dogs at the end of a long walk with an excitable six-year old child. In the above example little blame attaches to Corbyn himself, whose response did actually extend to several sentences and thus can’t really be described as kneejerk. In any case “shock” is a reasonable response to such a tragedy. Nonetheless, it could be argued that in basing so much of its source material on Twitter, The Guardian is at fault for following the lazy conventions of all modern media. If reactions to an atrocity or the death of a major figure somstimes seem glib it’s because Twitter just isn’t an adequate medium for thoughts and feelings which go beyond the most immediate emotional reactions. Especially, it should go without saying, in the hands of a child-brained president who (tellingly) considers it his ideal medium.

I’ve always disliked the word ‘kneejerk’ as it strikes me as too much of a cliche, and an increasingly prevalent one at that. It seems too easy to accuse someone of a kneejerk reaction, and thus the word embodies what it describes. Nevertheless, it’s a useful metaphor in that other languages don’t appear to employ it, preferring to describe such reactions as ‘impulsive’, which doesn’t capture the automatic response to a stimulus. If ‘kneejerk’ is a stale metaphor, it’s one that urgently needs reinvigorating as it’s such a useful term to describe how social media works. Tweets, posts and comments are almost always impulsive. A click is a kneejerk reaction. If the whole phenonemon of social media is the early stages of an experiment, it’s a Pavlovian one.

The speed of online interactions seems to be a particularly powerful trigger for cognitive biases we probably can’t apprehend or control, and which are in any case much easier to spot in others than in ourselves. Thus it allows for manipulation of those biases, going far beyond standard advertising techniques in its accelerated interplay of emotions of punishment and reward. It also allows for the insinuation and rapid diffusion of logical fallacies through the phenomenon of memes. A hammer hitting a knee at any point on the planet can reverberate exponentially, far quicker and wider than any Washington Post factchecking endeavour.

The opposite of a kneejerk reaction is careful reflection, the consideration of different and possibly conflicting evidence. Proper serious media provides this.One response to Twitter is the institution in long reads, which by definition demand patience and tolerance of ambiguity and attention to nuance on behalf of both writer and reader*.

Blogs, decrepid market stalls occupying an overlooked corner of the global attention economy, tend to be drawn towards clickbait, the equivalent of shouting out deals that sound too good to be true. Ostensibly left-wing sites such as Skwawkbox and The Canary copy the form of Breitbart and the like, specialising in hot takes designed to fix their followers’ craving for comfort snacks, using the cheapest ingredients available: links to other webpages, with very little in the way of (highly nutritional) original research.

It’s easy to decry the kneejerkery of the others, but what about my own? This blog makes no claim whatsoever to be a news site, but sometimes mimics the format. It uses satire as one means of commenting on events, thus drawing on no resources other than time, imagination and other online content. It does not provide facts. Sometimes fleeting visitors arriving from social media mistake it for an authoritative news site, which explains why in January, when my catnip post about Donald Trump snapping went viral, several people were seemingly googling the phrase ‘is Infinite Coincidence reliable?’. I’ve seen several opinion pieces I’ve posted labelled ‘fake news’, as though the commentor is unaware of the difference between news sites and blogs. Sometimes that term is used as a kneejerk reaction to a given argument instead of a meaningful counter-argument. Maybe sites like this are the problem, encouraging such a response, thus leading us further down the rabbit hole. Maybe not.

I know I should respect my own awareness of these issues and avoid producing anything resembling clickbait if what I write here is to be at all useful or meaningful. One problem with writing online is the ephemerality of links. Most readers don’t click on them and I can’t assume they will. It’s essential instead to summarise facts and opinions from elsewhere, especially when the link is providing insightful analysis. I can’t complain about others’ attention deficits if what I’m producing is guilty of provoking a certain lazy response. There’s also an entropic tendency with blogs, for entries to become shorter and more perfunctory with time, which I’m (consciously at least) keen to withstand.

Some short things I post here, often in the form of outright news parodies, are intended as direct interventions in a debate, a pointed statement of a perspective I haven’t come across elsewhere. I sometimes get it hopelessly wrong. A cursory analysis of my own writing reveals more than the occasional logical fallacy. I should focus on writing longer, more thoughtful pieces that fewer people will read. In market terms, ones that I’m constutionally disinclined to think in, that means writing for a niche audience rather than trying to appeal to a mass audience given to skimming rather than ‘proper’ reading. This experience has taught me a great deal about my fallibility as an interpreter of events, one with the same bad habits as anyone else: selective reporting, virtue signalling, and all the rest. I apologise for getting it so wrong so often and will endeavour to be more reliable in the future. That may well involve thinking and reading more and writing a great deal less. Tl; dr: more long reads, fewer hot takes.
*There’s also their teenage cousin, the Twitter Mega-thread.

Here’s what the illiberal media doesn’t want you to know about the Finsbury Park attack

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My wife and I used to live just up the road from the Finsbury Park Mosque, but now we live in Rome with our four-month-old daughter. How will we cope with bringing up a child in a time of mounting global turmoil, with terrorist attacks and climate disasters assailing us on almost a daily basis? In much the same way that previous generations have: by telling her stories which introduce and explain the world as comfortingly and as gently as possible, tales which allow her to gradually sense the dangers but also to imagine herself into the world as a protagonist as well as (we hope) a responsible citizen.

Adults tell each other stories in much the same way. The internet has sped up the process of the fabrication of fairy tales. Within minutes of an event like the attack in Finsbury Park, there are already rumours circulating online. Why did the police take so long to arrive? Could it be connected to the Grenfell Fire, or to London Bridge? Did it really happen? Is it all a distraction, a ‘false flag’?

Such gossip reassures people. It tells them who they are and situates shocking events in a familiar context. It reminds people they are powerless, that the world is under control, while also allowing them to pose in their heads as both initiates and heroes, privy to and sharers of occult and dangerous truths.

But while as parents we have our daughter’s best interests at heart, wanting to protect and prepare her for the joys and hazards of existence, purveyors of internet fairy tales do not. They use stories to manipulate, to promote an view of the world which benefits particular interests.

The mainstream media can operate in similar ways, but without as much blatant dishonesty and manipulation. Where that does exist, it tends to be infinitely more complex and sophisticated and not by any means always conscious. Recent exceptions to this, most notably Blair’s dodgy dossier and the lies of the Brexit campaign, have discredited democracy and the media and encouraged people to get their information about the world from even less trustworthy sources, ones that make a virtue of their antipathy towards formal media standards and regulations.

Someone in a Jeremy Corbyn Facebook group this morning was quick to blame the Finsbury Park attack on the “New World Order”. His kneejerk recourse to that phrase suggests he may have come under the spell of that most fraudulent of all tricksters, Alex Jones, who just by coincidence (really, Richard? Is that what you think?!) was the subject of a horribly misguided puff piece on NBC just last night. Jones is prominent nowadays as he has the ear of the President* and also because for the last few years he has been telling the world that the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre didn’t happen, that the children who ‘died’ and their ‘grieving’ parents were all actors. In promoting this story Jones achieves several objectives: drawing attention to himself, posing as someone who’s wise to what ‘The Establishment’ is secretly up to, and (most importantly) letting gun-lovers off the hook. The NRA is, of course, one of the most powerful and dangerous organisations in US history.

You don’t have to dig very far to see how the fledgling roots of these online fairy tales connect to some of the most powerful reactionary interests in the world. Online conspiracy theorising is, after all, a deeply conservative phenonenon, even though its often those on the Left who fall prey to it. Yesterday someone in the same Facebook group someone posted a link to an article which promised to tell you the facts that the ‘liberal media’ want to keep hidden about the Grenfell Fire. The article cut and pasted a post from the far-right website The Daily Caller which blamed environmental regulations for the disaster. The same material has been published days earlier by the right-wing British tabloids the Daily Mail and Express. While we can choose to ignore news outlets which we know to be controlled by political and/or business interests and place our critical trust in more independent, transparent and accountable publications, the internet exposes us to much more insidious attempts to hack our brains and install ideologically toxic misinformation.

No wonder Jones’ ‘friend’ Donald Trump instructs his supporters to ignore everything the ‘liberal media’ writes about him, while boasting that all he knows about the world he learned online. Progressives have to be cleverer and more critical than him when dealing with information about news events. That shouldn’t be too difficult, in theory. Just stick to news and commentary sites designed for adults, learn to question what you read without rejecting facts and arguments out of hand for no good reason, and steer well clear of those purveying internet fairy tales.

ps. If you’re seeking the facts as they stand in relation to the Finsbury Park terrorist attack, here are some sources which can help you:

http://www.guardian.co.uk
http://www.bbc.co.uk
http://www.independent.co.uk

Ps. This, from the University of Sheffield politics blog, is a very compelling argument which we Labour members and supporters ignore at our peril:

The ‘rigged economy’ conspiracy theory

In a previous critique of Corbynism, I examined the ‘personalised’ critique of capitalism which underlies the worldview of Corbyn and many of his supporters. This perspective sees poverty, economic crashes, inequality and even war as being the result of the conscious behaviour of shadowy ‘global elites’, usually in the financial sector.  Such a viewpoint, common amongst right and left, fails to grasp capital as an abstract social relation, dominating both rich and poor alike, and at its most extreme can lead to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Jewish plots to rule the world through control of the banks.  The prevalence of this kind of foreshortened critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism, as popularly understood) goes some way to explain the spread of conspiracy theories about the ‘Rothschilds’ and ‘Zionists’ through much of the ‘Canary’/‘Skwawkbox’ left, as well as the alt-right – they are not contingent or accidental, but the consequence of pushing an analysis of capitalism as conspiracy to its logical conclusion.

Since his ‘populist turn’ at the start of the year, Corbyn has severely ramped up this kind of talk.  Throughout the election campaign there were endless references to the ‘rigged economy’ set up by elites which had ‘ripped off’ the British people.  Like the isolationist foreign policy, this discourse has an appeal to both the ‘anti-vax’ wing of the Green left and the Trumpian-UKIP right, with the vagueness of the ‘rigged’ concept allowing people to point the finger of accusation at whatever scapegoat fits their particular prejudice.  While it can be effective, there is an inherent risk in this kind of approach to politics, in that it can rapidly spiral out of control and in unexpected directions if not strictly supervised.  There is no guarantee that once let out of the bottle this kind of personalised critique of capitalism will inevitably lead in a progressive direction.  If it is true that Corbyn has managed to patch up a right-left electoral alliance on these grounds  –  along with implied migration controls and an isolationist foreign policy  –  it will require extreme vigilance to ensure it does not veer onto a regressive track.

(http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/2017/06/13/reassessing-corbynism-success-contradictions-and-a-difficult-path-ahead/)

13 questions about the death toll

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Any one of a huge number of people online: “I demand to know exactly how many people died in the Grenfell Tower! It’s my right to know as soon as possible!”

Someone level-headed: “Err…did you live in the tower?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Did you have any family members there?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Friends?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Do you know anyone who’s missing?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Are you a reporter?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Do you work for one of the emergency services?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Are you employed by the council to concern yourself with such things?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Are you a coroner?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Do you even live in the area?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “So…what’s this pressing, prurient and rather macabre interest all about then? Isn’t it enough to know that lots of people died?”

AOOAHNOPL: “N…well, I saw a report on Press TV with someone who claimed to be a local resident (but didn’t want to give her full name, and (perhaps because she was clearly emotionally distraught) obviously hadn’t considered the difference between people having died and having been confirmed dead), and then the same interview was used on Russia Today, and someone posted a blog on Facebook which said that the Government had banned the media from broadcasting the death toll, and although that turned out to be absolutely unsubstantiated, entirely baseless, the same blog the following day printed a link to a tweet from a random person which linked back to the same story on Press TV, so…”

SL-H: “Right. Have you seen this story from Metro?”

AOOAHNOPL: “But Metro is MSM!…er, no. What does it say?”

SL-H: “It says that as of February this year Conservative ministers were boasting about having slashed fire regulations.”

AOOAHNOPL: “Oh. Er, that’s bad, is it?”

SL-H: “Yes. It goes a long way towards explaining the conditions that allowed the disaster to happen. What are you going to do about it?”

AOOAHNOPL: “Er…I dunno. It’s scary. I think I’m going to spend the morning reading Wikileaks and Infowars. I find it kind of comforting to think that the world’s run in secret and there’s nothing we can do about it except spread David Icke-style gossip all day on social media.”

SL-H: “Right. Are you at all interested in reading this?”

AOOAHNOPL: (glances briefly) “Er…no.”

In defence of the ‘MSM’

Supporters gather to rally with Trump in Minneapolis
This t-shirt was a common sight at Trump rallies late last year.

Here are three facts which shed some light on the tragedy that took place in West London last week:

  • In 2012 David Cameron boasted that he would “kill off safety culture for good”.
  • Last year Conservative ministers openly boasted of reducing the level of protection that ordinary people have from fire.
  • The last Tory Government established a scheme to encourage civil servants to scrap two regulations for each new one they introduced.

How do I know these things? They were reported in the press, by newspapers. They are publicly-available verified and substantiated facts.

The truth about injustice in the world is not hidden, and it’s no secret who and what is responsible. In this country in this case it’s politicians subservient to the notion that the market knows best, that the private sector is always more efficient than the public, that there is (to quote Margaret Thatcher) “no such thing as society”, only private interests.

To counter this ideology, people with progressive values need to insist on the primacy of the public good, to demand proper and sufficiently regulated public services controlled by people who are democratically elected and thus accountable. If instead we spend our time and energy spreading unsubstantiated internet-derived rumours about secret measures carried out by occult forces, we miss the bigger picture and end up repeating a lot of the agenda of the far-right, one that, by making out that everything that happens is the result of a secret conspiracy, emphasises our powerlessness rather than what we can do to change things.

Luckily on our side we have some sections of a relatively free media which can investigate and highlight corruption and injustice. Clearly that doesn’t mean the Murdoch-owned press or the Daily Mail or Express. In this country the main left-leaning daily newspaper is The Guardian. It is not by any means perfect but it is what we have. It employs professional and conscientious journalists working according to a set of standards and has a number of mechanisms which make it relatively accountable to its readers. It also publishes columnists such as Owen Jones, Aditya Chakrabortty and George Monbiot, whose view of the world is basically the same as ours.

There are countless other publications (both on-and offline) working hard to establish and interpret facts about the world, all of which is a careful, riguorous and very resource-hungry affair. Comment is free, but facts are expensive, as no serious investigative journalism can be produced using only Google and social media. If we follow the advice of Twitter’s own Donald Trump and regard all the mainstream media as ‘fake news’, we leave ourselves open to massive manipulation and end up knowing not what we need to but what we want to, believing not what is true but what we would like to be the case. That’s what operations like The Canary, Skwawkbox and (for that matter) Breitbart are selling. Issues like Climate Change demonstrate what a catastrophic mistake we are making if we only choose to believe the type of media outlets that do not employ and back up professional reporters but instead simply tell us what we want to hear, that invent realities in order to appeal to our emotions and to reaffirm our sense of who we are*.

Some mainstream media organiations (and we (should) all know which ones) are biased, dishonest and corrupt. Competetive pressures mean that the practice of ‘churnalism’ is ever-more prevalent,  and some outlets are so compromised by commercial considerations as to be useless. They are all to be avoided. However, the existence of ideologically-based reporting and coverage which primarily serves business interests does not change the fact that across the world journalists risk their lives to expose injustice and hold the rich and powerful to account. I used to live in Mexico, where dozens of reporters are tortured and shot dead every year for daring to investigate corruption. To fall for the lie that the chief role of all mainstream media is to take part in a conspiracy to defraud the public is to do them and ourselves a huge disservice.

Nonetheless it’s become increasingly fashionable to cynically and lazily misapply a debased version of the work of Noam Chomsky in order to pretend that no journalist or news outlet can be trusted. In doing so, one makes oneself immensely more vulnerable to manipulation by power; it doesn’t make you smarter or better-informed, but rather much more gullible and ignorant. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this example of a well-known person who has nothing but contempt for the ‘MSM’:

Nothing more to add, your honour.

*Climate Change is also one major reason why so many people avoid the news altogether.

How did Katie Hopkin’s editor end up in charge of the TLS?

Two publications I don’t have much time for are The Sun and the Times Literary Supplement. Although I’m not from Liverpool or Manchester, as a lifelong Guardian reader I only ever flick through Rupert Murdoch’s flagship hatesheet over the occasional greasy spoon fry-up. As for the TLS, I already have enough on my hands with the London Review of Book’s biweekly 10,000 word articles on witchcraft in 13th century Romania. Also, the notion of an intellectual publication owned by the selfsame climate-lying Mugabe-resembling Trump surrogate Bond villain fails to convince.

Another thing that The Sun and the TLS have in common is leading personnel. The latter is now edited and ‘published’ by a character called Stig Abell. Strange name, dodgy geezer. Abell has been increasingly prominent of late. He’s very active on Twitter, where he entertains and enlightens his followers with remarks about subjects from Brexit to dog biscuits, and has also written the odd article for the New York Times. He also has a show on LBC, along with (ffs) Nigel Farage and (thank god) James O’Brien.

Until recently one of his colleagues at LBC was the far-right hate preacher Katie Hopkins. It wasn’t the first time they’ve worked together. As managing editor of The Sun he (presumably proudly) published a column by her in which she described refugees as cockroaches and called for them to be murdered en masse. He also oversaw The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough enquiry – or rather, didn’t, as the newspaper greeted its conclusions (that it has printed outright lies about the victims and survivors) by ignoring them altogether and refusing to apologise.

This q-and-a shows him to be articulate and seemingly thoughtful, but when it comes to answering specific questions his evasiveness and his cheerful ignorance of the things he’s employed to know about occasionally borders on the Trumpian. He finds Latin American literature ‘interesting’, likes wearing t-shirts and hasn’t read any Elena Ferrante, thinks post-modern writers are ‘just showing off’, is a fan of crime fiction (but can’t spell the name of his favourite writer) and feels that The Sun has nothing to apologise for. The impression of him as well-spoken but intellectually vapid is confirmed by other interviews in which it seems that he just wants to get on with his stellar career without too many awkward questions being asked, or as he puts it ‘without being disturbed by life’.

If his job is to promote the TLS, he doesn’t do a good job of it. In any case, the riddle of his meteoric rise remains, especially in the light of his failure to address the topic of, let alone apologise for, his direct role in the publication of some of the most hateful material seen in any British newspaper in living memory. How did someone of his limited intellectual means get to helm such an illustrious and (apparently) serious publication? One highly plausible solution is that he’s simply one of Murdoch’s favourite surrogate sons. Making him editor of the TLS is a bit like installing Eric Trump as head of NASA. Or it’s as if, I don’t know, Ivana Trump were to be put in charge of US climate policy. Oh wait, she has.