1. Think Tanks do not, these days, generally get a good press. They have been increasingly seen as cheerleaders for the exploitative causes of billionaires such as Charles Koch – with funders of more progressive causes such as Soros and Gates being in a tiny minority
But Enrique Endizabal is a well-intentioned technocrat who, a decade ago, set up an interesting Foundation called On Think Tanks to
“study and support the development of such policy centres”
It is a very active website and had just published the 2019 report on the activities of some 2800 think tanks throughout the world as well as videos from its recent 2020 virtual conference from which I’ve taken just one example – on story-telling about which I have written a few posts eg Passion as Servant of Reason and Stories we Tell
Perhaps the most powerful expose of the role of marketing in perverting our natural inclination to tell stories is Christian Salmon’s little book Storytelling – bewitching the modern mind (2010)
An obvious question to ask those who support Think Tanks is about their ethical practice – about how they can allow into their ranks those who receive money from the likes of the Koch brothers and who are in the business of deliberate deceit?
Sadly I could see no reference to Codes of Conduct in their section on communities of practice
2. Resilience – and the strength of our social systems
My favourite blogger is the Canadian survivalist who has a typically thoughtful post questioning whether the much vaunted concept of “resilience” can really be relied upon to get us through the intertwined challenges which lie ahead for the human race -
What exactly are our “social systems”? They are, in essence, a vast array of tacit agreements on how we will individually and collectively behave. These agreements are built on a mutual trust that it is in the collective interest of everyone to respect them. Some examples:
· Contribution to shared services: We agree to pay a fair amount of taxes, tithes or similar payments to finance what we agree to be “essential services” — our collective health, education, roads, communications and other infrastructure, and “defence” and “security”.
· Abiding by laws: We agree to respect and uphold the laws of the land, even when we don’t agree with all of them.
· Unified response to crises: We agree to subordinate our personal interests to some extent to the collective interest in times of recognized crisis (wars, depressions, “natural” disasters).
· Allow governments to do their best: We respect governments to have the collective best interest of the whole population in mind, even when we disagree with what they see that best interest to be.
· Universal rights and responsibilities: We agree to respect a broad set of rights and freedoms for everyone, and to amicably and peacefully resolve differences when these rights and freedoms are perceived to conflict. These rights include property rights. These rights and freedoms come with a commensurate set of responsibilities, including the responsibility to ensure one’s property doesn’t harm others, and the responsibility to dutifully discharge one’s debts so as to not undermine confidence in the system of exchange.
Since the 1980s — just 40 years ago — most of the population in most nations has moved from a profound respect for these agreements to a position of no longer accepting most or all of these agreements. That is neither a good nor a bad thing in itself, and it is certainly understandable given the current utter dysfunction of most of our human systems. But the prevalence of this new antipathy towards any basic social contracts has profound implications for social cohesion, locally, nationally and globally.
3. An Alphabetical Approach to Journalism
In the world of anglo-american journalism there are only a few editorial names who commanded deep respect amongst journalists over the past half-century – Katherine Graham of The Washington Post; Harold Evans of The Sunday Times and Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian.
The first died 20 years ago and the second 2 months ago. But Rusbridger has just produced a highly accessible guide to modern journalism called “News and How to Use it” - reviewed here by the Guardian
In an age of information chaos, a good newsroom is, to me, as essential as the police force, the hospital, the fire station or the prison.
Covid-19 could not have announced itself at a worse time in terms of the question about whom to believe. Survey after survey has shown unprecedented confusion over where to place trust. Nearly two-thirds of adults polled by Edelman in 2018 said they could no longer tell a responsible source of news from the opposite.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
The official script for journalism was that once people woke up to the ocean of rubbish and lies all around them they’d come back to the safe harbour of professionally-produced news.
You couldn’t leave this stuff to amateurs or give it away for free. Sooner or later people would flood back to the haven of proper journalism.
This official narrative was not completely wrong – but nor was it right in the way the optimists hoped it would be. There was a surge of eyeballs to mainstream media sites, but it was too soon to judge if the increased traffic would remotely compensate for the drastic loss of revenues as copy sales plummeted and advertising disappeared. It normally didn’t.
At the very moment when the UK government recognized journalists as essential workers, the industry itself looked more fragile than ever. Surveys of trust showed the public (especially the older public) relying on journalists, but not trusting them.
Another Edelman special report in early March 2020 found journalists at the bottom of the trust pile, with only 43 per cent of those surveyed holding the view that you could believe them ‘to tell the truth about the virus’. That compared with 63 per cent for ‘a person like yourself’.
Now, four years on from being full-time in the newsroom, I want to bring an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also look at it from the outside. How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical – which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be? This book aims to touch on some of the things about journalism that might help a reader decide whether it deserves their trust, and offer a glimpse to working journalists of how they are viewed by the world outside.
Now, four years on from being full-time in the newsroom, I want to bring an insider’s perspective to the business of journalism, but also look at it from the outside. How can we explain ‘journalism’ to people who are by and large sceptical –which is broadly what most of us would want our fellow citizens to be?
This book aims to touch on some of the things about journalism that might help a reader decide whether it deserves their trust, and offer a glimpse to working journalists of how they are viewed by the world outside.
I have written in these pages about techniques, about transparency (or lack of it), about the people who own the press and how their influence works. I have written about some of the most celebrated practitioners of journalism and realise that, even after days spent looking into some of their work, I still have no measure of how much they should be trusted.
If that’s true of me, having worked in this imperfect trade for forty years or more, how can we possibly expect an average reader to navigate this maze? Should they pick a brand rather than an individual journalist? We have seen all too clearly how institutions change. Titles that were once incorruptible, or at least honestly campaigning – the Telegraph, the Express, the News of the World come to mind – can mutate into organisations that are ethically and editorially challenged. Why, at their worst, would anyone single them out for trust?
And then there are things that, as I’ve come to write this book, I find myself unable to explain. I can’t see why an industry that is fighting for trust and credibility would knowingly employ columnists who, for instance, are ignorant of the truth of climate change. Why would you do that? If journalism is trying to persuade sceptical readers that it is the safe harbor of reality, why would it handsomely reward and celebrate people for writing rubbish?
The book is highly readable – its entries are a series of mini-essays in alphabetical order and can be accessed at News and How to Use it: Alan Rusbridger (2020)