Sunday 17 August 2014

I'd rather be a blogger

This weekend's article on the Libyan intervention was very much worth doing. It is less an article about the NATO intervention than it is a commentary on the lamentable standard of journalism we see today. 

The piece took a lot of research and took two days to write and is part of an on-going research effort but, as expected, it was barely read by anyone. That is why it was worth doing. It's a telling experiment. I did a second piece later on, taking only five minutes of my time, which is very much clich├ęd, very flimsy, and one that, also unsurprisingly, gave me a record number of hits for this blog.

This tells me all I need to know about why our media is as bad as it is. Why would you go to the trouble of writing well researched informative articles when you can make more money with fact-free idle speculation and partisan dogma? That is what it takes to make a name for yourself as Bob Thomas noted in the comments yesterday: 
"All too often it is delegated to young journalism graduates who lack the necessary scepticism and lack any kind of specialist knowledge".
I am not normally inclined to be so personal on Internet comment threads, but what you are describing here cannot be justified by the youth of the protagonists. The airheads who write what we now call "journalism" are self-entitled pigmies who should at the very least have the good grace to understand how little they know.
I have worked as a writer for several years now and was initially shocked to discover (naive is not even the word) that what one reads, printed on page and screen, is in fact written by idiots like me - people who have a "way with words" (even if I do say so myself), but very little practical knowledge of anything other than writing. Unlike me, however, the people who write for "prestige" titles like The Telegraph and The Guardian feel "entitled" to spout off about all kinds of nonsense - Owen Jones is apparently an "expert" on everything from Gaza to Global Warming and just last week he was given space to inflict upon his readers the most irrational drivel about the desirability of operating a nationalised cellular telephone network. Idiotic does not even begin to describe the gleeful ignorance he is so keen to demonstrate. Yet, the lad has become a "name" and enough people read his column for it to be printed week in and week out.

When I first started writing professionally, working for much smaller outlets than The Guardian, I was so painfully aware of how little I knew that every sentence was fact-checked (by me) and every word carefully chosen to ensure that only a precise (or, more often, imprecise - if you are very self-conscious about not wanting to be "wrong in print", a little "wiggle room" is what you really want) meaning was conveyed. After not very long, it became all too apparent that, when one of my colleagues did not know something, rather than calling around to try and speak to people who may know more, they would just guess. Or, to put it another way, they would make it up. It doesn't half save on time and effort, and seeing as most writers are lazy and most editorial offices demand that writers work to strict (often self-defeating) deadlines, such practices can at least be understood.

Fundamentally, there are sound reasons why a young journalist might lack specialist knowledge. However, there is no excuse for a lack of scepticism. Am I uniquely pugnacious or difficult, in the sense that I do not necessarily believe something simply because someone in authority tells me it is true? I doubt it very much, but who knows? Regardless, the question that the current state of reporting inclines me to ask is: why are the journalists employed by legacy media outlets almost exclusively feckless, incurious, complacent and conformist?

More unthinking codswallop from nobodies' favourite Telegraph blogger, Tom Chivers, today. He cannot be excused for either his youth or his inexperience. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that these people take an inordinate amount of pride out of the perception that they are part of an "elite" club and, as far as they are concerned, integrity of opinion or accuracy of reporting are minor details about which only "little people" worry.
The problem is twofold. On the one hand we have junior copy writers and online editors fresh from university with honours and distinctions who are essentially idealistic know-nothings. They have been primed with all the industry jargon, they have been given all the insider tips and have been shown how to construct copy with all the latest techniques, but somehow have sailed through, passing all the exams and still they lack any sense of scepticism or ability to weigh the quality of a source. 

Rather than hitting the books and educating themselves, they are media consumers, constructing their own worldview from the same recycled media that suffers from this creeping decay. And this produces the "news" on which our second tier commentariat base their worthless opinions. It would be funny if it weren't quite so damn dangerous. These people hold great prestige within the Westminster bubble and their offerings are what informs our brain-dead political class.

I do not accept that there is a sound reason why these young guns posses no specialist knowledge. At the age of seventeen you could show me a picture of any military vehicle from 1938 to the present and I would be able to tell you what it was, what it did, where it was used and in most cases where it was made. I could name every regiment that fought at the Battle of Arnhem and every minute detail about the Normandy landings. This was in the days before the internet when we primitive savages were forced to read books and watch VHS documentaries. To this day I still know an unhealthy amount of detail about things that fly, and in an office where I am the only one who does not hold an advanced aerospace engineering qualification, I am the one probably the most informed on matters pertaining to aviation. 

These days it is fashionable to diagnose a passion for a subject and a thirst for knowledge as some sort of condition, and geekery of any kind is sneered at. I grant you that nobody can be expected to be an expert on everything, but being an expert on something at least provides you with the mental architecture to transpose methods of learning and thinking onto other subjects. Why is it that these young hacks are so devoid of curiosity? It is essential to be a rounded person, let alone a journalist who is supposed to be curious for a living.

A good journalist should build up a strong catalogue of expert sources to ask, but these days declaring yourself a journalist is to become a self-appointed expert in all things. There is certainly no peer pressure to actually know what you are talking about, and taking time out of the circuit to ensure that you do know what you're talking about is a career harming move.

For more than ten years now, headed by Richard North (my old man), we have run I do not take credit or ownership of his work, but it is very much a team effort and our expert readers are absolutely indispensable to the process. We have always taken the view that if we are shown to be wrong we will say so loud and clear, and thank the person who corrected us. Thus sifting through the media noise becomes a collaborative effort. The Qanagate story could not have been broken without a huge effort by our readers who were instrumental in piecing together the evidence. Every sentence is a long debate and sometimes a heated argument at 2am.

Very few journalists now do this. So afraid to be seen to be wrong, they will take an editorial line and pad it out with untruths, distorting to whatever degree it takes to maintain the illusion of infallibility and authority. So much so that those offering helpful advice and superior knowledge are chastised by our betters and sometimes met with hostility by them and their acolytes. 

Being wrong is forgivable, but an arrogant refusal to admit it is neither forgivable or excusable. But our establishment media sees it the other way around. To write for a prestige title means to never admit you are wrong and keep pushing a false narrative at all costs, no matter the damage it does.

We would be the first to admit that we don't necessarily know what we are talking about. In fact we say so quite often as a means of motivating our readers to tell us. This is how blogging works.  Everything we do is a work in progress and the line changes when the facts do. My series of posts on Israel's use of various unguided weaponry has come into question and that will force me to re-evaluate the arguments I have presented. I will have to assimilate new lessons and see which parts of my hypothesis still stands. But our media doesn't need to do this. It can simply dump its canine excrement on our pavement and move on, leaving others to clear up the mess.

Most of the research we end up doing is to correct media narratives that evolve from sloppy, careless and arrogant hacks, but seemingly it is they who reap the benefits. Of course we could join in the chorus of stupidity and write the same low grade tat they do. It's easy to do, it's cheap to produce and it gets more exposure. 

That is something both Richard North and I absolutely refuse to do. The market is saturated for lightweight crap and you can take your pick for that kind of halfwittery. In fact, we have seen clueless nobodys climb the greasy pole from obscurity to being top scoring bloggers with occasional mainstream media columns in less than two years. All you have to do is produce lightweight cliched crap, align it to a political party or cause and repeat mantras without question, adding no original research.

I do not wish to join their ranks. When friends and associates catch me whinging about this dynamic on Facebook they are keen to tell me that I should make my posts snappier, shorter, less wordy, less detailed and less "hard core". Put simply, they think both RN and I should write superficial lightweight crap all the time that's easy to digest and requires no intellectual effort from the reader. We're not going to do that. Not now, not ever.

These oh-so-wise individuals tell us that if we did make our content more accessible, more people would read us. Well this overlooks the fact that we have been blogging for over ten years and we know considerably more about it than you do, having broken national and international stories and producing most of the heavyweight research that informs much of British right-wing debate. started on Blogger but since then it has migrated to a custom engine, built entirely from scratch, coded and designed entirely by me. I monitor every post we do, every hit we get and every link we get. We know what works and we know what doesn't.

What does work is the lightweight superficial crap people tell us to write. What doesn't is lengthy, well researched hard work. People then presume to tell us that more people would read that kind of work if we co-operated more with others and wrote more easily digestible "snappy" work. Well let me put this to bed right here. That doesn't work either. 

People will read the lightweight stuff if we produce it, but if we publish that in tandem with North standard work, it is completely ignored. The only way it sees light of day is when it is stolen without credit by mainstream hacks (who get it wrong). James Delingpole is the only one with the decency to link back to us.

This actually makes both RN and I utter fools. We have both turned our backs on a very comfortable lifestyle by refusing to play by the rules. We both spend more time on this than we do earning a living, and if I put the hours into my day job that I do sifting through primary sources I would have a new Audi in my driveway that works, as opposed to the old one sat there which presently does not.

So why do we do it? Well, we do it because we know that while we do not get the credit, our work does ripple out. We see signs and clues that some in high places bothered to read our work even if they would never admit it. That is a reward of sorts. But what is ultimately rewarding is reading the Telegraph and knowing that not none of these facile and superficial clowns have the first idea what they are talking about. What we do is born of that oh-so-unfashionable thirst for knowledge thing. Everything else is self-serving, preening, egotistical masturbation.

This does mean we will continue to toil in obscurity doing what we do, thus our lack of exposure is entirely our own fault, but if you ever despair of our low-grade and infantile media, don't forget that you are 50% of the problem.

UPDATE: It seems my good friend Danny Weston is on the same page as me.

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