Thursday 30 January, 2020

Warren Buffett gives up on the news business

He’s selling Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers to Lee Enterprises. You can guess what he thinks about the prospects for journalism. NYT


Social media will impair society’s ability to control the Corona epidemic

“’It plays to our worst fears’: Coronavirus misinformation fuelled by social media” This is one of the under-appreciated threats posed by social media. And it can be weaponised by bad actors.

And, right on cue, here’s the first report

“Baseless stories claiming that the two scientists are Chinese spies and that they smuggled the coronavirus to China’s only Level 4 lab in Wuhan last year have been spreading on all major social media platforms and on conspiracy theorist blogs. One article from a conspiracy blog was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook on Monday. “


Global (dis)Satisfaction with Democracy Report

My colleague David Runciman launched his new Centre for the Future of Democracy last night with the presentation of a pathbreaking survey of citizens’ confidence (or lack thereof) in their democracies. The report aims to provide a comprehensive answer to questions regarding one measure of democratic legitimacy – satisfaction with democracy – by combining data from almost all available survey sources.

It’s based on a huge dataset which combined more than 25 data sources, 3,500 country surveys, and 4 million respondents between 1973 and 2020 in which citizens were asked whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries. Using this combined, pooled dataset, the researchers now have a time-series for almost 50 years in Western Europe, and 25 years for the rest of the world.

Among their findings are:

  • Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time, and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed democracies.
  • The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005.
  • Many large democracies are at their highest-ever recorded level for democratic dissatisfaction. These include the United States, Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia. Other countries that remain close to their all-time highs include Japan, Spain, and Greece.
  • Citizens’ levels of dissatisfaction with democracy are largely responsive to objective circumstances and events – economic shocks, corruption scandals, and policy crises. These have an immediately observable effect upon average levels of civic dissatisfaction.
  • The picture is not entirely negative. Many small, high-income democracies have moved in the direction of greater civic confidence in their institutions. In Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for example, democratic satisfaction is reaching all-time highs. These countries form part of the “island of contentment” – a select group of nations, containing just 2% of the world’s democratic citizenry, in which less than a quarter of the public express discontent with their political system.

The results are sobering. Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of citizens who are “dissatisfied” with the performance of democracy in their countries has risen by almost 10 percentage points globally. The deterioration has been especially deep in high-income, “consolidated” democracies, where the proportion has risen from a third to half of all citizens.

From the Report’s Conclusions…

If satisfaction with democracy is now falling across many of the world’s largest mature and emerging democracies – including the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa – it is not because citizens’ expectations are excessive or unrealistic, but because democratic institutions are falling short of the outcomes that matter most for their legitimacy, including probity in office, upholding the rule of law, responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, and raising living standards for the larger majority of society. Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe. If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the eurozone, the management of refugee flows, and providing a credible response to the threat of global climate change. The best means of restoring democratic legitimacy would be for this to change.

Sunday 19 January 2020

How to choose

I’m a subscriber to The Browser, a daily email reading list. It’s curated by Robert Cottrell, who reads about a thousand Web pages a day, from which he selects five things that he thinks are worth reading. He was asked on a podcast recently how he goes about this. Here’s his reply:

Orwell, Trump and the English language

Simon Kuper, the Financial Times columnist, describes himself as “an Orwell nut”. Like me, his favourite essay is “Politics and the English language”, one basic premise of which is that clear speech enables clear thinking and prevents lies. Trouble is, he says in this weekend’s edition of the FT, Trump and Dominic Cummings have proved Orwell wrong. Clear speech (“BUILD THE WALL”, “GET BREXIT DONE”) can enable lies. What Trump demonstrates, Kuper has concluded, is that “simple language can encourage simple thought”. Agreed, except that I’d have said ‘simplistic’.

Hypocrisy is at the heart of Facebook’s refusal to ban false political advertising

This morning’s Observer column. Based on a sceptical reading of Andrew Bosworth’s faux-agonising internal memo about whether Facebook should modify its policies to stop politicians lying on the platform.

Why you can’t believe anything you read about the royal family in British tabloids

Good piece by Alan Rusbridger. There’s a reason why the royals are demonised, he says. But you won’t read all about it because they won’t admit why they’re hostile. Among other things, Harry is suing some of them. I hold no brief for the royals, but I can understand what Harry is doing in stepping back from his role: he doesn’t want the British tabloids to do to his wife what they did to his mother. And I don’t blame him.

Dave Winer’s sci-fi plot

An alien race from a faraway galaxy visits earth. We know they’re coming and where they’ll land. When they show up, they walk by the humans and greet the dogs. Turns out dogs are the master species of earth. And of course the aliens are canines as well.

Neat idea. Only one thing wrong with it. The story should be about cats, who have such supercilious bearings because — as P.G. Wodehouse revealed many years ago — they know that the ancient Egyptians worshipped them as gods. If you doubt that, ask our cats. This one, for example.

Quote of the Day

” When Donald Trump was running for president, he told voters he would run the country like he ran his business. Two years later, it’s one of the few promises he’s actually kept.”

Impunity vs. democracy

I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?

Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.

On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.

How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.

Boris Johnson, hedge-funds, conspiracy theories and Brexit

Last Saturday the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, claimed that Boris Johnson was pursuing the interests of financial backers who are set to gain from a no-deal Brexit. Hammond said he was only repeating a comment made by Rachel Johnson, the Prime Minister’s sister. Since some of Johnson’s financial backers run hedge-funds, this sounded like a good conspiracy theory. Indeed Robert Harris, the best-selling thriller writer, tweeted that the claim that Johnson wanted a hard Brexit so that his backers in the City wouldn’t lose billions alleged “corruption on a scale I wouldn’t dare put in fiction”.

Frances Coppola, writing for Forbes, isn’t impressed by this particular conspiracy theory. “To be sure”, she writes,

some hedge fund managers make no secret of their desire for no-deal Brexit. Crispin Odey, for example, not only backed Johnson for Prime Minister but – according to a recent Channel 4 documentary – also advised him to suspend (“prorogue”) Parliament to force through no-deal Brexit. Johnson’s attempt to follow Odey’s advice ended ignominiously when the U.K.’s highest court ruled it unlawful.

Coppola’s point seems to be that most of the journalists covering this particular story doen’t seem to know much about how hedge-funds work. It is possible to profit from no-deal Brexit even if you don’t support it. “Shorting the pound”, she writes, “would be a no-brainer for anyone in the hedge fund fraternity, however pristine their Remain credentials.”

The conspiracy theory suggests that as October 31 approaches with no sign of a deal, hedge-funds might short the pound whether or not they backed Johnson’s campaign.

But that’s not what is being alleged by those who claim that speculators are placing billions of pounds of bets on no-deal Brexit. No, the focus is on equities. According to The Sunday Times, hedge funds like Odey are shorting British companies in expectation of a stock market crash if the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal. Allegedly, Odey has placed £300m ($370m) of bets against a variety of U.K. companies.

Investigating the list of his 14 currently active shorts, Coppola thinks that they are standard hedge-fund operations — betting against companies that are in trouble for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Brexit. “In short”, she concludes,

In short, despite his vocal support for no-deal Brexit, I don’t see any evidence that Odey’s funds are shorting U.K. companies in anticipation of no-deal Brexit. If I were to criticize Odey for anything, it would be for high fees and an uninspiring performance.

Nice piece of debunking. And of good journalism. And I wouldn’t put it past Robert to use the plot in one of his next books!

Sauce for the goose…

The staff (and proprietor) of the New York Times have their knickers in a twist because some right-wingers have been excavating embarrassing or foolish tweets that NYT journalists have emitted in the past. Jack Shafer is having none of it:

Deep scrutiny of the press—even when performed by bad faith actors like Arthur Schwartz and his ilk—is a boon, not a bane. The embarrassments unearthed by Schwartz and company will bruise the tender egos who run the Times, the Post and CNN. But in the long run, these minirevelations will help them maintain the professional standards they’re always crowing about. Instead of damning its critics for going through its staffs’ social media history with tweezers, the Times and A.G. Sulzberger should send them a thank you card.

Yep. American journalism can be very pompous at times.

The perils of being regarded as a ‘liberal’ institution

The Twitter firestorm over the way the New York Times covered Trump’s speech after the El Paso shootings was a thing to behold. (In its Tuesday first edition, the Times had a page One banner headline, “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” — which was changed to “Assailing Hate, But Not Guns” for the remainder of the print run.)

The furore also spurred Jack Shafer, the Politico columnist, into action. “The fury uncaged by the five-word Times headline”, he wrote,

had less to do with the language used and more to do with the political validation that liberals and lefties have come to demand from the news media they consume. It’s not good enough for some liberals that the Times has kept a tight vigil on Trump since he announced his candidacy four years ago, exposing him as a tax cheat, tracking his lies, aggressively covering the Mueller investigation and the Stormy Daniels case, cataloging everybody he’s insulted on Twitter, fending off his “enemy of the people” charges, recording his abuse of emergency powers, and documenting his contempt for the rule of law. They want every column-inch of copy in the Times to reinforce and amplify their resistance values, right down to the headlines. Anything perceived as even a minor deviation from that “mission,” they seem to think, requires the mass cancelation of subscriptions and calls for the executive editor’s resignation.

The defect with this resistance view of the Times is that the paper completely rejects it. “Our role is not to be the opposition to Donald Trump,” Baquet said at the SXSW conference in March 2017. “Our role is to cover him aggressively.” Times reporter David Sanger reiterated Baquet at another conference later that year. “The biggest single mistake we could do in navigating our coverage of the Trump administration would be to let ourselves become the resistance to the government in place,” Sanger said. In expecting the Times to be something it has vowed it will never, ever be, members of the resistance have positioned themselves for perpetual disenchantment.

Yep. And quite right too.

Journalism and mass shootings

Somber reflections from the journalist who was Editor of the Rocky Mountain News when the Columbine shootings happened, and who covered that story exhaustively.

I’m out of daily journalism now. But whenever there’s a mass shooting I have no desire to read the stories or watch the footage. There’s a ritual to the coverage, and it feels like it always follows the same arc and ends the same way. Journalists tell the story of what it was like to survive the slaughter. Then they offer tender accounts of the victims’ lives, detail where and how the weapons were purchased, publish profiles of the killer or killers, and write accounts of the struggles of the wounded. And then most of us move on, until the next shooting. Even the killing of 20 elementary-school children in Newtown, Connecticut, changed nothing.

This ritual can make journalism seem futile. I am forced to ask why journalists are doing this work in this way, and whether in the end it’s worth it.

Journalists feel the need to bear witness. But to the same horror, again and again? I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism—and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.

I feel much the same. These atrocities have become, somehow, ‘normalised’.

What can British journalists learn from US hacks’ experience of covering Trump?

Nice, useful advice by Emily Bell:

In the end, perhaps the biggest lesson the British media can learn from the US experience of Trump is that their work matters to people beyond their readership or audience, and to that end it needs to become more rigorous and more serious. On both sides of the Atlantic there is a circular firing squad of the commentariat who wonder, on a daily basis, how did this happen? The boring truth is that we need to pay attention to the substance and not the glockenspiel. When the circus has left town, we will need a reliable record to remind us of what happened, and how, and why.

Skewed reporting of white vs Islamic ‘terrorism’

Interesting study of how mainstream media reports and categorises terrorist attacks.

Why does the media refuse to call white murderers terrorists? Why, instead, are these killers humanised and we, the reader, encouraged to feel for or relate to them? These questions have surfaced time and time again during the increasingly prevalent white-supremacist and far-right attacks of recent years. Both in terms of the language used, and the quantity of coverage, media treatment of differing forms of extremism is skewed. A Muslim can be expected to be immediately labelled a terrorist, whilst the media is hesitant to apply this term to white people. Research by the University of Alabama has shown that, between 2006 and 2015, terror attacks committed by Muslim extremists received 357% more US press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims, despite the fact that majority of domestic extremist killings in this period were linked to right-wing radicalism.

On March 15, a white supremacist committed the deadliest act of terrorism in New Zealand’s modern history. A shooter began attacking the Al Noor Mosque before continuing on to the Linwood Islamic Centre. 50 people were killed, and 50 others injured. The first of these attacks was streamed live on Facebook.

The media fallout and coverage of this event has been intense. In the two weeks after the attack there were over 200,000 pieces covering the shooting and its aftermath.

The Daily Mail and the Mirror described the shooter as “angelic” and a “little blond boy” respectively. Both have been criticised for doing so, but how pervasive is this type of language in the media?

The article reports on a statistical analysis of over 200,000 news items published in the two weeks following the Christchurch attack. These articles come from around 80 different languages. It compares these pieces to ones on recent Islamic extremist attacks and other recent far-right attacks. In particular, there is a focus as to what extent these attacks are linked to terrorism with the language used in them.

Key takeaways:

The media continues to use language unevenly when reporting on acts by white supremacists compared with Islamic extremists.

In over 200, 000 articles on 11 different attacks, Islamic extremists were labelled terrorists 78.4% of the time, whereas far-right extremists were only identified as terrorists 23.6% of the time.

Reporting on the Christchurch shooting is the exception that proves the rule for an attack by a white person, in how willing the media was to label the attacker a terrorist.