You have no idea 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.

Mail editor Paul Dacre to be knighted at long last

“Arise, Sir Paul!”

Despite his pronouncements at last week’s Bafta ceremony on the innate snobbery of the British media industry (see our news story), Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is set to receive the ultimate establishment seal of approval.

On accepting his fellowship of the academy award, the 79-year-old, who is also editor-in-chief of Mailonline, caused a controversy by telling the audience he had “never really felt I belonged in my own country, in my own profession.”

Quoting government sources, Saturday’s Sun newspaper said he was to be knighted in the Queen birthday honours list in June, on the personal recommendation of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Dacre, born Maurice Micklewhite in east London, has appeared in more than 80 films, and is also a celebrated restaurateur with five eateries in London and one in Miami.

He has been nominated for an Academy Award five times, winning twice as best supporting actor, for Woody Allen’s 1986 Hannah and her Sisters and, last month, for Cider House Rules.

The Queen’s Honours are bestowed twice a year, on New Year’s Day and to mark her official birthday in June.

CORRECTION: It has been pointed out that this article contains a number of errors. It appears that details from an April 2000 Guardian article about the actor Michael Caine (now Sir Michael Caine) have somehow become attached to Mr Dacre. We are currently investigating how this may have occurred and would in the meantime ask that this misleading report not be widely shared as it may cause distress to Mr Dacre, who is understood to be deeply bitter that his lifetime’s service to inaccurate journalism and social division has never been and never will be rewarded with any sort of formal honour, ever. 

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/)

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.

The Age of Agnotology: The Importance of Reading Newspapers in an Era of Fake News

Of all the possible places to try to sell a dogmatically Leninist newspaper in 2016, the gates of a small, private, right-wing Catholic university is probably not the best location. Leaving work earlier this week I was surprised to encounter an actual 21st Century Bolshevik selling Lotta Comunista (Communist Struggle). Che testardo! The front page featured an actual hammer and sickle and an exhortation to the workers of the world to put down their bloody phones for a minute and UNITE!. Inside there was a closely-written article on US energy policy that featured nary a mention of the changing climate, while page 6 featured a total of 448 individual statistics relating to socio-economic class and voting habits in the USA. At least its position on Sunday’s absurd and suicidal referendum was more sensible than that of the rest of the ‘left’: they recommend that their readers stay at home memorising ‘What is to be done’ rather than bothering to vote. If you’re so inclined you can read your way through the rest of it here.

A thought experiment: imagine a country in which such a publication was the only newspaper. Actually come to think of it I don’t have to try that hard because I’ve been there quite recently – in May, in Cuba, where the only two daily newspapers are the black-and-white 12-page Government propaganda sheet Granma (named after the tiny vessel that brought Fidel (RIP) and friends back to Cuba in 1956), and an 8-page supplement for03-cuba-fidel-granma young people called Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), which is similar in look, style and content to the kind of publications the Worker’s Revolutionary Party used to try (and fail) to hand out for free. Both newspapers are hard to track down and (after a couple of days of cheap laughs, and once you’ve set aside a few copies as very cheap presents) genuinely not worth the effort. When in the 1990s the US not-an-embassy put up LED screens to broadcast subversive information to the city it must have had quite an impact. In Mozambique – also nominally a Communist country – the national newspapers are remarkably similar in style and content to the cheaper Portuguese tabloids. I once read a very depressing article (it wasn’t supposed to be depressing) about how popular A Bola (The Ball) is in Angola. In some countries, the main journals of record are ones which just report the achievements of government (rather like a lot of local newspapers nowadays in the UK in relation to local councils). In others, the only opposition newspapers are those owned by politically ambitious oligarchs . There are other channels of communication but the absence of a free press makes a country much culturally and socially poorer and less free.

Continue reading “The Age of Agnotology: The Importance of Reading Newspapers in an Era of Fake News”

On ¿Qué?


If, as James Joyce said, the useful lifespan of a newspaper is one day, how long does a free newspaper last for? In Madrid, one of the many, many free papers that are scattered throughout the Metro network every day is called 20 Minutos, which seems a fair estimate. As you might expect, you don’t get a very high standard of news journalism from the free press – Metro, Qué!, 20 Minutos and the other ones whose names I forget just tend to feature the exact same news stories written in a fairly clumsy and sensationalist style. But what can you expect – they are free after all. And because of this, it’s not unusual to see people carrying two or three of them to skim through as they move around the city.

As a result, it’s actually quite unusual to see people reading ‘proper’ newspapers, by which I include the generally ubiquitous football papers Marca and As. Which is a shame, because in my opinion Spain has some excellent newspapers. What’s wrong, then, with the free ones? Well, it’s not too outrageous to suggest that when something is free, it’s often because it has no or next to no actual value. Inevitably Qué! (admittedly much better than the others, being a fairly convincing tabloid newspaper with a fair amount of seemingly genuine interest in what the readers think, and which has recently started an aggressive advertising campaign, which is a bit odd considering it’s free) and all the others just exist to sell adverts. At least with what used to be called a ‘journal of record’, you pay your money in return for a certain level of professionalism in terms of how they gather and present information, and you pay to read the considered opinions of experienced people whose opinions actually count for something. With the free ones, it’s pot luck whether or not you get as much as you pay for, so to speak.

I’d hazard a guess and suggest that this relatively new and rapidly expanding phenomen is due to the very low value that we place on news information and commentary these days. There is just so much newsprint out there, any number of TV channels trying to fill up airtime without upsetting anyone important, and besides all that there is the internet, teeming with unsolicited and ill-considered rants like, erm, this one.

Obviously free newspapers and magazines are nothing new in most cities, although I suspect that they are expanding elsewhere at much the same rate. Newspapers and magazines, in fact, of often the most surprising kind. In the National Express ticket office in Sheffield in the summer there was a huge pile of Chinese-language copies of the Epoch Times, and although I wasn’t able to read it much I did pick up an English language edition a few days later in a Portuguese cafe in London. If you’re not familiar with the paper, it’s Taiwan-based and has some connection to the outlawed Falun Gong religious cult, which is why it publishes a great deal of very anti-CCP articles, which although not always very persuasively written, are always good fun to read – some people seem to have a huge problem with the FG, and I don’t know a huge amount about them, but to be honest if anyone dedicates their time to the destruction of the Chinese Communist Party, whether or not they decide to go to the somewhat puzzling extent of setting themselves on fire, they have my wholehearted support, and are welcome to borrow my lighter anytime.

As I say, their newspaper reads like it’s written by someone with a very definite purpose and agenda – but as I said earlier, what the hell, it’s free. If someone picks it up, which is quite possible given the kind of random places where it’s distributed, under the mistaken apprehension that it’s just some normal expat newspaper for overseas Chinese, it will just get jumbled up and/or discarded along with all the other free and mostly useless information they’ve gathered recently. Unlike when we’ve invested money in a publication which we have some reason to trust, with the free press we’re generally I think disinclined to question the sources or the veracity of the information presented, or the motivations of those who are responsible for it.

Speaking, then, of publications for overseas Chinese and for people interested in China, on the bus yesterday I came across yet another free paper, printed in Spanish, with the title of The Mandarin. It is a weekly publication which, surprise surprise, features story after story of very, very good news about the Chinese economy (‘President Of World Bank Praises Social And Economic Progress Of China’, ‘Chinese Outbound Investment To Continue Growing Rapidly This Year’, ‘Chinese Economy In For A Smooth Landing’), along with articles about the mystery of Guilin and Tibet, the exotic and colourful traditions of the ethnic minorities that China is a proud host to, a page dedicated to preparations for 2008, a story about those (trojan) pandas and their long-delayed journey to Taiwan Province, and a special page for people starting to learn Mandarin.

For someone with a mild interest in Chinese culture, it might all seem perfectly innocuous. As I said, when we sit, or more often stand, and read a free newspaper, we don’t usually think in detail about the credentials or the motivations of those who’ve written it. Glossy magazines about China on sale at kiosks or in newsagents around the world contain pretty much the same information, after all.

However, there is for me something about finding publications like this freely distributed in relatively free countries which I find disturbing, and I think it’s the following: in Wild Swans, Jung Chang talks about how the only western publication they could get hold of during the Cultural Revolution was the newspaper of a tiny group of Maoist sympathisers who were ignored or laughed at in the West. Now it seems that the inheritors of that insane tradition are exploiting our carelessness about what information about the world we allow to enter our heads.

Is the value that we place on news information now so low that we will allow the Chinese Communist Party to distribute state propaganda as though it were just another innocent random source of information about the world?

If that’s the inevitable consequence of this explosion of ‘free’ newspapers, I’d prefer to stick with the Guardian or El País – or maybe even Marca or As.