Monday, March 12, 2018

The Fall

"What the hell is happening to us?" asks Dan Hodges, "How have we managed to fall this far?"

Surprisingly, this isn't Dan wondering in the third person how he wound up working for the Mail, but is instead about the latest ineffectual shock-horror Labour Party story, which this time involves Jeremy Corbyn and a Facebook group partially populated by racists.

Dan is mystified - as far as he's concerned, he and his mates have put together an open-and-shut case.  So why does nobody seem to care?

Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I can tell you why am not moved by it.  I can tell you how I react whenever a story like this crops up, and why.

I don't expect anyone will agree with it all, and I'm not really trying to convince you that I'm right about anything, but maybe a look at my response will help to enlighten other people about the psychology at work.

So, why am I unmoved by the Facebook group and the racists?  A few reasons, starting with

I have used the internet before. 

I've been bickering with people on the internet about politics and current affairs for years.  This means I've encountered Britain's small but very nasty and noisy hardcore of left-wing racists on numerous occasions, and I'm aware that they tend to show up in numbers on any sites that focus on war and politics generally, and the Israel/Palestine conflict in particular.

Numbers-wise, I'd estimate that there are a few hundred and many as maybe as a thousand of these bellends rattling around social media, stinking the place up with their wacky opinions and dark hints about Who Really Runs The Press and so on.

What they lack in numbers, they make up for in nastiness and I've had to block, delete and ban more than a few of them in my time.  I've been vocal about the need to keep these people out of forums where I contribute regularly, although I have to confess that I've seen them at work and done nothing about it on other forums where I was just passing through.

So it isn't a shocking revelation to me that internet forums dealing with politics tend to attract godawful shitheads with rank agendas.  Nor do I feel responsible for the behaviour of a few hundred idiots that I've never met, whose views I strongly disagree with.

I've had this debate before. 

Amazingly, this isn't the first time I've been told that because such people exist, then lots of other people who used the same forums are irreparably tainted by association.  It's not even the ten thousandth time!

I remember it from various internet booby-hatches back in the early Iraq War days, when everyone who thought the war was an insane idea was held to be irretrievably tarnished by these exact same zoomers, although I note that war proved to be a ridiculous, blood-soaked catastrophe regardless of who stood next to whom at which protest.

I remember it from the Libya War too, when commentators very much like Dan Hodges were extremely insistent that because the same small clique of weird left-wing racists exists, then only weird racists were against the war.  I remember having more than one heated argument on this topic and as it happened, that war also turned out to be a howling clusterfuck, regardless of who posted what on which Facebook feed.

It turns out that you can only answer the question "Do you think there are a few hundred weird left wing racists on the internet?" with the word "Yes" so many times, before you start to wonder why the matter is apparently relevant to everything. 

This means that I now don't hold other people responsible for the behaviour of weird racists they say they don't agree with, unless I have a strong reason to believe that they're lying.

So now, whenever I hear a claim that people with similar views to mine are tainted by association with exactly the same few hundred dickheads, I tend to assume the claim is probably bullshit.

Maybe that isn't fair!  Maybe I'm making a terrible mistake.  Perhaps in this instance, the claim is perfectly valid and the criticism deserved.  Nonetheless, because of my previous experience with the same arguments from many of the same people, I am not inclined to take it very seriously.

But what if we're talking about more than one Facebook group, or multiple forums?  In that case...

Repeating Yourself Isn't The Same As Winning 

Dan and many other pundits appear to believe that every time they find some major or minor Labour Party figure posting on a dodgy website or in close proximity to some nutter, then they are stacking up great mountains of evidence.  They think they're landing blow after blow on their beleaguered opponents and believe, apparently sincerely, that each instance will be the straw that will finally break the camel's back.

I, on the other hand, basically discounted the first story for the reasons laid out above.  That means that for me, every new story isn't new - it's the same story, repeated again and again and again.

I do try to treat each new event as a discrete matter in itself with individual merits, but this gets much harder with every repetition.  If that story didn't move me the first time, then the four hundredth iteration of it isn't likely to move me either. 

That means that when I read opinion columns like this one from Dan Hodges, my conclusion is less

"I can't believe a modern socialist party would tolerate this Facebook enormity"

than it is

"Congratulations Tiger, you have successfully detected some nutters on the internet". 

So that's the core of it.  Less importantly, but also relevant:

If you always shout, people will avoid you. 

Like the amplifiers in This Is Spinal Tap, if you've got your volume turned up to ten, then where are you going to go after that?  Nowhere.

If your silly-season stories about off-the-cuff remarks that you pretended not to understand were delivered at the same screeching, deafening red alert levels as the ones about issues that you think are particularly important, then all of it will get lost in feedback.

I was not born yesterday. 

I am aware that there have been platoons of paid researchers and volunteer weirdos combing through every social media platform for years, looking for any shred of evidence of Labour Party villainy.

If the sum total of that huge investment in time, money and manpower is a few random cranks and some dark hints about proximity to loonies, then that's unlikely to fundamentally alter my worldview.  Because it's the same story again that I thought was bullshit in the first place, see? 

Seriously, I Was Not Born Yesterday 

With the best will in the world, nobody is going to take you seriously if you express your deep concerns about indifference to racism in the Daily Mail.

And if you have no problem extrapolating blood-curdling racism from proximity in old Facebook forums, but are unable to detect it on the front page of the broadsheets, I am probably going to value your opinion a good bit less. 

That lower estimation also extends beyond this particular writer to innumerable politics pundits who are apparently completely oblivious to the behaviour of their colleagues and social media followers.

So anyway... 

I could go on, but I'll finish with a quick overview.  The short version is that there was a time when smart people at certain newspapers could ensure that some views were politically untouchable - in particular, the idea that war is usually very bad indeed, and that particular wars are particularly bad; that very wealthy people should pay more in tax; that employers have too much power and employees have nowhere near enough, and so on.

They did this by declaring in unison that particular people who held these views were crazy and threatening, or actually in league with dark forces out to destroy everything that their readers held dear.  They reinforced these messages in much the same way too - paying people to trawl through actual bins as well as digital ones, sniffing out dirt and blackening names wherever possible. 

And for a long time, this worked, and so the wars rumbled on and the cash kept flowing into all the right bank accounts and everyone was happy, or at least everyone who mattered was.

But that was before all the wars went horribly wrong and the markets crashed, and the very smart people turned out not to be so very smart after all.

Now, people have more important things to worry about than who said what to whom on Twitter in 2007, or who was photographed shaking which hands.  And so now, the papers find that they can't mould and direct the public's opinions in the way that they used to.

Dan and many other political commentators believe that this is because Britain has become a debased and immoral nation; that the world has turned upside down and most of us are now dangerously mental.

I'd suggest that there might be more simple reasons.


des von bladet said...

"I keep crying wolf and they just won't listen", wails Dan Hodges, arguably the most useless opinionist in the British press, and that's against some pretty stiff competition.

ejh said...

I assume that one of the rhetorical purposes of this kind of thing is to finger people who are unwise enough to defend whoever is being attacked, like a whole series of concentric rings of guilt: A, some no-mark who said something wicked, B, who failed to denounce them, C, who defended B instead of denouncing them in their turn.

So to say "hang on, Today's Media Target (whoever it might be) isn't responsible for what somebody else said in a Facebook post" is itself to be blind to whatever sin Today's Media Target is blind to. And that proves how far the poison has spread, doesn't it?

Roll 'em all up at once, like a fucking carpet.

organic cheeseboard said...

sorry if the below seems a bit nitpicky - and broadly speaking I agree with everything in your post.

I found the Stephen Pollard approach to this interesting, considering he is the editor of the JC and so personally decided not to put this story, such as it is, on the cover of his own paper:

Should we splash on a story that deserves to be not just on our front page but on every paper’s?

how is the answer to this question possibly 'no'? But Pollard claims that JC has run:

run far, far less about him and Labour’s antisemitism issue than the story probably deserves, precisely to avoid it dominating the paper.

2 things here. These stories do, actually, dominate the paper - here's one from the 21st February for instance: - and Pollard even links to an earlier front page story basically accusing Corbyn directly of antisemitism. I simply don't buy that it's some weird kind of 'desensitization' that is stopping Pollard from putting this story on the cover.

I think it's something else, which is to do with the much more classic issue of not having much actual material. If you look at the 'report' this is based on it's a lot less damning than both Hodges and Pollard make it sound. Hodges says:

Over 150 pages, it painstakingly detailed how Corbyn had spent two years as a member of a closed Facebook group called Palestine Live.

For a start, he has the length wrong (the JC bits are in the second part of the document - there are 90 or so pages to get through before that); it is not about Corbyn consistently despite what Hodges claims, in fact the sections which are supposedly about Corbyn appear halfway through for some reason (surely this is totally vs the art of report-writing, but then again it is written by someone who is called an 'investigative journalist' by Hodges but is very clearly an activist blogger with no journalistic credentials); and even the bits which are supposedly about JC are by and large not actually about JC, but about people who have tagged him into conversations. The report is far longer, and is very hard to follow - about 15 pages of an earlier section give an account of people arguing in a facebook group about the Mavi Marmara boat incident (and they conclude 'the IDF account of this is correct' which might give you a sense of the objectivity of their author); you can imagine how compelling the report is as a result. Another example of its objectivity is a chapter entitled 'the Labour sewer'.

This is not necessarily to say that it was wise of JC to be in this group, and it's not like he hasn't associated with headbangers in the past. But it's pretty clear why it's not front page news, because not only does it not have much evidence of JC actually engaging with much in this group (in fact most of the engagement, such as it was, is people saying that his office helped to organise an event), but also because it's basically as trustworthy a source as a blogpost on Harry's Place.

The material rom the report will only convince people who hate Corbyn anyway - this is why Hodges has to more or less completely misrepresent it and its author in his article, and even then he has to start the article with a 'what if' - because the 'truth', such as it is, is not at all compelling. Even Stephen Pollard knows this, which is why he was wise to not give it a front page.

organic cheeseboard said...

since I've nowhere elseo or this, here goes. Nick Cohen has been correctly drawing some criticsm for this from his column thids week:

Unite is trying to force through the appointment of its official Jennie Formby as Labour’s new general secretary on the grounds that she is the feminist candidate who will challenge the patriarchy. Its egalitarian argument would carry greater force were she not McCluskey’s former mistress. Was it for this that Emily Davison died?

He claims that this just a point he's making in relation to cronyism and nepotism, which he opposes in all its forms. Let's see how this works in relation to him then.

Nick Cohen on feminist writers:
The last principled feminist in the British media

At the time, Joan Smith was the partner of Denis MacShane, one of Nick Cohen's closest associates in politics.

But more generally, it takes some chutzpah on Cohen's part to pretend that his opposition to Unite specifically isn't anything other than entirely personal. He's had it in for them ever since the days when Charlie Whelan was working there and apparently 'got Martin Bright sacked' from the New Statesman.

If I have time i'll go on to post a few links demonstrating that this misogyny from Cohen is not a one- off, hope you don't mind my polluting your comments with this stuff.

Phil said...

Agree with ejh. What's also handy is when somebody like Naz Shah, who's relatively new to the whole thing, reacts by taking the attack at face value: "oh my goodness, I'd never thought it could be read that way/it came from those people/etc, I do apologise for any offence I've inadvertently caused, I'll be more careful in future..." etc. Because then, of course, you've got a Good Leftie in the bag, and you can go up a gear from "why won't you denounce X?" to "she's denounced X, why haven't you?"

Which is why people like Corbyn, who have been round the block a couple of times, are very, very careful what they say in response to stuff like this. Ken Livingstone has a longstanding policy of never apologising for anything, ever - not that it's done him much good recently - and I think bad-faith attacks like this are a large part of the reason for it. Corbyn's approach seems to be more on the lines of "don't say anything until they find something you've actually done or said, and even then don't apologise unless they've actually got you bang to rights". So far it seems to be serving him well.

flyingrodent said...

If I hadn't been trying to keep it relatively brief, I'd have mentioned the ludicrous levels of exaggeration (Jacobson in the NYT was particularly egregious but not exactly unusual); the total lack of any context (there's never any acknowledgement that Israel/Palestine as a topic is a loony magnet on both sides) and a few recent incidents where these types of claims failed the moment they were subjected to any kind of official scrutiny (the recent Labour students rumpus, which ended with no case to answer and a sudden deathly silence from the people who had formerly been so vocal about it).

If I have time i'll go on to post a few links demonstrating that this misogyny from Cohen is not a one- off, hope you don't mind my polluting your comments with this stuff.

Please, feel free. Nick doesn't often say something so flagrantly stupid that even his mates won't defend him, but it's always hilarious when it does.

(Administrative note: Apologies if people's comments are being eaten, two of mine have vanished into the ether today. The blog is about twelve years old, so I should probably think of moving elsewhere at some point).

ejh said...

Have they gone into Spam? You can hoick them out if they have.

organic cheeseboard said...

OK so as with other things I have nowhere else for this to go, but our mate Aaro has been outdoing himself in recent days on Twitter with regard to Owen Jones's largely correct piece on the groupthink of journos. It seems Aaro's complaints about Jones can be boiled down to the following:

1) Owen Jones is the most poltiically partisan and politically significant writer around. (re "neither of their lordships is remotely as active or (I’d argue) significant politically as OJ. Nor, in the case of @Dannythefink as partisan")
- As Aaro helpfully notes, this is in the eye of the beholder. But how can he possibly suggest that Danny Finkelstein is less politically partisan than Jones? When George Osborne was Chancellor, he spoke on average at least 6 times a day to Danny the Fink, who at the time was a leader writer or the times and ran a Tory thinktank too. The pair were close enough that Osborne "had much admired [Finkelstein's] Mum and who she admired in return" - that's Finkelstein from this year. David Cameron made him a Lord. Aaro might like to pretend that Finkelstein is not partisan politically but it is so obviously not the case that it's almost not worth saying. Aaro's point here seems ot be that because they don't go on the ground campaigning, somehow two members of the house of Lords are less 'politically active' than anyone who does, but this is such obvious bollocks it again doesn't even really need saying.

1.5) that's before we get onto journos who Aaro doesn't mention. Like the obviously partisan john rentoul, who so slavishly follows Tony Blair's word that he's ended up praising dictators for their amazing % of vote share. It is quite incredible that Aaro can't see how 'politically partisan' someone like that is.

2) Jones can't be objective, unlike e.g. aaro who is always objective in interviews and when presenting TV shows, gives the other side a fair hearing, etc. Again, there are so many obvious examples to the contrary re Aaro here. how about his programme 'no Excuses for Terror' then. From this clip (, Aaro's 'both sides of the argument' approach sees him say 'something has gone badly wrong' and angrily side with every single speaker he interviews, who are: alan 'not the Minster' johnson (eustonite), Kim Howells (hawkish Blairite type), Eve Garrard (Eustonite), norman Geras (Eustonite), Rory Miller (anti-UN cos they love Palestinians, focus on non-Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians), john Strawson (mocks the idea of Israel as the 'baddy' in the ME), Shalom Lappin (Eustonite). now that really is balanced programme-making! Owen Jones take note. all you need is to only interview people you agree with and then loudly agree with them, and you've made a non-partisan programme.

3) Jones is engaged on a Corbynite version of Trump's "delegitimisation of all established media for political reasons".
This is the thing that most irritates me about Aaro's responses here. Anyone challenging the UK media's groupthink (on various matters but not least Corbyn) must be engaged in 'delegitimization'. This is so weird and the only other industry in Britain that seems so stubbornly to think that criticism = 'delegitimization' is politics. But equally, surely there is another side to this that aaro is less willing to consider - that from the start, the entire UK media bar Owen Jones and Dawn Foster have been trying to 'delegitimize' Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party in general. and any pushback on this = trying to 'silence' the media. I think we've seen these ideas in use before, can't think where.

flyingrodent said...

Correct across the board, I think. Aaro is certainly right to call Jones a partisan but there comes a point where it’s a bit like complaining that Jaws is a shark. It’s not like Jones has tucked in his fins here and is pretending to be an elephant seal, and Aaro’s continued hectoring in this point looks completely insane when he’s also e.g. failing to notice that two of his fellow columnists are peers of the realm.

I’ll be fair to Aaro here and note that his radio show, whenever I’ve listened to it, has been reasonably good. For whatever reason, he’s never had anyone he’d strongly disagree with on that I’ve heard, but I have noticed him letting things slide that I’d normally expect him to dig his heels in on. One in particular involved a guest describing the actual makeup of the Syrian rebels, in tones that Dave would certainly take as a direct insult if they’d come from a Twitter Egg. So he is at least capable of biting his tongue around experts.

Which brings us back to Jones, because the thing that really leaps out is that Dave simply has no respect for him as a person or as a fellow professional, and regards him as a nuisance to be stamped upon. Dave has clearly got the worst of this one, for the reasons you’ve laid out above, but he clearly believes he’s been landing blow after blow on his opponent. It’s obviously impressing his mates but to anyone even half-familiar with Dave’s blind spots, it’s oddly reminiscent of Ken’s demented need to keep talking about Hitler no matter how crazy it made him look.

It doesn’t make much sense until you consider that Times editorial asking How *dare* these upstarts suggest that the Paper Of Record could be wrong, and doesn’t have the right to print whatever inflammatory racist propaganda it wants to. There’s very clearly a culture at that paper that encourages its writers to see themselves as wise sages dispensing reason and justice, rather than just a shower pompous dickheads repeating a received wisdom that has been proven again and again to be deeply flawed *at best*.

organic cheeseboard said...

there comes a point where it’s a bit like complaining that Jaws is a shark

Yes - though to expand, it's like another shark wearing a 'I'm a haddock' t-shirt complaining that Jaws, who is wearing a T-shirt that says 'I am a shark', is in fact a shark, and why can nobody see how awful this sharkiness is.

I'm glad to hear that aspects of Aaro's output aren't all that partisan. But surely he needs to think a bit harder about the networks he's a part of. I saw him chatting to Dan Hodges on Twitter today for instance - and it is abundantly clear that Hodges is more politically partisan than Jones, to the extent to intentionally misunderstanding myriad basic ideas in order to stick it to Labour and defend the Tory government. Just because he's not a party member doesn't make this any less politically partisan than someone who goes out campaigning.

Dave simply has no respect for him as a person or as a fellow professional

Jones has an awful lot of haters. James Bloodworth had an ultra obsessive focus on him for ages (so much for JB's recent 'some sections of the left love kicking successful people' eh); J*remy D*ns also. I think part of this is because Jones took the slightly less usual route into journalism of, er, working for John McDonnell instead of working for the Tories or Nu Labour, but for the life of me I can't understand why the obsessive hatred of him. I think part of it might be to do with his 'wearing a T-shirt saying I'm a shark' thing - that until now, journos have been allowed to pretend they somehow don't have allegiances and are totally subjective. While it's always been clear that this is totally untrue, journos have been allowed to pretend otherwise.* But I fail to see how this is any different from E.G. Rupert Myers, who was a vocal Conservative (in 2014 "Deputy Chairman of the Bermondsey & Old Southwark Conservative Association", so far more a part of the Tory machine than Jones is of Labour), being taken seriously across the board. I feel the only difference really is that Jones supports Jeremy Corbyn most of the time - that really is it, isn't it? Maybe Aaro feels a paternal 'I was once you' thing, given that he considers Corbynites to be the same as his own youthful Communists - but still.

It's also that Jones is young, I think - or young compared to most opinion journos and certainly young compared to the old lags at the Times. One of the things Jones could have focused more on, I think, is the ageism at work in the current system of journalism in this country - so many hacks, even young ones, defending this culture of earning your stripes as a reporter at a local paper before progressing to a national and then switching to opinion. But why should that have to be the default career path? Most opinion journos I read on a regular basis make basic and often intentional factual errors in their writing on a weekly basis - it's not like these 'apprenticeships' have made them somehow reverent for 'the truth'. And it's not like a lot of current e.g. Times writers didn't get their gigs because of service to the Tory party, e.g. Daniel Finkelstein and the utterly wretched Claire Foges (former speechwriter for Cameron, frequently talked up in the past as a potential parliamentary candidate for the Tories, but again seemingly not someone who upsets Aaro).

*I've seen a shift in sports journalism on this front - e.g. Robbie Fowler's embarrassing displays on R5 this week, and in the way Talksport and 5Live now seem happy in general for their presenters and pundits to say who they support

organic cheeseboard said...

There’s very clearly a culture at that paper that encourages its writers to see themselves as wise sages dispensing reason and justice

Totally. And a chumminess that belies the current, ridiculous, ad campaigns promoting a variety of viewpoints. A mate has hooked me up with his sub, and there is no such variety. You might see some articles opposed to the current Tory regime, but these are in the service of the Cameron wing of the party - there is a consistent hostility to anything that Labour do, shared in columns and leaders alike. The Times is a partisan paper.