CNN eventually called the 2020 US Presidential election result. One of the boons of that nail-biting week was the discovery of CNN. Wolf Blitzer's pomposity jarred at times, but the resemblance to BBC coverage of General Elections ended there. A dapper, white-haired 'map geek' gesticulating before his 'magic wall' and schooling us on the peculiarities of the electoral system, John King is now a household name. But a more significant feature of the media outlet is that, unlike the poor old BBC, CNN has the freedom not to be balanced.
Hear the other side
. Such was the old adage demanded of students training as lawyers, philosophers and theologians. Every judge knows that it is dangerous to adjudicate after hearing only one side of any story. But the BBC has managed to bring the adage into disrepute.
An interview in the UK often begins with the questioning of someone of standing in a particular field. In the interests of balance, we are often then subjected to tin-hatted bloviators. Lies, conspiracy theories, ignorance, vox pops: all of which gets too much airtime.
These faulty attempts at balance have arisen because the BBC has failed to notice something important: that the adage is not 'hear every and any side'. Courts do not allow trials to take place simply because someone has brought a complaint. A minimum standard of credibility must be reached before a 'side' is taken seriously.
Mercifully, the courts in the US find that they need not spend much time on Trump's fraud complaints because they do not meet the evidential threshold required to justify the time and expense of a trial. So, they were summarily dismissed. If any view aired on any given topic on a news programme is similarly baseless, then it too should be dismissed. But the BBC cannot bring itself to do so.
Why not? Primarily because many media executives are unable to distinguish truth from dross. One explanation is that most have not been schooled in critical reasoning. If they had been exposed to it, it was likely while studying the humanities.
But since the 1970s, the humanities have been in the grip of postmodernism and relativism, schools of thought that deny there are objective standards of evidence that can be referenced when justifying a belief or theory. For such theorists, there is no distinction between truth and falsehood, which in turn has led to the post-truth BBC world: any view is as 'valid' as any other.
Probably intended to elicit the opposite effect, this kind of coverage is not only damaging to public discourse, but terribly boring. I'm switching back to CNN.
Between you and me…
A favourite pastime of most humans, if they were honest, is gossip. Lockdown has likely curtailed the habit in situ, but it has managed to persist elsewhere. Last weekend, the newspapers were full of it: gossip masquerading as 'inside story' journalism with various outlets entertaining us with the dirty doings in No 10 Downing Street.
Most of it could not be described as 'news', stretched as that concept has become. The news was simply this: Dominic Cummings has abruptly left as Boris Johnson's chief adviser, which he should have done months earlier in the Downing Street rose garden. The more serious commentators laid bare his and Johnson's ferocious shortcomings and the damage they have wreaked on this country.
But most newspaper coverage was about the PM's fiancée, her grotesque, sexist nicknames, and the like. Even the once mighty Observer
led with Allegra Stratton, Johnson's new media person, greetin' about – whatever.
Gossip is on a spectrum: from amusingly useless snippets of revelation (did you know a Holyrood minister has a partner who sits on a committee unrelated to said minister's brief?) to the downright vicious, pernicious falsehoods ('background briefing') deliberately circulated to damage an individual who is without power to retaliate or correct the record. Hear the other side? Pfft.
Watching the first episode of season four of The Crown,
I was dismayed that it looked as though it would be based on the regurgitated gossip and side-taking on Diana's doomed, ultimately fatal marriage to Charles. To a large extent it is, but a far more engrossing story was the character of Margaret Thatcher, played magnificently by Gillian Anderson. I'd wager that Maggie had little interest in gossip. Character matters in politics. What these politicians and figures of authority do out of bed – not in it – is the real news.
How we celebrated the demise of a deranged Trump. Still, the win was tarnished not by his indecent desperation to hang on to power but by the moral warriors of the left. Up they popped with their puritanical disdain, in newspaper columns and social media, deriding celebrations of Biden's success. Talk about dampening the spirits. It was like the Rev I M Jolly had turned up at your shebeen.
Whether it should or not, character does indeed matter. Character differences between Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson, for example, are a significant factor in the popularity of the former. Similarly, Biden's character has already set the tone of a new era with the world sighing with collective relief. Does that mean he's a socialist? Of course not. Does his win entail that class will regain its rightful place as the most pernicious inequality, prompting a rethink of redistribution in US politics? Probably not. But if Bernie Sanders is included in Biden's cabinet as Labor Secretary, there is cause for some optimism.
Truth be told, socialism is a hard sell to the general population in most countries. One reason is obvious: both the German and Russian regimes' catastrophic murder of millions in its name are embedded in the collective psyche the world over. They make the invasion of Iraq seem like a square-go in a playground.
If socialists want to be taken seriously as a political force and gain power, they ought to bring the case for a contemporary socialism shorn of brutal 20th-century international baggage, a fixation with foreign policy, and their disdainful, finger-wagging from atop their moral Munros.
For sure, as the rest of us celebrate Biden's success – a success which is two steps forward for this troubled world – the one step back will inevitably follow. With that I entirely agree with the doom-mongers.