First Bush. Now Blair. What is happening to the world?
Actually, the feigned surprise could be considered disingenuous. This author does not generally perceive politicians as knaves or fools. Mostly, they are decent and intelligent people trying to do what they think is best. Of course there is sometimes corruption and incompetence, but most of the many failings of government can be attributed not to individual failings but to the intellectual climate, both in shaping politicians' false conceptions of appropriate ends and means, and (perhaps more importantly) in shaping the public perceptions that they have to satisfy. What is surprising is not that these people have shown their intelligence, but that they have used that intelligence to reach unpopular and unconventional conclusions, and moreover that they have felt able to go public with them. What a pity that politicians with the freedom of not seeking re-election are not reported more often.
(It is this, by the way, and not whether you agree with what he did, that makes Blair's valedictory excuse - "I did what I thought was right" - so feeble and irrelevant. It is outcomes and not intentions that count.)
Anyway, what Mr Blair is right about is a decent chunk of his analysis of the role and behaviour of the modern media. Not in the regulatory solution at which (as so often) he hints. But in his assessment that there is a problem.
The media have said sayonara to subtlety, dispensed with detail, kissed goodbye to considered analysis. Everything must be immediate and black-and-white. In echoes of Hollywood, there must be "good guys" and "bad guys", a very simple plot, and two-dimensional characterization.
That is not to reject the notion of right and wrong answers. This blog believes emphatically that alternative philosophies and solutions are not just different, equally-valid opinions and approaches, but better or worse, more or less valid, opinions and approaches. We are not moral and intellectual relativists.
But we also believe that the truth of a story is unlikely to be apparent immediately, without consideration. And yet 24-hour news forces immediate assessment. The reduction of the opportunities to break stories forces the traditional media to distinguish their contribution through opinion and stance, which must themselves be decided on within hours. In reality, it might take days, weeks or months to understand what happened or what is proposed, and one can scarcely do useful analysis of why it happened or the merits of what is proposed without understanding the objective details first. In medialand, there is not time to wait for that understanding. So one must rely on what comes easily to hand - padding out the incomplete details with assumptions relying on personal prejudices.
There was a nice example last week. The Institute of Physics held a debate between what the media might describe as global warming "sceptics" and (if they were inclined to balance of caricature) "alarmists". Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT spoke for the sceptics and Professor Alan Thorpe of NERC for the alarmists. Michael Meacher chaired. Generous time was allotted for each speaker's presentation, so they were able to address the detailed arguments in a way that is rarely done in a public forum.
What came out most strongly from both speakers, and from other interventions, was the uncertainty. Neither was claiming to have the answers or that the debate was over. Their assessments of the likelihoods and the balance of risks existed at different points on the spectrum of probability, but not polls apart, and not without the possibility of adjustment. The same can be said for most other experts in this field - they will argue passionately about the merits of various analyses, but there is no suggestion that the issue is settled.
Extraordinarily, given his past position on climate change, and to his great credit, this was the point that Michael Meacher chose to emphasise in his summation. He even admitted, whilst affirming his commitment to the precautionary principle (OK, so he's not perfect), that he was surprised at the extent of the uncertainty. One of the experts in the audience (a moderate alarmist, if one had to generalize) observed privately, with a little contempt, that it was sad that he was unaware of the extent of the uncertainty, given his long interest in the issue. But Mr Meacher having demonstrated that he has an open-mind, and Ministers being dependent on the information that is provided to them by civil servants, lobbyists and the media, one has to ask whether it was the fault of the politician, or of the people who supplied him with information, that he had never until then been exposed to the extent of the uncertainty felt by both sides in the issue. Perhaps a bit of both, but anyway there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents....
The attendance list of the event, which included many of the great and the good on this issue, contained journalists from the BBC, ITN, The Independent and The Observer. But has there been any reporting of the event or this conclusion? Not as far as I can see. Has there even been any sign of a change in the black-and-white way that this issue is reported? Again, not apparently. The BBC, Independent and Guardian stable papers have carried several stories since then that have assumed as strongly as ever that man-made global warming is a done deal. Their gut reactions and prejudice remain unchallenged by this more complex reality. The easiest way to deal with something that challenges the assumptions on which they rely to paint a simple and immediate story on environmental subjects, is to ignore it.
In those circumstances, can we expect to see Mr Meacher speaking up in public for a more balanced approach on this issue? Can we expect less draconian, more risk-based options to be put forward by politicians and given serious consideration? Not in a month of sundays. In the interests of dramatizing a story to make good copy, the media make it impossible to have serious public discussion of, and proportionate, principled action on the issue.
The assumption must be that the public is too stupid to understand these subtleties. Yet personal experience suggests that most people appreciate intuitively that this is a difficult, technical, grey issue, on which the science is still developing, unless they have been brainwashed by the simplistic, blinkered version peddled by many of Hayek's professional second-hand dealers in ideas (e.g. journalists and teachers). They may want clear leadership, but that is not the same thing as caricaturing the issues and promoting reactionary solutions. The media may be giving people what they want, but it is not because people want half-truths and blinkered views. People want entertaining, so they get half-truths because the media do not have the wit, or (more kindly) do not give themselves the time, to make the subtleties of reality entertaining.
The answer, of course, is not to rely on the immediate media - the 24-hour news, daily newspapers, websites and blogs - for your information on the world. So what are you reading this for?