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August 26, 2011


Luis Enrique

I've been quoting this a lot recently. Columnists are, often, bullshitters:

..., bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.

From here:

Adam Bell

There is, however, a question about whether this is indeed self-reinforcing: BBC News dominates the TV news market, despite not ostensibly appealing to prejudice as overtly as Phillips. It may be the case that even Phillips' readers, after an enjoyable race-hating session, go out and vote Labour.

One can enjoy the righteous outrage of Guardian columnists while still recognising how incorrect they are. Similarly, it doesn't seem clear that someone who buys The Sun for the tits will automatically become a working-class Tory as a result of reading their editorial. If there is another source for informed discourse, then news comics are not a threat to our democracy.

Francis Sedgemore

Chris - Do you honestly think that Simon Jenkins and Seumas Milne give a toss about the prejudices of "Guardian readers"? As card-carrying members of the chatterati, their personal desire is to attract attention to themselves, and thus stoke egos. The corporate purpose of all newspaper columnists is to (a) stir things up and create a talking point focused around the publications in their words appear, and (b) compensate for a lack of proper journalism, which is expensive and in many ways problematic. This much is bleedin' obvious.

It has nothing to do with what readers want. Some people are so lazy as to read newspaper columns as a way of shopping for opinions. When it comes to those readers who are a little more original, in the case of the Grauniad, many appear to support the overthrow of Gaddafi. One should avoid viewing Guardian readers as a homogeneous bunch. Media consumption habits are far more complex than that.

Norman Geras is not making a common category error, as you claim. Rather, he is highlighting the way in which the Wykehamist bully Milne and contrarian, anti-imperialist armchair warrior Jenkins manage shift their positions more rapidly than the sands of the Maghreb. To some of us this observation is moderately entertaining.

Comment is free, and content is superfluous.


Nicely nuanced article let down only by your judgemental view of Starkey's comments. On the other hand and in tune with the posting it's your blog so what else was I expecting.

Is the (black) Mayor of Philadelphia spouting more or less bigoted bollocks than Starkey?


Harmonious Jim

I like reading this blog even though it rarely confirms my prejudices, indeed I usually disagree with you. (For instance, I think Starkey was challenging common prejudices, not echoing them, hence the outcry.)


"But no-one has asked: what the bleedin’ hell were Newsnight doing inviting him onto the show?"

Ah, I'm staking a claim for asking this very question, albeit on Twatter rather than my blog. Good post, btw.

Chris Purnell

This blog is a philosophical version of Ben Goldacre's valiant (and futile) testing of assertion about matters scientific. Very refreshing if I might add.

Charles Wheeler

Surely the columnist's job is to shape readers' prejudices, rather than simply reflect them?

Starkey was presumably brought in to supply some sort of (right-wing) historical perspective - which he signally failed to do.


"Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.
But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia."



Your proposition, that media bias is a demand-side effect rather than a supply side effect, has been empirically studied and confirmed in a great paper by Gentzkow & Shapiro http://bit.ly/qeJVw0

Ralph Musgrave

Chris, Re your claim that Starkey is “bigoted”, the word bigotry means holding a view for no good reason. As regards Starkey’s claim that street violence is part of black / Jamaican culture, there are good reasons for thinking this. For example according to The Times, leading article, 30th July 2008, the murder rate in the Caribbean is fifteen times that of Western Europe.

As for Jamaica, according to Trevor McDonald in a TV programme entitled “The Secret Caribbean with Trevor McDonald” (Sunday, 5th July 09) the murder rate is THIRTY TIMES that of Britain.


I think Ortega may have hit on something. Tory Governments are terrible and full of bigots who hate the poor and lots of other people but periodically the public get Amnesia and vote them in some times with the help of the Liberals who must also suffer Amnesia. Despite plenty of experience the same error is repeated. Hopefully someone will invent a cure eventually.

Mr Jelly

fucking hell. it;s like...oh never mind

Rob Marchant

Beg to differ with the premise, Chris. Norm (and I, and others) were not annoyed with Jenkins, Milne et al for being wrong, just for not being gracious enough to accept it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Murad Abel

It would seem that one has to be aware of this business fact. This might be one reason why objectionable is so common in academia but not in the media world. The ultimate goal of the media is to sell advertising space.


This post is, in essence, anice shortened version of the classic Lippmann essay:



Columnists share their views.


Chris: Are we to expect a feline reference in all your posts from now on? Personally, I preferred the references to the tastier soap actresses.

MBT Chapa

MBT Chapa


The military has some usefulness, but NATO is just a relic of the Cold War. Our Warsaw Pact.

Erica Blair

Are you aware that Norman Geras used to link to the far-right 'Gates of Vienna' blog that inspired Anders Behring Breivik?

Norm removed the link shortly after the massacre, but internet archives show it up.

'Gates of Vienna' thanked Norm for directing traffic their way.

I see you link to Norm, are you happy your readers were just two clicks from fascism?

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