THE SATURDAY ESSAY: Where is the credible internet opposition we need?



Although I’ve been writing website journalism and blogs altogether now for seven years, I didn’t really find a proper niche until late 2007. At that point, I wrote a piece showing how that day’s major story in most of the media was based on one person’s infantile analysis of a table issued by the Government.

To my astonishment (after many years of ‘Not right for us, love’) I found myself bombarded with requests to run the story elsewhere. From this accident alone was ‘bollocks deconstruction’ born. Shortly afterwards, I wrote articles about sun-cream nonsense, rubbishing complete drivel about British expats ‘returning in droves’ from France, and laughing at an idiotic research study claiming that the recovery had started because research respondents said they thought it would. All were published.

At the end of last year, my site’s name and format changed from Not Born Yesterday (nby) to The Slog – short for A Bollockslog. While the range of stuff covers politics, business, sport, international relations, economics, fiscal management (in fact, just about anything where bollocks has been put forward as The Facts) it’s not meant to be a pedantic ‘you got that figure wrong’ site. I see it’s main job as exposing the hypocritical agenda – and/or lack of commonsense – behind the news report, opinion piece, interpretation of events etc etc.

Equally important to me, however (although they don’t get many hits) are pieces written to show the media either colluding consciously and unconsciously in the broadcasting of bollocks – or deliberately ‘misinterpreting’ the reality behind a story in order to make it a splash. While many people think such things are a minority of the media’s output, they’d be quite wrong; I estimate based on my experience that a good 7 out of 10 stories come under one or another of various versions of bollocks, and for a variety of reasons.

The best way to illustrate this is by example. If we take 15 major news stories of the last month (which is almost over now), I would list the key examples where bollocks ruled – in no particular order – as follows:

1. The Glazer/Man United relationship in the light of the ‘Red Knights’

2. The attempted Prudential takeover of AIA

3. The ‘free Gaza’ flotilla and Israel’s response to it

4. The eurozone crisis

5. The charges against Goldman Sachs

6. Islamism in Iran

7. The incompetence of President Obama

8. The real nature of Herman Van Rompuy

9. The EU move to force Cameron’s hand on Budget surveillance

10. The global gold market and evidence of its manipulation

11. The unreliability of US/UK allies in Afghanistan

12. The dismissal of General McChrystal

13. The pre-G20 jockeying

14. The BP oil-spill

15. Britain’s EU relationship in the future

Taking each of these in turn,

  1. The media got the Red Knights’ intentions completely wrong, and didn’t get the Glazer debt angle at first
  2. Most financial titles felt the deal would go through, proper analysis of the deal was risible, and the BBC said the bosses would survive. (They might, but it’s highly unlikely)
  3. Every vessel in the flotilla fleet was owned by Hamas allies, the Free Gaza movement was in turn linked to terrorism, and the Rachel Corrie was acquired under dubious circumstances. The media, by and large, swallowed the Islamist propaganda whole.
  4. The eurozone crisis was on the whole interrogated poorly by the media, most of whom still haven’t grasped that the banks are, once again, the main problem.
  5. The Goldman Sachs charges (which are both numerous and horrendous) were almost totally swamped by other financial and economic dramas, most of which involved thinly-disguised nationalism.
  6. Iranian sanctions stories failed to grasp the reality: that if the current regime falls, the opposition in Iran is unlikely to be any better.
  7. Obama’s fiscal and foreign and foreign policies are rudderless, and his advice to the EU contradictory. Few press media have analysed this reality.
  8. Van Rompuy remains largely a figure of fun in Britain. Only the Slog has investigated fully what he’s really about – and why….
  9. ….thus failing to grasp how Van Rompuy’s unelected team are steaming forward on a collision course with Britain.
  10. Saudi Arabia’s mysterious doubling of its gold reserves went as unremarked as China’s similar announcement of last year.
  11. The Slog beat everyone to the Pakistan SIS/Taliban story, and saw this vindicated by later leaks in relation to the Karzai regime and Pakistani security agencies. This whole event was swamped by….
  12. …General McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview and dismissal, a story in which to date the Slog is the only European medium to have raised the issue of the General’s state of sobriety….and why he really made the remarks in the first place. (See 11 above for the answer).
  13. Only The Slog and (oddly enough, David Cameron) have opined that the G20 is a waste of time. Only the Slog and one other commentato – Pimco’s CEO – have pointed out that cuts v stimulus is a pathetically two-dimensional approach guaranteed to start a bunfight at the G20 – and achieve nothing else.
  14. The BP oil-spill sent the US media into warp-factor 9 Jingoism, despite the fact that BP is no longer British, the Government had no help to offer, the other oilcos were equally clueless, and US accidents overseas (such as the Piper Alpha disaster) have been equally badly handled. Only the Slog has persisted in pointing out that BP’s clean-up operation is about as clean as a long-life unstable radioactive isotope.
  15. Only The Slog has researched and run pieces proving beyond doubt that the UK could save £50 billion per annum by simply withdrawing from it. Unlike UKIP or the Daily Mail, we have also outlined a practical strategy for an alternative trade strategy.

So then, is most media reporting bollocks? And the answer is yes. It is complete and utter bollocks that:

The Glazers won’t sell Man United, the Pru’s management will stay the same, the anti-Israel flotilla had anything to do with peace, the eurozone crisis is purely about deficits, Lloyd Blankfein can survive, Iran has an opposition gagging to get rid of Islamism, Obama knows what he’s doing, Van Rompuy is a harmless klutz, the EU and Britain can fudge the fiscal federalism issue, the gold market represents the real trade in this vital metal, the Allies can win in Afghanistan and thus ‘stay the distance’, McChrystal shot his mouth off for no reason, the G20 summit will achieve anything beyond increasing the global sense of panic, the Mexico oil-spill is about BP’s unique level of incompetence, and Britain can grow as it needs to by remaining an EU member State.

That’s an appalling record of misinformation. Why does it happen? There are several key reasons.

The first is that too many hacks are, as ever, lazy: happy to live off press-packs and websites, and increasingly reactive rather the self-starting investigators. In this sense, many have become not so much journalists in the classic sense as order-takers in the worst sense. In the old days of Lunchtime O’Booze, the problem used to be drink-addled brains; these days the problems are dumbing down, being brought up in expectation of others doing things for you, and a consequent obsession with spin stars like Mandelson and Campbell. Quite how Harry Evans sees these folk I’ve no idea, but I’d imagine his views wouldn’t be fit to print.

The second reason is the Internet – and the derisory response to it from old media news formats. This has given the whole offline sector a cash crisis from which it is unlikely to recover…..and because of which new talent isn’t being recruited, good journalists are unaffordable, and news stories get recycled – a classic example being the Monday Guardian, which increasingly consists of pieces run the day before in the Observer.

Since Rupert Murdoch began destroying proper and popular journalism forty years ago, however, there has always been a third problem involving what The Slog calls non-news: celebrity scandal and gossip, the word ‘celebrity’ having been diluted to include anyone who’s ever been on the television for any reason, ranging from giving the weather forecast to appearing once in a ‘reality show’.

Once Murdoch had blazed a trail through the sewers of news, others were keen to follow – and none more so than Piers Morgan, a man whose achievements include destroying the Daily Mirror, appearing on Game Shows, giving braindead televised interviews, getting fired for being duped by false story, and now taking over as chief anchor at CNN – a position for which he is hopelessly unqualified, but which will no doubt earn him yet more fame as….well, Piers Morgan.

Readers may find that last paragraph unnecessarily personal, and if so, they need to wake up. Morgan conducted an ‘unscripted’ interview with Gordon Brown just prior to the UK’s last election. It was a blatantly biased and scripted fantasy version of the life of a man who is at best decidedly odd, and possibly at worst deranged. Morgan had described him previously as ‘a man touched with greatness’, and one who would (he predicted) ‘turn out to be one of the Greats as Prime Minister’.

Piers is a man who was absent when the foresight was being handed out, but he is merely the most ghastly version of a widespread disease in contemporary journalism: one where order-taking from gargoyles like Max Clifford has replaced the real job of printing things the powerful don’t want in print.

The final problem with old mass media is that a great many of the powerful wanting to protect their equally powerful chums are newspaper proprietors. Ownership of a broadcasting machine has always been the favoured role for the disordered, engorged ego, and sadly they are as numerous as ever. They come in various forms – twins, pornographers, owners of Vodka palaces, multinational nationalities, and even Trusts – but their blinkered, biased desire to spike every opposing view is the one quality they all share. These days it is called ‘comment moderation’, but the effect is exactly the same as it always was: to stifle contrarian and creative points of view.

Now that Murdoch has shown his hand and decided on a paywalled multimedia site (shared with other oligarchs of similarly secretive tendencies) we can be clear – as The Slog has been predicting for some time – that his game-plan is to transfer the ancient regime lock, stock and barking proprietor to the Internet. So if the rest of us concerned to keep the medium free and unbiased aren’t careful, the Unternet may yet become a reality.

When Crash 2 does finally come to fruition, the best we can hope for from its aftermath is a world in which, if nothing else, the headcases get away with murder a lot less often, and we find out what they’re up to a lot more often. To date, there are only three concepts I would list as genuinely born-on-the-internet news magazines: The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and Britain’s First Post. All of them have proprietors. Murdoch’s Come & Be in my Gang will make it four. In turn, most of them have now got Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Linkedin and all the rest of the social networks on board.

Whatever a billion yelling bloggers believe, they are already outnumbered. Sorry to be repetitive in these essays, but if we don’t build an alternative network of brands dedicated to truth without agenda soon, the whole web will be stitched up before we can even get going. The fifteen examples I gave earlier applied every bit as much to ‘new’ media: they’re there as glaring truth that the bad old world is about to reproduce itself in the new.