how the death of real tribalism has led to a dearth of real debate

I was at the Guardian Membership event this week with Jeremy Hutchinson and Alan Rusbridger.

Both extremely sharp minds, of course – but Hutchinson displayed the bravura of his hundred years over a hundred minutes of often biting humour; coupled – equally I must say – with a grand and inspiring show of the sincerest humanity.

I tweeted many of my impressions that night, though one thing did puzzle me: it wasn’t streamed live.  Afterwards, a friend suggested that perhaps this was because a lawyer was involved, and – of course – the hall was filled to the gills with people of the same profession.  Where a lawyer goes, so do the precautions of their profession perhaps?

Whatever the reason, it was a grand pity that a record of the event doesn’t remain.  Hutchinson displayed a magnificent mind, at the peak of his carefully-honed stand-up-comic-like ability to deliver, quite deadpan, the funniest of expressions, to an audience quite ready to be tickled.

I expected to find the evening interesting; I didn’t expect to be so amused.

One thing in particular stuck out for me, however, and is the subject of today’s post: one of Rusbridger’s questions addressed the issue of the establishment – the establishment Hutchinson came from and yet spent his life consistently beating back.  From the DH Lawrence/Penguin obscenity case to Christine Keeler, the Dutch spy, Blake, and Duncan Campbell’s unmasking of the security establishment’s nomenclature, the bizarre crowding together of darkly interested parties at the highest levels of government seemed to faze him very little.

Yet it wasn’t all bad.  At fairly important levels, real political debate was sustained: if you were Tory, this didn’t mean you couldn’t discuss issues of intellectual import with your counterparts in Labour or Liberal circles.  And at the same time, certainly from the tenor of Hutchinson’s descriptions, the tribalism of sterile disagreement for disagreement’s sake seemed less patent than now.

After all, we’re always complaining of the current violence of rhetoric and posturing our politicians delight in exhibiting.

Yet I wonder if this was – if this is – really the case: I wonder, actually, if tribalism really wasn’t productively greater then than now; destructively less now than then.

Let me explain.

New Labour and Blair have been praised for much of their so-called socialism by stealth.  Nevertheless, surely one considerable downside was precisely that element of stealth: as triangulation drove parties and people to blur the lines of difference, so it became far more dangerous to engage intellectually with people outside your tribe.  Suspicion you might be on the point of crossing a line of betrayal has over the years increased the posturing and rhetorical violence already mentioned.

Paradoxically, then, it’s been the death of real tribalism – those times when a Tory was always a Tory, when a Labourite never contemplated any other set of values and political attachments, when a Liberal knew what acquiescing to would make them unliberal – that’s made it impossible for us to talk to each other in quite the same way.  It’s almost as if modern politics involves us all taking on the uneasy mantle of intellectual double-agents.

We are so essentially untribal any more, so alike in so many of our worldviews and mindsets, that the need to protest our innocence becomes evermore necessary – at the same as fundamentally futile.

If my voters may think that by talking and engaging with a Tory, I’m sending out a message of future allegiance, where’s the freedom to truly debate the essences of political thought?

Yep.  Tribalism, useful tribalism, is dead; and with it, through our own personal cowardice, a dearth of real political debate.

All we are left with is a society of the morally fearful, where engaging with other souls who think differently from ourselves is just one step too far for a five-a-day planet where everyone, but everyone, must act the same.

the editor’s algorithm

How about this?

How about we took the twenty years of Peter Preston’s editorship of the Guardian newspaper – analysing and cross-referencing every single story that was published, along with every single journalistic angle that was observed and chosen?

Then, just for fun, we could do the same with Alan Rusbridger’s twenty years just finished, at the helm of the same paper.

Yes.  I know.  Two questions arise.  The first being: is it possible?  The second being: why do it?

Firstly, the first.  We’d have to set up some kind of criteria, that is true.  Maybe something along the following lines:

  • each story could be defined in terms of:
    • length
    • wordcount
    • register (ie complexity of sentence structure etc)
    • subject matter
    • visibility (ie how prominent the paper chose to foreground it)
    • how long-running it became (ie a single-article story vs a narrative arc over time)
  • defining the angles would be more difficult, and perhaps I am not the best-placed person to decide this (lack of technical knowhow for starters), but some kind of sentiment analysis could probably come in useful here

The idea, then, and I only suggest the Guardian because it’s the newspaper I know best (it could, of course, equally apply to any publication with sufficient history), would be to create a mathematical representation – an algorithm if you must – of the editorship’s style and heteroglossia that each individual created, developed and left behind them, over their period of time as editor of the paper.

The sum of all their decisions – as well as the decisions of all their teams of course.

In much the same way as Rusbridger’s leaving describes:

Yet, nevertheless, and even so, allowing a singular editorial voice to be extracted, identified, typed, scored and made patent.

That’s my thesis, and one it’d be nice to be able to test too.

Don’t you think?


So there we have it: the editor’s algorithm.  A process whereby the accumulated intelligence and intuition of the Prestons and Rusbridgers of the world could almost be bottled, before being … what?

Well.  An application does occur to me: how about we had an online newspaper – just like the Guardian, in fact, is these days – whose content you could read and absorb, according to the filter of absolutely any historical editor the paper ever had?  Back to the days of CP Scott even.

Or, even, a Guardian edition of today, recomposed at the click of a button exactly as if it had been edited by a Kelvin Mackenzie or a Piers Morgan … or maybe a Ben Bradlee or a Tony Gallagher …

Now onto our why.  “What on earth would this be useful for?” I’m hearing you say (if, that is, you’ve read thus far!).  It’s a good question, and one I’m not exactly ready to answer.  But in the world of journalism and ideas, having an idea like this is surely worth writing an article about.  At the very least.  To be able to identify, at such a high intellectual level, the maths behind so many complex decision-making processes – processes that surely kick into play when a newspaper’s editor-in-chief creates, recreates, develops and sustains over such a long time a media voice of such complicated parts – would be fascinatingly uncovered by a project like this.

To be able to bottle top-class editorial decision-making, that ability to edit reality which often reveals so quickly so much useful truth about our planet and the societies that make it up, would be a grand achievement indeed – not only in order to understand highly competent journalism and its processes better; also, to apply the acquired knowledge to many other areas where high-powered data analysis, interpretation and (what we might term) an “applied intuition” is necessary.

Anyone up for it?  Come on!  Don’t be shy … as it says on my gravatar, I don’t bite at all!

outsourcing our souls

I wonder if the online world doesn’t actually provide us with a sense of structure we can easily doublecheck, and an environment of security most would argue is manifestly not the case.  And in such a context, the offline world becomes a real challenge – a really hard call for sensitive souls to deal properly with.

A case in point.

I spent the last couple of days in London.  I’d never used an Oyster card before.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s a contactless payment system to allow you to travel around the city.

I don’t know, even now, how to properly use it.  I don’t feel confident in its using.  I’d much prefer it to have its own LCD screen, which informed you, as and when you needed, how much dosh was left on it; how much you had spent.

But it doesn’t work like that.

Neither is the Underground – nor the other rail & road services which connect off it – a network I understand with the necessary degrees of confidence.  Perhaps familiarity breeds contentment – who knows?  If I spent some time in London, I’m sure I could see it as a real-world equivalent of a blogging CMS; and be as comfortable with that network as I am with online ones.

So what was the purpose of all this stressful travelling around?  I was attending the last public interview of Alan Rusbridger, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper for the past twenty years or so; an event and a half as it turned out; an event worthy of all the stress I kind of had to endure.

I even got to meet him after the interview; he was pressing the flesh patiently as any politician must.  In a sense, then, being an editor is like being a politician; in the same way, perhaps, as a pope like Pope Francis shows a religious personage can also be political: politically attuned, at the very least.

Before the occasion started, convivial drinks were had by convivial people you’d probably expect to attend such a gathering.  I’m not sure I am exactly that sort of person; but maybe oddballs fit into the Guardian‘s left field too.

The interview lasted around ninety minutes and covered a lot of ground.  It reminded us of historical idiocies: of libel actions built on the sands of massive lies; of the phone-hacking stories; of the Trafigura super-injunctions which in themselves were super-injuncted (if I remember rightly …); of Snowden, the surveilled past he described and the rabbits-in-headlights future we are now living; of that awful billowingly fuel-laced 9/11 frontpage; of this and that and so much more.

What shone through all the way was a steely humanity: a necessary thick skin even notable editors sometimes fail to entirely acquire.  I’m not sure I’ll ever have it; so really not sure I’ll ever be what – otherwise – I might have easily been.

But in the absence of something one would wish to possess, one can only admire more fully those who demonstrate it really can be done.

After the event itself, we went up for the complementary drinks.  In the mix of disinterested and interested souls, there was the whiff of self-representation amongst some of those who attended.  I always feel a little bit uncomfortable on these occasions: it seems bad form to approach someone who’s celebrating their tenure in order to exchange a business card.  But I suppose thick skins do make the world go round.  Or something …

Yes.  Most people seemed older, and didn’t care too much about the impact of their words; but there was one young and gently thoughtful thirteen-year-old who spoke so clearly on the matters he had witnessed, it cheered me up immensely.  As someone who’s part of a generation which has so failed the world, I can only hope more of these youngsters grab what has been our manifest and rank failure, and manage – in some way – to turn it round.

I see my own weaknesses, and wonder if I can ever turn my back story into history.  I’m not sure it’s possible: it’s easy for people to play mind games with me; such an easy sport that like fox hunting, it should surely be outlawed.

Though they do say they want to bring it back, don’t they?

My question, then, I suppose is this: how can we create a world where the mind-gamers don’t trash and poison normal human relations?  How can editors help to edit reality so it reaffirms instead of damages human discourse?  How can the sacred role of journalistic endeavour bring us real truths that’ll pan out like the nuggets we really deserve?

How can we stop the bad editors taking control – of going so far as to outsource our souls?  And how can we ensure that the mischievously good, clearly the Mr Rusbridgers of the world, win on our behalf the battles we need fighting?

Answer me that, and we’ll have solved half of everything that’s currently hurting.

Fail to provide any cogency – and people like myself, at least, who probably see and comprehend far too much of what really happens out there, will simply shrivel away in a morale-sapping decay we could easily call a final resignation.