Thursday, 14 May 2009

Andrew Brown puts commenters in their place

In a recent column in the little-read Church Times, Guardian "belief" supremo Andrew Brown revealed a chat he had at a recent awards ceremony (presumably the Orwell) with Timothy Garton Ash. TGA, he reminds us, is "a professor at Oxford and Stanford now, as well as a highly successful journalist and historian". But twenty-five years ago he and Brown were just a couple of junior Spectator hacks.

We talked about the internet, and the ways in which it has changed the world, in particular, about the pointlessness of opinion journalism. This might seem an odd thing for a columnist like Garton Ash to believe, but the point about his columns is not that he is very smart, but that he is very well informed. His views are worth having because he knows more than his readers about the subjects on which he writes.

There's a conflation between knowledge and opinions here. The idea seems to be that because Garton Ash knows a great deal about his pet subject, Europe, therefore his opinions are more likely to be "right" than those of lesser mortals. It's a bit like saying that because the pope is the world's most authoritative commentator when it comes to Roman Catholic theology we should agree with him about condoms. In any case few paid columnists can boast the specialist knowledge or credentials of a Timothy Garton Ash. Seumas Milne doubtless knows a great deal about the Islamists he regularly champions, but that strikes me as small reason to take his extreme anti-Westernism at face value.

Brown reminds us that TGA "got his big break when, as a young man, he scrambled over the chain-link fence into the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk where Lech Walesa was leading a strike, which became Solidarity". This meant that he was in a good position to tell his readers about the situation in Poland. As Brown puts it, "He was there, and we weren’t". Fair enough. It's not obvious how this follows through to his present eminence as an EU-friendly academic. Doubtless he has a unique insight into the minds of his fellow EU-friendly academics, think-tankers and policy wonks. He can, and to some extent does, give us a good idea of what the framers of the EU project think and what they would like to do. Brown, though, goes slightly further, implying that dissenting views (as expressed, for example, by commenters at CIF) can safely be ignored, on the grounds that those expressing them usually lack TGA's expertise:

There will be, of course, some readers who know more than he does. But they won’t think he’s writing from another planet. And they certainly won’t write in with com­­ments on the website where his pieces are published. “I can look through a hundred com­ments there, and only two will tell me anything I don’t know; that’s because they will have links,” he said.

TGA does at least glance at the comments, then, if only to extract interesting links and sigh at the ignorance on display. That's nice to know.

Garton Ash's most recent Guardian article is a case in point. For all his undoubted expertise in the subject, his thoughts are both predictable and unenlightening. He begins with an argument of quite staggering banality, making the case that with the inexorable rise of China only a unified common policy position will enable the EU to make its interests heard in the counsels of the world. Its constituent nations, he informs us, are no longer quite the powers they once were. "Even on the coolest Palmerstonian calculation of national self-interest," he claims "the case for a larger concentration of power among neighbouring, economically integrated states is irrefutable."

He then informs readers of a meeting of "a group of Europeans, including think-tankers, businesspeople, writers, diplomats, civil society activists, a brace of former presidents and a bevy of former foreign ministers". Naturally, TGA himself was of their number. No less than his reportage from Communist Poland, then, this is a dispatch from the front line, except that this time TGA himself is one of the leading participants. He looks beyond the final ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, "certainly not a European constitution"(!), to the "hectic circus" at the end of the year which will give Europe its "president" and "foreign minister" (he thinks both terms misleading). Then comes the one genuinely interesting nugget of information, that it will in fact be the foreign policy "high representative", rather than the much talked-of "president", who will have "the staff and the money". It's the "president" job that Tony Blair hopes will rescue him from the increasingly embarrassing disaster of the Faith Foundation and his failure in the Middle East, of course. So it's nice to know it probably won't have much power after all. I hope TGA's right about this one.

Tidbit delivered, Garton Ash is back in full-on Eurobore mood, lamenting the inability of the various nation states to get their act together. He has noticed (who hasn't?) that politics in Europe "are still overwhelmingly national and our media are still mainly national, or at least confined to particular linguistic communities", which he sees as yet another obstacle to be overcome. But that, of course, is the nub of it. It's all very well to assert that European countries have common interests as against the Chinese or even the Americans, but TGA offers no answers as to why this should be or what those common interests might be. (He mentions "the worldwide financial and economic crisis, mass migration, international organised crime, climate change and the threat of pandemics" - but doesnt explain how the common interests of European nations in these areas differ from those of other parts of the world.) Mere geographical proximity does not imply, and historically has not produced, identical views. Where European countries can agree it makes sense to come together; but any formalised foreign policy structure would bind countries into positions with which they might not agree, and which might be against their national interests. Furthermore, as TGA himself admits, "How can you make a foreign policy without a polity and without public support?"

Andrew Brown has a wider point to make about the "simple difference between informed and uninformed opinion" which the web seems to "obliterate". Yet the Garton Ash piece, which presumably qualifies as an informed opinion, is less incisive than some of the comments which follow it, predictable though many of them are. One notes that national leaders "love to strut the world stage", and thus are unlikely to want to cede much of their power to European representatives. Another raises the obvious problem of democratic accountability. Someone else wonders if the peoples of Europe are inclined to make the "sacrifices" necessary to become a unified presence on the world stage. One commenter points out that, historically, the political fragmentation of Europe was the very thing that enabled it to advance and develop while more centrally-controlled civilisations like China fell into decrepitude. Some of the comments invoke New World Order-style conspiracy theories, but those are easy to spot.

I don't doubt that Garton Ash has heard these arguments many times before, and has well-reasoned answers to all of them. But the general reader is going to be exposed to more points of view, and even learn more information, by reading the comments than by sticking to TGA's cliché-ridden and middle-of-the-road presentation.

"If you look at those who comment on newspaper sites," writes Brown, "the one thing they have in common is the assumption that they know more than the people whose articles they are commenting on." Is it? A site like CIF, with which Brown is most familiar, attracts a wide variety of regulars, some genuinely informed, some witty, some boring, a proportion obsessive or deranged. All that links them is the belief that others might want to read their comments. Whilst such an idea might indeed seem deranged - especially, perhaps, to a professional columnist who imagines that only their opinions could possibly be of interest to the general reader - experience suggests that many readers do indeed value the opinions of what the Guardian likes to call its "community" at least as much as those writing above the line. And not without reason. A significant proportion of regular commenters are highly educated and can demonstrate particular experience or expertise. Bad arguments are flayed, laziness and factual errors ruthlessly exposed, and (as TGA noted) links are provided which might support or undermine, but certainly enhance, the case being presented. You no longer have to take the by-line's word for it.

A recent example. The other day eco-columnist George Monbiot was complaining that quangoes were frustrating scientific research as a result of a new rule that those applying for grants must "describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct". What, he wondered, would, such a body have made of the young Charles Darwin?

Picture Darwin trying to fill out his application form before embarking on the Beagle. "Explain how the research has the potential to impact on the nation's health, wealth or culture. For example: fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom … What are the realistic time­scales for the benefits to be realised?" If Darwin had been dependent on a grant from a British research council, he would never have set sail.

This specious and historically ignorant debating point was shot to pieces in one of the very first postings, from Tumblehome:

I suggest a course in history of science is in order for GM. The voyage of the Beagle was intended to provide navigational and geographical information back to the UK which would help with the commercial opening up of South America. Darwin went along to report back on the natural history. A significant part of his work was reporting on what people were growing, herding and eating and what food resources were to be found on the islands they visited. As a gentleman (i.e. a member of the aristocracy who did not need to work) he did not get a grant.

Scientific research can never be divorced from the context of its society. Newton's research into mechanics was a small part of his career; he went on to be Master of the Royal Mint. And Galileo was the greatest scientific instrument maker of his day. Intensive astronomical research had as its goal reliable stellar navigation, as did research into chronometry. And a lot of early geology that supported Darwin by establishing the ancientness of the Earth was funded by landowners who wanted reliable ways of detecting where to find coal and minerals on their holdings.

A couple of paragraphs containing more genuine information than the whole of Monbiot's characteristic whine.

Andrew Brown believes that his argument also applies to blogs. "There’s no intrinsic reason why a blog has to be parasitic on other people’s journalism," he writes, "and none of the valuable ones are". That rather depends on what "parasitic" means. This very post might, I suppose, be described as "parasitic" upon Brown's journalism. But then an increasing amount of journalism might validly be called parasitic upon blogs, as recent news stories have shown. And talking of parasites, politicians and the journalists of the Lobby have been parasitising each other for years, to their own mutual enfeeblement. It has taken the new media to open the whole Westminster village to proper public scrutiny.

On the question of money, a tricky area in the online world where the vast majority of content - whatever the status of the writer - is available free, Brown believes that "the essential point about user-generated content is that it subtracts value from everything else around it". For this reason he congratulates Slate - which "wants to make money" - for making the comments invisible to casual viewers. He contrasts this understanding of the proper relationship between journalists and readers with the accountant-driven approach of the Huffington Post, "perhaps the biggest aggregation of amateur opin­­ions in the United States", which pays writers nothing at all and is thus little more than "a wonder­fully cheap way to fill up the space between advert­isements". After all, Brown tells us, "stuff you can’t get anyone to pay for is by definition the stuff that no one values". I gather Rupert Murdoch takes the same line.

Brown thinks that unlike those pesky commenters real journalists "add value" by conducting proper research. He really does. Hasn't he read Flat Earth News? Hasn't he ever seen a press release transformed as though by magic into a fully-fledged news item? There are still some good investigative journalists, of course, and some good columnists who "add value" through nothing but the quality of their prose or the sharpness of their wit. But the best investigations, the most informed comment, and some of the best jokes, too, are out there in blogland. Why read a journalist's thoughts about the police when you can read Night Jack?


asquith said...

Worth noting that Darwin was a very wealthy man in his own right. His rental income guaranteed that he wouldn't be beholden to anyone.

I suppose self-employment is the equivalent these days. Those who don't have some boss or patron hovering over them can truly engage in free enquiry.

I am not against state funding on ideological grounds- it works well for organisations such as the Citizens' Advice Bureau, which retains its independence & impartiality. Those who receive state funds are not automatically "fake charities", though a lot of them are.

All quite interesting is this- one of the joys of blogging is that you can go straight to what the experts & those present at the coalface think, unmediated. The middle man be damned.

asquith said...

By "self-employment" I don't mean freelancing, I mean people having an income from business or whatever & therefore being able to share their opinions & whatever their research has dug up without fear of having their revenues cut off.

Martin said...

I am not too sure why you are giving A Brown house room. He is very far from an authority on knowledge and opinion.

LeDingue has replied to him very well on his Guardian blog (creationism judgement followup) - really said what a lot of us have been thinking,

Edwin Moore said...

The Speccie was fab in the 80s. TGA was excellent in those days - he had a way of making you feel that the left somehow had it all wrong. I think he's useless now, however, just not readable any more.

Andrew Brown is much more interesting, though I wouldn't like to meet either of them in the pub (as I never drink in the pub!).

Fab last paragraph H. Absolutely right.

valdemar squelch said...

I'm back at work now, albeit on reduced hours, and part of my job is ploughing through the 'quality' press. Ignorance, fallacy and simply getting facts wrong - pretty much as before. Every time I read op-ed stuff that's obviously 'parasitic' and written in a Pravdaesque fashion - get the ideology right, nothing else matters - I remind myself that this was once all the general public had. Things are getting better. Keep up the good work, H.

doesnotexist said...

"the one thing they have in common is the assumption that they know more than the people whose articles they are commenting on."

and in Andrew Brown's case, they are often right.

The Appeal to Authority" is a logical fallacy at the best of times (though often a pragmatic shortcut), but when the authority is only authoritative in their own mind ...

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Too often blogs like CiF on the guardian or the BBC & Torygraph equivalents are like the worst kind of radio phone-in shows with stunning levels of ignorance on display. These can be accompanied by Dubya levels of inability to communicate clearly.

What makes them worth reading is when someone who actually knows the subject pops up. On CiF there are several scientists and police officers who can give you chapter on verse about topics like climate change, immunology or arrest procedures. They show up the ignorance and lack of research carried out by the average journalist. Some of the high profile staff are clearly far too arrogant to bother with even the most minimal research and they have teams of milk monitors standing by to protect them from being informed that reality has let them down once again.

When say, Prof Grayling writes on philosophy or Prof Jim Al-Khalili writes on physics then almost no commentor will know as much as them about their subject.

But when Andrew Brown writes on religion almost every commentor clearly knows more than him about the subject.

John B said...

Darwin wasn't wealthy at the time of the Beagle voyage - most of his later wealth came from his wife (and cousin) Emma who was an heir to the Wedgewood fortune. He had to persuade his uncle, Emma's dad, to lend him the money for the trip.

And why read a journalist rather than Nightjack? Perhaps because a good journalist might actually form informed opinions about policing, rather than endlessly ranting that frontline rozzers are brilliant, and it's all the fault of bastard bosses, bastard liberals, and their bastard paperwork.

The Heresiarch said...

As so often, John, you are half-right, but misleadingly so. In his early twenties, Darwin was not independently wealthy, no. But his family (the Darwins and the Wedgwoods both) was. It appears that Darwin's father was against the voyage, and refused to fund it; his uncle was more amenable. None of this affects the main point against Monbiot's piece.

valdemar squelch said...

Poor old Monbiot. I'm sure he means well. But obviously Darwin was a gentleman, and that counted for a lot, not least with Captain Fitzroy.

Alfred Russel Wallace makes an interesting contrast. Never went to university, worked hard for a living from his teens. A pleb who might have been written out of the story, had not Darwin behaved honourably. Like a gent, in fact.

Edwin Moore said...

Hi Valdemar - yes, the joint Wallace/Darwin paper was a wonderful sorting out of the problem. Both were great men.

Fencewalker said...

Excellent piece,in itself a good counter to Brown's 'if no-one's paying it's not worth anything' rot - he makes the basic error of not considering if anyone 'asked' people to pay. Still "basic error" and "Andrew Brown", fish...chips.
Interesting to see his argument that people with a great deal of knowledge of, or history of research in a subject ought to be granted automatic respect. Slightly surprised that you didn't pick him up on that for not applying it to Dawkins in his many fulminations against him.

Andrew said...

It's always nice to find unexpected readers of the Church Times.

I'd answer the substantive points, But Im on holiday and about to be dragged off to something social.