Missing the Zeitgeist


Christopher Caldwell has a sobering piece in the Financial Times which helps to explain why US mainstream media have been so discombobulated by Trump’s success: they’ve paid no attention to Fox News for all the time that the channel has been broadcasting. But way back in 2009, the then Executive Editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson had warned her colleagues that they were insufficiently tuned in to “the issues that are dominating Fox News”. Needless to say, nobody listened.

Caldwell’s analysis is acute and perceptive. “Fox News’s competitors, with a few exceptions like Abramson”, he writes,

always sold it short. They were wrong to. Fox News succeeded because it was brilliant enough to identify a market failure, not because it was sleazy enough to cause one. Murdoch, Ailes and those who build up Fox News did so by identifying a group of news consumers who were being ignored by news producers. It is only now, in the election season of 2016, that we can see how dire a problem this snub revealed, not just for the media but for the whole political system. It was a sign than the informed opinions of the broad public had ceased to count in American political and social life.

The Fox News people understood that you can’t solve this problem by being “more objective”. When it is being ignored by elites, the broad public prefers opinions to facts — because while everyone has opinions, as the saying goes, facts are increasingly things that get handed down by experts. In short, Fox News bet 20 years ago that the “objectivity” of a nation’s elites could be a kind of bias. The past year’s events in the US show that it has won that bet.

It’s a good piece which, of course, also makes one reflect on the UK. I suppose you could say that, for us, the tabloid press constituted our own version of Fox News.

Getting to Denmark


I’m writing this in one of my favourite haunts, the Paludan Cafe in Copenhagen, which is both a lovely cafe and an enchanting bookshop — the only bookshop in which I’ve seen university seminars conducted at 8am. It’s a beautiful Autumn day — sunny and mild — and I’ve walked through the city centre from a meeting in the University’s Law Faculty, marvelling as I went at how attractive this town is. It has a quiet spaciousness and a slower pace of life than London. And of course it has wonderful cafes.

In his book The Origins of Social Order the political theorist Francis Fukuyama argued that the messy, centuries-long groping of societies towards liberal democracy could be interpreted as the inchoate pursuit of a common (though unstated) goal: getting to Denmark. In other words, attempting to replicate the particular kind of liberal democracy that the Danes have been able to achieve: a prosperous, democratic, liberal, tolerant state in which, by international metrics, people are happier than they are anywhere else on the planet.

I never come here without thinking of that. This is indeed a seductively attractive polity. Copenhagen — which is the bit of the country I know best — is the most civilised city I know. And yet, even in this liberal democratic paradise, all is not well. The country’s parliament has just passed a law which permits the state to seize the assets of asylum-seekers to help pay for their stay while their claims are being assessed. The new law will also delay family reunions by increasing the waiting time from one to three years. 81 of the 109 MPs in the Parliament voted in support of the new legislation. Responding to public outrage, Parliament clarified that jewellery, including wedding rings, and other sentimental possessions would not be taken. But the UN and human rights organisations have condemned the legislation, saying it breaks international laws on refugees.

Yesterday, when I was walking to my hotel from the railway station, I crossed the square in front of the ornate City Hall, and noticed a large group of non-white people milling around. A guy was haranguing them with a megaphone, in a language I couldn’t understand. Some people were writing slogans on banners. Eventually, the group formed itself into a long file of marchers and set off downtown, shouting slogans (and holding up smartphones to get the obligatory video footage for subsequent uploading to Facebook). Finally, I found a banner that was written in English: “we want jobs, not charity” it read. These were refugees, and they were clearly unhappy with their experience of Mr Fukuyama’s nirvana.

Don’t let WhatsApp nudge you into sharing your data with Facebook

This morning’s Observer column:

When WhatsApp, the messaging app, launched in 2009, it struck me as one of the most interesting innovations I’d seen in ages – for two reasons. The first was that it seemed beautifully designed from the outset: it was clean, minimalist and efficient; and, secondly, it had a business model that did not depend on advertising. Instead, users got a year free, after which they paid a modest annual subscription.

Better still, the co-founder Jan Koum, seemed to have a very healthy aversion to the surveillance capitalism that underpins the vast revenues of Google, Facebook and co, in which they extract users’ personal data without paying for it, and then refine and sell it to advertisers…

Ah yes. That was then. But now…

Read on

How the Internet is changing our politics


My longish opinion piece on the US election in today’s Observer. (Hint: it’s not all good news.)

Ever since the internet went mainstream in the 1990s people wondered about how it would affect democratic politics. In seeking an answer to the question, we made the mistake that people have traditionally made when thinking about new communications technology: we overestimated the short-term impacts while grievously underestimating the longer-term ones.

The first-order effects appeared in 2004 when Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont, entered the Democratic primaries to seek the party’s nomination for president. What made his campaign distinctive was that he used the internet for fundraising. Instead of the traditional method of tapping wealthy donors, Dean and his online guru, Larry Biddle, turned to the internet and raised about $50m, mostly in the form of small individual donations from 350,000 supporters. By the standards of the time, it was an eye-opening achievement.

In the event, Dean’s campaign imploded when he made an over-excited speech after coming third in the Iowa caucuses – the so-called “Dean scream” which, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, showed that he was too unstable a character to be commander-in-chief. Looked at in the light of the Trump campaign, this is truly weird, for compared with the current Republican candidate, Dean looks like a combination of Spinoza and St Francis of Assisi…

Read on

Quote of the Day

“Conspiracy theories are like mosquitoes that thrive in swamps of low-trust societies, weak institutions, secretive elites and technology that allows theories unanchored from truth to spread rapidly. Swatting them one at a time is mostly futile: The real answer is draining the swamps.”

Zeynep Tufecki, writing in today’s New York Times.

Diplomatic language

Simon Kuper, one of my favourite columnists, has a nice piece in the FT Magazine (sadly, behind a paywall) about what states (and their diplomats) say about others in private.

I particularly like this transcript of a 1971 conversation between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger analysing a recent visit by the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi:

Kissinger Well, the Indians are bastards anyway… While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted too…”

Nixon “We really slobbered over the old witch.”

Or how about this 2011 exchange between Nicholas Sarkozy (then President of France) and Barack Obama about the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu?

Sarkozy “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.”

Obama “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

In recent times, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is having to live down some of the things he’s said. For example:

“The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”

Johnson also compared Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.

Well, at least that gets the niceties out of the way, whoever wins the election.