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January 15, 2008



I sometimes wonder why we all bother getting out of bed each morning when we could simply set up a betting market telling us what was going to happen to us that day.


I'm sorry Chris, but I think you don't understand the function of news. It's not a way of getting cheap, reliable information - it's a way of spreading gossip (see http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/09/reviews/970309.09angiert.html ), and it's pretty good at it too.

If I go to my job/New Delhi/Caracas tomorrow, I can make smalltalk with complete strangers about Paris Hilton, Tom Cruise, George Bush, the US primaries, Benazir Bhutto, Arsenal's brilliance etc... thanks to the press. Most of what we'll say will be apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate, but that doesn't matter one bit, what matters is that we have something to talk about - and, thanks to the press, we have.


"In rejecting this view, the BBC encourages anti-market attitudes."

And you've only just spotted this?

The reason I read your work, Chris, is because I fondly imagined that you had your finger on the pulse. Now what am I going to have to do? Listen to the BBC I suppose...

Will Davies

I think this is a step too far. To argue that betting markets can replace journalism, is rather like arguing that the art market can replace art criticism. Maybe you believe that also, but that's a step towards market relativism that I definitely won't join you in.

That said, there's nothing wrong with pushing your thinking towards potentially invalid conclusions - it's healthy in a kind of Popperian way or simply in order to provoke. I do it all the time on my blog. But that doesn't change the fact that you've surely ended up somewhere rather wrong on this occasion :-)


I think it more correct to view it that the benefits accruing to a division of labour more than outweigh any centralisation and whatever real or imagined negative associated attributes.

Division of labour is obviously both useful and good - particularly in respect of global news gathering. And while technology, for example, is making it easier to agglomerate one's own network of "trusted" sources, it remains a herrculean task to this globally in a rapidly changing world, and I personally, am willing to, and benefit from, outsourcing this to a trusted source - with the Beeb, at present being singularly the best IMHO, warts and all.

Your philosophical beef with the hierarchical nature of organizations may be misplaced, for the structure news funneling of the beeb surely remains flatter than in most commercial print or commercial radio/tv enterprise.

Pinning the blame for big Government on the Beeb, is specious at best. "Smart" people intermediating at the center of a network of correspondents in the public interest produces demonstrably better results than anything the market has been able to produce. Is it perfect? No., but the alternative - be it Berlusconi-esque, Time-Warner or Murdoch is far-more flawed.

Elements of point #3 may be true - but its not a negative unless one is a rather dogmatic ideologue. It only undermines support for - at least - competing free-market media, by its very success and structure providing journalists freedom and an environment unparalleled in the private sector. There is nothing even remotely like the Beeb, nor (sadly) is it likely, ever to evolve. What this implies is important: Do not be idelogically dogmatic in support of free markets is always best solutions, for markets quite frequently do fail, and certain non-market outcomes, despite prevaiiling flaws, are superior when all externalities - not the simple numerical ledger - are taken into account. If the success of the Beeb causes ideologues to pause to consider whether - say for example - private provision of "public" rail transport is in any way desirable taking into account all externalities (positive and negative), I fail to see how one can consider this bad.

Tristan Mills

I think you're onto something.

Betting markets can give a much better indication of what people are thinking than a reporter can. There are other areas where a reporter can give information that a betting market couldn't.

The BBC is systematically biased against markets though.

When the bias is against something claimed as 'right wing' this gets called as being biased against the right, when its something claimed as 'left wing' its the other way.

Personally I see it as a general anti-liberal bias, but I'm sure people would manage to disagree...


I think you've hit the nail on the head. Despite all the money spent on reporters, none of them seems to see it as part of their job to report what the candidates are actually saying, or what they stand for, or what they propose to do if elected. All the reports are based on how the candidates and the voters are 'feeling', who is likely to win, and what the implications of the outcome are for winning other contests. Watching the betting markets would indeed be more enlightening, but of course, you can't bet in the US easily, so if you watch the betting markets you are relying on the judgement of non-US citizens who don't have a vote or a stake in the outcome.
Answer, switch off the TV and your internet betting site and go and lie down until the real contest begins after the conventions.


I wonder why you chose to pick on the BBC. As Cassandra so eloquently put it, none of the arguments you have used don't apply more so to other media. In fact, your arguments are often like that, you take a perfectly good argument and apply it rather inappropriately. I find it an annoying habit.


I agree with what Tristan says: "There are other areas where a reporter can give information that a betting market couldn't."

And that's the human story. BBC From Our Own Correspondent is a good example of that. That's what the BBCs reporters should have been doing - interviewing people and finding out why they're taking part in the campaigns, why they're voting for someone, etc. rather than concentrating on the top-level parts of the campaigns.

I also agree with the comment about the news giving people something to talk about. Example: When in Iran I was able to have a very long, very disjointed conversation about Wayne Rooney and his broken foot. However, in Syria, when someone asked if I'd read Yeats, I was stumped for something to say!


Maybe, the task of the reporters is not to inform.
Maybe their purpose is to say as much as possible of what people want to hear wich is compatible with the reality.
For example: in the USA elections, the first spanish newspaper, the center-left El País, was giving Kerry winner over Bush until the same election day. Its readers were in this way able to delay facing the truth one more day.

john b

"For example: in the USA elections, the first spanish newspaper, the center-left El País, was giving Kerry winner over Bush until the same election day."

err, so were all the exit polls. it was only by about 9pm CET (i.e. 2am UK, 3am Spain) that Bush's win had become apparent - by which point the Spanish papers had presumably gone to press.


Yeah, I know. I remember the faces of the CNN anchors.
But to say: 'high turn out pushes Kerry to the White House' (four columns) seemed to me a little too far. Maybe because when I was reading it I already knew the results.


Hats off, Mr D. Good 'un.


Five eighths of the way down the article before this raised it's head, Chris:

...hierarchical centralized decision-making...

chris y

A proclivity not to participate in betting markets probably correlates at some level with a number of broad political outlooks, frinstance: risk aversion, mistrust of market mechanisms in general, and favouring rationality in decision making. Will this not skew any book made on electoral outcomes, given that people in general bet their prejudices, and the prevalent prejudices of punters in this case will be to the libertarian capitalist side?


I agree with TG, that the BBC is basically giving people what they want. The primaries combine the best qualities of sport and human interest, while giving the appearance of being about something important.

However, what I think that the BBC really provides is a sense of superiority for its viewers over the powerful; that's why its bias is in favour of superficial complexity, doubt, neutrality, drift and compromise.

Matt Munro

Didn't the BBC used to announce the FTSE 100 movement at the end of the main evening news bulletin in the 1908s ?

Matt Munro

1980s even

Ian Bertram

A small but telling example on last night's news, when the reporter announced that some people had even gone out and cleared ditches around their homes to allow water to drain away. Why they should find that surprising is beyond me. Presumably they believe we should all sit on our arses until some government commissar tells us it is OK, even if that leaves us up to said arses in water and sewage.

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