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Tuesday December 08 2009

I spent a while wondering whether what follows was worth posting at all, but although it looks at familiar stuff, maybe it does this in a not completely familiar way.  If you spend the next however long reading it all, but then find that you feel otherwise, then, as my friend Paul Marks would say: My apologies!  And anyway, as I always say when I feel unsure of the point of any particular posting, my most important reader is me.  So, back to what I prepared earlier. ...

Life is full of those First Big Formative Experiences.  First Solo Journey.  First Fight.  First Time You Are Robbed.  First Time Your Realise Your Parents Are Merely Human Rather Than Archetypes.  First Sex.  First Child.  First Time You Kill Someone.  First Big Grown-up Type Battle (like a child custody battle or a radical politics battle or a battle for the control of a business).  Almost all of us have some of these Big Experiences.  Few have all of them.

To this list I now find myself wanting to add another one, which is about when you first participate in a news story, before it breaks, and you then read about it in the newspapers or see it on the telly.  And what you learn is that, just like your parents, journalists are only human, and that they get all kinds of things subtly to totally wrong, just as you would if you were trying to make immediate sense of some drama that you’d only just heard about.

Often what you see, from right next to the touchline or even from on the pitch, is that the journalists themselves had a far bigger hand in creating the story, or in blowing it up out of all proportion, than they ever let on.  They do things like stick shouty exclamation marks after what were actually just bits of normal-voiced conversation.  They increase the point size, as it were, of what was said.  The mere words may be reasonably accurate.  But the tone of how they were spoken is a flat-out lie, often deliberate.  They often then take the made-up screaming of one side to the other side, and by the time they have done their work the screaming has become genuine.  (This is one of the things you often learn about those Grown-up Battles.  There are often people people who make a living out of such battles, and who hence have a vested interest in creating them out of next to nothing.  See also: divorce lawyers.) The business of the media, after all, is selling news, and if there is no news, they are constantly tempted to create it, because they can.

All of which doesn’t just poison their first blundering reportage of the thing you saw before they did, but carries on poisoning everything they subsequently say.  For if the media have previous in reporting a previous version of the story in some deliberately false way of this sort, they will be reluctant to change this version, in the light of new facts, however obvious.

The internet now universalises and greatly amplifies the above experiences.  The internet connects you to the gossip of the participants in any story you happen to be interested in, before the mainstream media get involved in it because of something dramatic suddenly happening to the story.

Consider that ruckus that Dell Computers suffered a few years back.  It went roughly like this.  Various people bought some particular variety of Dell computer, and lots of these computers went wrong in the same way.  Dell at first tried to bluster it out.  No big problem, nothing fundamentally wrong, a few malfunctions but not a widespread problem, blah blah.  But the victims of this mistake were now internet connected, and they all told each other about their identical problems.  What would have been lots of separate and futile failed conversations about the damn computer merged into one very successful conversation.  Within a few days, Dell was obliged to retreat.  Yes, there is a big problem, grovel grovel.  Send them all back and we’ll mend them, send you another, etc.

The key thing is the internet connectedness of the complainers, to each other.

Had it been left to the regular newspapers, the Dell story would never have been put together quickly enough to count.  First, newspapers don’t connect readers with each other, only with newspapers, and that only very clunkily.  Second, newspapers don’t want to piss off a big advertiser, so they give prominence to the nothing-to-see-here excuses of the big company and only slowly, if ever, do they put together the real story.  And what if they just did an admiring profile of Dell, and what if that involved a, you know, deal of some kind, spoken or unspoken, maybe involving more and implausibly over-priced advertising?

Climategate illustrates a lot of the above.  Many a climate scientist, you suspect, had one of his Big Life Experiences, when he said, in what he thought was mere conversation but to a journalist, that maybe temperatures and sea levels might rise, and yes, I suppose they could rise quite a bit, provided this and provided that, and if we were all really unlucky, can’t completely rule that out, blah blah, and he then read his words back the following morning, with him personally quoted and everything, like he’s Someone Important, as: We Are All Doomed!!!!  At which point he obviously says: Fucking liars.  But perhaps he also says: But, maybe, come to think of it, useful fucking liars.

For a long time, the dubiousness, the fake certainty, the sheer made-up-ness, of the AGW argument was known to a few sceptics, and to their more numerous but frankly rather resigned readers (such as me), who learned the alternative story, very approximately, but who could think of no way to do anything with it except place tiny blog-bets on it eventually proving to be true.  But the sceptics and us readers were all connected, just like the dubious scientists that we were complaining about, and when that treasure trove of CRU internal information finally emerged, we were ready at once to make entire sense of it.  And because the regular newspapers were all part of the story, in the form of the nonsense they had been printing about it over the years, and especially in the form of the particular deluge of nonsense they had saved up for this Copenhagen meeting (which was the very same circumstance, presumably, which precipitated the CRU leak), they couldn’t and still cannot allow themselves to report adequately even those bits of the story that they have approximately now understood.

The other crucial thing about Climategate is that Important People Now Read The Internet, that is, people who make actual real-world decisions.  When big cheese politicians start making decisions differently, because of Climategate, and despite the silence of the old-school media, then Climategate becomes impossible for the old-school media to ignore.  Carry on ignoring Climategate completely, and the old-school media risk becoming a complete and very public irrelevance, like a Dell computer that is never going to work because Dell refuse to admit that there’s a problem, at which point people in large numbers (the key decision makers in the case of the Dell story) just refuse to buy any more Dell computers because they don’t trust them any more.  (Which didn’t happen with Dell, I hasten to add, although I do seem to recall being told that Dell are doing a bit less well than in the past.)

The answer is for the old-school media to become part of the new-school media, as the clever people in the old-school media pretty much all now are.  Instead of moaning about the internet, they (the clever old-school-but-now-also-new-school journalists) have become avid internet readers.  When the internet gets excited about something, well, there’s another story.  No need for them to apologise for having been led by specialist bloggers to a big story.  That is now their job.

I get the very strong feeling that in the USA, the old-school media people are determined to be irrelevant, but that in Britain, the old-school media people, some of them anyway, are fighting quite hard to mutate into new-school people.  In the USA, new media start-ups seem to be making most of the gains.  In Britain, old-school media organs going new-school are making a much bigger impact. 

James Delingpole is now a perfect illustration of this trend, of old-school mutating into new-school.

One of the features of the new-school media is that they are global, certainly global in the sense of reaching everyone on earth who can read and type in the language concerned.  You can become an Anglosphere media force-to-be-reckoned-with, without ever leaving London, or for that matter without ever leaving Dubai or Naples or Timbuktu.  Ditto the Hispanosphere, the Sinosphere, the Hindisphere.  You can smash media rivals in other countries in your language sphere without even going there, any more than those Japanese motorbike companies had to open factories in Britain or America in order to smash the British or American motorbike industries (the language of motorbiking being universal).  One of the features of Climategate is how it has bounced around the world, with a bunch of politicos in one spot inflaming the story everywhere,

I’m sure I could bring this posting elegantly in to land, with some further reference to some Big Life Experience, but I can’t think of anything along those lines.  Simply stopping will have to suffice.

There will be more and hopefully rather more coherent Climategate blah blah from me Real Soon Now, because this evening I will be doing a recorded conversation with Bishop Hill (whom Delingpole has been linking to quite a lot lately).  Should be interesting.