David Aaronovitch - Metrics will kill us all in the end.
I talk to The Times' columnist David Aaronovitch about individual personalities, detachment and conspiracy, in a pessimistic Britain.
At the turn of the millennium in your travel book “Paddling to Jerusalem” you describe middle England as “A country, for all the public pessimism, surprisingly unafraid about its future”. Would you say our national outlook has changed?
Yeah. After resisting it for a long time I’ve finally given in to people saying I should now do a follow up to my second book about the history of conspiracy theories, because strange theories have become much more prevalent. One of the obvious ways to account for this is the growth of social media, things that simply didn’t exist as conduits of information until now. But without any doubt the main background element to it has been the 2008 crash and its aftermath. The movement of societies in the West largely from a position of optimism about the future to one of pessimism. I’m not saying that we haven’t developed, we’ve probably become more tolerant and so on. But there’s very, very little doubt that we have a much higher degree of economic, and I think social, pessimism.
When I talked to Martin Wolf of the FT I asked specifically about pessimism since the financial crash. He said he’d chart this trend as starting with 1980's Thatcherite, neoliberal globalism.
I think he’d have to admit it’s more complicated than that. After all, the two great contributions that Thatcher made to the European Union were the insistence upon the single market, freedom of movement, and the broadening of membership of the union – in other words, other countries should be allowed to come in. Of her 11 years as Prime Minister, 10 were done before the Berlin Wall fell. One has to remember that Thatcher governed during the Cold War, and one of the things that brought a great deal of optimism was that the fall of the wall gave us the idea that Liberal Capitalism had triumphed. There’s the famous Fukuyama essay that’s always parroted, but there’s a significant truth to it: by and large we think we know which way things are going to go. And all of that was brought into doubt as a result of the 2008 crash. So I’m going to stick to 2008.
How has journalism changed in that time to adapt to this new Britain?
Well journalism’s had its own challenges. In the time I’ve been a journalist there’s nothing that hasn’t changed, often incredibly beneficially. When I first started if you wanted to find out something about the past you’d have to go to the cuttings library in a building like this. There’d be a couple of librarians, and they’d photocopy the cuttings of the subject you were talking about. Your search was as good as their search in the files that they had at that time. Google does what a cuttings library would do – not in the two days it used to take them, but in five seconds. So at one level your journalistic capacity has been incredibly enhanced by technological change, the ability to write things directly.
The BBC has remained – and that’s a very important stability marker in the journalistic firmament. In many ways it’s the thing around which a lot of the rest revolves. The other thing is the internationalisation of journalism. As we go online – it doesn’t matter so much where you are. I’m much more likely to want a subscription to The New York Times than to The Telegraph. And obviously the economics of journalism have changed utterly – advertising is completely different now. Facebook and Google have taken most of the advertising, and newspapers are mostly now subscription models. So most of us now work twice as hard as we did ten years ago – maybe we should, and maybe everybody does. Technology’s set some of us free to have nothing but leisure time – and some of us to have none whatsoever.
We have a very young leader-writer, Raphael Hogarth, who’s just got out of the office to go to the Irish border. And you can see what it’s done for him. All of a sudden his world isn’t confined by the view out of here and the scriptwriter – he’s actually looking at the border where we would be talking about the issues of Brexit. And that puts a different complexion on things – and such things are really at a premium. The amount of time we have available for going out of the office is much more circumscribed.
With the breakdown of a knowledge authority, who are people going to get their information from?
Does that make senior journalists in particular ever-more detached from the world they’re commentating on?
When I went to Egypt in 1999 for the first time, I got on a boat at Luxor going South down the Nile towards Abu-Simbel. And all of a sudden you could see the geography of Egypt, the river: blue, strip of green – which is incredibly fertile, and then bloody desert going into the sunset. And you think ‘Ok, I get it’. Now you theoretically could understand that from somebody telling you, but to see it is something different; it helps.
In Voodoo Histories, you’ve written extensively on the role of conspiracy theories in shaping modern history – and very recently returned to the subject after the David Kelly affair once again entered the news cycle. How do you divide conspiracism from journalism?
My definition of conspiracy theory is a decision to believe a less plausible truth and attribute it to conspiracy. Classic example: Princess Diana and her crash. But at various times conspiracy theories become incredibly dangerous. They create a villainous scapegoat responsible for the bad things in the world, Jews, bankers, etc. And secondly they completely disarm people from looking at the world as it actually is and how it’s actually organised and doing something about it. But at the time I published Voodoo Histories, I kind thought we had it on the run? Perhaps hubristically, but the book did well – the sceptics’ movement was in full pelt. But then you get an American President elected who actually believes in conspiracy theories.
Now, some investigative journalists get very carried away with the idea that there’s some secret world they have to uncover. They’re very prone to people coming up to them and saying “Psst”. And that’s happened a fair bit. There’s a very senior investigative journalist called Seymour Hersh who’s been instrumental in running these theories that the Syrian government’s not responsible for the chemical attacks. And that’s quite disarming because there are people who want to believe it and it gets them off the hook about doing anything about it, and so they pray his work in aid.
How do we divide journalists, especially online, from conspiracist hacks?
This comes to something we discuss endlessly. With the breakdown of a knowledge authority, who are people going to get their information from? How do they distinguish a decent source from what is nonsense or conspiratorial thinking? Especially given two things: firstly, not just a collapse in trust, but a deliberately engineered collapse in trust. One of the things the Russians are very adept at are campaigns of disinformation which don’t necessarily get you to believe their version of it, but get you not to believe any version of it.
But the big question for us is what do you do about it? Do we have kite-marked websites where somebody’s put these big ticks? Facebook are playing with this, Google are playing with this - Wikipedia created the wiki-tribunes system in order to create this element of ‘somebody has gone over this and it’s kosher’.
It sounds like you want to create an authority establishment?
Well that’s the danger, and that’s why I’ve tended to oppose kite-marks. But here’s your problem: not all your information is equal. How are you to distinguish properly sourced,
broadly or entirely truthful information, from stuff that says it is, but isn’t.
I exist because I fit the personality of the paper
What distinguishes yourself as a provider of, good quality information?
Authority? So what does that authority derive from. Intention. It is my intention that I am getting as close to the truth as I can. An institution, which prides itself on its truthfulness should employ me for so long to try and do that. Then I kind of rest upon what it is that I’ve done. But there’s no getting around the fact that in the end this is a subjective judgement. You might find Alex Jones the conspiracy theorist far more entertaining. He is bizarre, but some people think he’s telling the truth, much closer to the truth of it than people like me, that I’m hiding stuff - because I’m hired by Rupert Murdoch, I have a mainstream media mentality.
Do you think an owner of a private news institution will influence the direction of his paper?
Firstly I’ve never met him (Murdoch). I’ve spotted him out of the corner of my eye once in the newsroom. There’s this slight atmosphere when he does, of nervous excitement from people who are kind of anxious or natural courtiers, and there are always such people. But journalism also creates some natural anti-courtiers and so on.
I have only once encountered a serious inhibition within the paper as a consequence of our ownership that affected me, and it didn’t affect me for very long. And that was when the phone-gate story broke, and none of us knew what the hell was going on. It was a newspaper in the group, The News of the World. We would see their people in the canteen. Some of these people you quite liked. So there was a great inhibition about it institutionally, which had to be slammed through. It just had to be got through. And it was the only time I really felt, you know… I had a column coming out the next day about this, and it did come out. But if it didn’t – I might have had a problem.
Does the character of a newspaper evolve to suit its columnists, or are a newspaper’s columnists chosen to fit the mould of the paper?
No, it’s a judgement mostly that an editor makes about his readers. I exist because I fit the personality of the paper, and our readers like the sorts of things I do. And the people we want to keep as readers are the sort who might like what I write.
But you’ve written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, and The Times, amongst other publications – does this mean your outlook has developed over your life or would you say the prerogative of these papers has changed?
You’re in a double bind here. If you say you’re exactly the same, you haven’t developed in 20 years. But on the other hand I don’t really like the left-right narrative, in some things I’m much more liberal than I ever was. I’m much more impassioned about freedom of speech now than I ever was. I now see that just about everybody has their own reasons for wanting to stop somebody else from saying things, and you really have to hold the line against this, against authoritarianism. Certain other aspects of my liberalism are more pronounced, but they have always been with me: pro-toleration, pro-feminism, pro-immigration. But I’m also an interventionist. You see Syrian children being gassed, I do think that’s part of our responsibility.
I’m very interested in why people believe what they do, and that goes right the way through my writing. If I’ve ever got to worry about myself, I might not have developed enough. I might not have taken enough interest in other areas, you do tend to pigeonhole yourself. But that said, as a columnist I can write about almost anything. Right now I think I should have a better grasp of whether it’s possible to have a significant alternative to the economic system as it’s been developed. I haven’t done enough work, and I don’t always understand it. I’m a historian, and as Lewis Namier put it I’ve got quite a good sense about how things don’t happen, but I’m not always as good as I should be on policy.
I don’t ascribe a magic infallibility to what I say
You said you haven’t done enough work, and there’s always a trap there: the more you do there’s more to do. Does this spring from your communist upbringing, valuing work?
It’s also about the idea of duty. My parents’ generation, young during the war, has a very strong notion of ‘you do what you’re told to do’, and that constitutes your main duty: to others over yourself. Now that by and large was supplanted in the 50’s, when you’re owed a duty to yourself, and that people were not to be constrained by political conventions – that women had to stay at home and so on. So maybe there’s been a loosening of the concept of duty. Now my dad was a workaholic and wasn’t at home very much; I certainly imbibe from him a kind of idea that unless I was working all the time I was bordering on the edge of being a siberite. I think of myself fundamentally as a lazy person, criticise myself all the time for it. Despite the fact I hardly ever switch off.
With this changing culture towards individualism, how do you see the public position of a journalist, working for some good other than oneself?
Journalism can inhabit different states. If I’m writing fashion journalism, nothing wrong with that at all by the way – it’s difficult to do, I may have the same sense of mission as somebody like Sean O’Neill our investigations editor doing a big piece on tax evasion; but they usually inhabit almost different universes. I look at the controversialist columnists, everyone always mentions Katie Hopkins – does Katie Hopkins do the same thing as me? I don’t think so. People say ‘Oh you’re so opinionated’, but I don’t ascribe a magic infallibility to what I say. And the idea of getting something wrong, badly misstating someone else in a piece drives me crazy – I don’t think Katie Hopkins would worry about it for five seconds.
The tube is too bloody full to unleash a newspaper.
Because of your general support for Tony Blair, you were accused by Peter Oborne as “unfit to interrogate Blair on behalf of the public” when hosting the BBC’s The Blair Years as you were not an “independent figure”.
I think I was the best possible person to do it. I think I understood the dilemmas he faced and could confront them for what they actually were. Oborne’s the guy I was thinking about when I did my piece this weekend, he believes that Blair started the moral degeneration of Britain from families to immigrants, and I think he’s potty on that. Anybody who defended Blair from that kind of attack became ‘uber-Blairite’. The thing I was trying to do was to judge Blair by the standards I’d have judged any other politician. I said to myself, I’m not going to give him a pass on something I wouldn’t have given to John Major. You see this all the time today when Theresa May does ‘x’, the pro-Corbyn partisans say she’s a sod, Corbyn does something very similar – the Tories say he’s a sod. You can’t really see any intellectual integrity there, so I think I got things out of Blair no one else got. But Oborne was only interested in his position.
Rivalries then: do you think there are battles of personality in the journalistic world, between commentators like yourself and Peter, or you and Rod Liddle?
No, no, no, no. I’m not having rivalry with Rod Liddle, I’m not even having bickering; I just have contempt for him. They decided to stop thinking about the way the world really was in order to create effect. They’re show people, he’s a showman – he’s not in the same business as me. He did a thing on ridiculous Welsh people and how they don’t have any vowels, simply because they use a ‘y’ as an ‘oo’ sound, which is so stupid – they actually have more vowel sounds that we do. I’d be embarrassed.
The idea that politicians are a separate breed of people is just wrong.
Do you think regardless that these personalities affect the news?
News generally, not so much. There are kind of big historical influences as to why we describe ‘x’ is news and ‘y’ is not, and they go beyond individual personalities. Every now and again you might find a single crusading journalist, but we haven’t had one of those these 50 years. Does the personality you have as a columnist matter to your readers? Yes. That’s part of what they’re buying into. Rod Liddle’s reader’s like to think of themselves as ‘saying the things nobody else would say, but I’ve always got a smile on my face’ – until someone laughs at them and they get extremely upset. But his personality, Jack the Lad, matters to them. Other columnists like Owen Jones, or Peter Oborne, whose tone is one of perpetual outrage and grievance. It never stops. I couldn’t describe my own personality, I don’t know what Owen would say. Somebody described me as a ‘tutting uncle’ the other day which I thought was incredibly slighting. I wasn’t happy about it at all but that’s how he saw it. I don’t believe that the readers who like me would like that, but he might be right.
To look to your nephews, it seems young people are more interested in reading their news online rather than in the papers – what’s your impression of online media?
Like me then. If you’re on holiday and you find yourself washed up in a Greek café (a paper) is a great pleasure – but I don’t have time for that. The tube is too bloody full to unleash a newspaper. You might download it on your phone, but I tend to go online early. The way I’ve curated my Twitter timeline is as a recommendation of the best people writing the best things from all over the world.
You’ve written that it is the young that are the true ‘left-behinds’ in politics. Is there no provision for their voice in print newsrooms today either?
The young are not the left behind in our office, I’m nearly the oldest person in the office alongside the editor. The young leave themselves behind by not voting.
In the shadow of the Dunblane massacre, you describe looking down from the Press Gallery of the Houses of Parliament, “not on MPs, but on dads and mums, aunties and grandfathers”. Our representatives are rarely made truly human in the press; do you think it would be to our benefit if they were?
I don’t think of them as anything but really. I was sketch writing at the time, and that was such a terrible moment. We’d just seen a classroom of wee kids in a Scottish village murdered by a mad guy with guns. In that kind of instance, people were mostly thinking ‘how would I feel if that was me’. I saw the faces of those people, I can’t get away from it. The idea that politicians are a separate breed of people is just wrong. If anything, journalists are far more detached than politicians are, because we have to be. We have a kind of gallows humour that kicks in very quickly. There’s that thing from America, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ – we all know about that. Sometimes its hard not to be a little bit cynical. If you look at the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame: why is it there? People read it, people like it. If I want to get 1500 comments below the line, then I have to write a really tonking article on Brexit saying it’s all shit. All my supporters will come in and say ‘yeah you’re right, it is shit’ and all my opposition will say ‘no, you’re a bastard it’s all great’. My metrics will look great. If I write a really good piece on prisons’ policy I’d be lucky to see one tenth of that traffic.
You say to yourself I should do that as well – but actually the metrics are creeping more and more into what we do. Fairly soon we’re going to be able to get really precise measures on pieces that get dwell-time or the which attract subscriptions. You know your bosses are looking at things that are attracting subscriptions. Before, no-one knew that kind of thing. You could say Bernard Levin is terrific columnist – I only read The Times for Bernard Levin. But you never knew how many people that really was, it was all part of the editor’s judgement. But increasingly, they’ll be able to see whether your piece drives subscriptions. And then why on earth would they do the ones that don’t? Metrics will kill us all in the end.