There are four inter-related biases here.
1. Over-confidence. Kahneman and Tversky write:
Most normal people expect others to rate them more favourably than they actually do…Similarly, people rate themselves above the mean on most desirable qualities…People also exaggerate their ability to control their environment and accordingly prefer to bet on their skills rather than on a matched chance event.Rawnsley writes:
When the issue at dispute is whether the prime minister is a bully, it is not terribly sensible to put up Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson as character references to the all-round lovability of Gordon Brown.2. The pseudo-certainty effect. “People consider it prudent to pay more to increase the probability of a desirable outcome from 0.99 to 1 than from 0.80 to 0.85” write Kahneman and Tversky.
This leads organizations to overweight the benefit of suppressing a particular story, whilst underweighting the related cost, which is that such suppression will lead to a backlash of bad publicity.
I’m thinking here of the Trafigura case. Had Trafigura not tried to suppress allegations about it dumping toxic waste, few people would have paid attention to the story anyway: no-one gives a damn about people in the Ivory Coast. But the suppression attracted far more attention than the original story would.
3. A fallacy of initiative. This, say Kahneman and Tversky, is the “tendency to attribute less initiative and less imagination to the opponent than to oneself.” It is, in one sense, the obverse of the illusion of control.
Would-be suppressors assume that the media and bloggers are passive pawns, who can be manipulated easily. They fail to see that they have tricks to fight against bullying. It’s not just Trafigura that learnt this. So did Schillings when they tried to stop Craig Murray writing allegations against Alisher Usmanov.
4. Loss aversion. “Losses generally loom larger than the corresponding gains” write Kahneman and Tversky.
Maybe people exaggerate the loss arising from a damaging story, and underweight the gain from allowing the story to be published; such a gain takes the form not so much of being a good citizen who values free speech, but of appearing strong and tolerant enough to not worry about bad publicity.
Most of us, I suspect, think far worse of John Terry for trying to stop reports of his affair with Vanessa Perroncel than we do for shagging her in the first place; learning that a Chelsea player cheated on his wife is rather like discovering that Fred West didn’t pay his TV licence.
What we see in attempt to bully and repress the media is, I suspect, another example of how animosity to liberty is founded in plain irrationality.
* I can’t find a web version. It’s in (shock) dead tree form in this book and this one.