During the Matrix Churchill affair – a conflict of interest and bit of political skulduggery so tepid compared with what’s happened in the intervening 20 years – the Tory MP Alan Clark conceded that he had been “economical with the actualité” in answer to Parliamentary questions.
Lying about arms export licences to Iraq seems almost innocent compared to the stodge we’re served up daily by our demagogic masters in the fibbing 2020s. Even if Clark was branded by his wife as a “total Ess-Aitch-One-Tee” in a puff-piece documentary in the 1990s, not least for his endless affairs that were satirised by Private Eye as “discussions about Uganda”.
We start our examination of the uses and abuses of data big and small with a focus on politics in the latest outing of the Small Data Forum podcast, episode 47.
Sam is inspired by the writing and the message in comedian Stewart Lee’s tragedy vehicle, his weekly Observer byline. In a recent column picking through the ashes of Labour’s shambolic performance in British local elections, Lee takes aim at Prime Minister Johnson’s record as one of the worst – and most transparent – liars in British political history.
“Johnson showered our body-strewn streets with costly vaccines, like a negligent drunken father suddenly treating his starving children to a spaff-up Saturday dinner at McDonald’s,” excoriates Lee, concluding that: “In a civilised democracy, a shameless pariah such as Boris Johnson should not thrive.” He truly is more Trumpian than we had ever dared to fear.
The comedian’s contempt for Johnson also catches the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, in the crossfire. Describing her as “an undaunted Johnson fantasist”, he aims both barrels at her inability to call Johnson what he is – a liar – arguing: “Last week, Kuenssberg spaffed 2,000 words up the wall of the publicly funded journalism toilet of the BBC while avoiding calling the prime minister categorically dishonest and finding more than a dozen gently teasing synonyms for lying.”
In her jolly-old avoidance of calling a spade a spade, Lee recounts Kuenssberg dubbing Johnson “a ‘fibster’, a ‘pseudophile’, a ‘verb fluffer’ and a ‘truth felcher’. The ‘white thighs of Johnson’s desires are too slippery to grasp the dance pole of truth’. The ‘wallpaper paste of Johnson’s lie-spaff rarely sploshes on to the decorator’s radio of fact’. And Johnson ‘orders the truth to suit his ambitions’.”
Always in thrall to Johnson’s disgraced spin doctor Demonic Goings when he was the wonk in place, it seems as if the chief political correspondent of the publicly-funded British broadcaster has now become Johnson’s leading apologist.
Perhaps the timing is no coincidence. As Sam observes, the Tory party loathe the BBC and have long considered its beating liberal heart to be antithetical to its aims – jobs for the boys, contracts for sisters of health ministers, “I’m alright, Jack”. With Auntie under fire for Martin Bashir’s deceit to secure an interview with Princess Diana – including from the next-king-but-one in wall-to-wall media criticism – the very future of the BBC is on a knife-edge. If former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre really does become chair of Ofcom, start singing the funeral rites for the licence fee and public service broadcasting in the UK.
Neville wonders if anyone cares about Johnson’s well-documented mendacity, and Thomas reminds us – in the words of Nate Silver – that the facts don’t speak for themselves: we imbue them with meaning.
Thomas takes us back almost a decade to Sonia Purnell’s book Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, which laid everything out for all to see. Herr Stoeckle even experiences a bit of cognitive dissonance himself over Johnson’s former boss, Peter Oborne, who describes Johnson as both “the best journalist of his generation” and at the same time “the biggest liar and fantasist in British political history” in his book, The Assault on Truth. It turns out to be faux-cognitive dissonance – it is possible to hold both of those opinions – but we take his point.
Sam suggests that Labour leader Keir Starmer is a man out of time – honest, decent, interested in facts and forensic detail at what (for Neville) is the globally-embarrassing weekly spectacle of Prime Minister’s Questions. Indeed, the British public seem prepared to put up with clanging dissonance and support Johnson, at least as long as Starmer remains in charge of Labour.
Sam predicts that Starmer may well not last long, echoing a prediction from arch-Cobrynista Dianne Abbott, who has predicted an early bath for the former (excellent) Director of Public Prosecutions should Labour lose the upcoming Batley & Spen by-election and the Red Wall becomes increasing blue. Starmer’s successors? Perhaps the two bright spots from the recent elections – Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, recently re-elected as Mayors of Manchester and London, respectively.
For Thomas, Kuenssberg’s article reveals a darker side of politics. It’s now not about authenticity and WYSIWYG. It’s much more about what former BBC Director General, Mark Thompson, dubbed “authenticism”.
Rolling out the academic tropes, he moves on to accuse Johnson of “epistemic insouciance”, not giving a fig if you’re wrong or lying or telling a whopper, simply applying facts and data and arguments for your own ends. As lap-dog Laura said, “Johnson ‘orders the truth to suit his ambitions’.”
And though Johnson may have given Classicists a bad name – something that Mary Beard and her former pupil Natalie Haynes have fought against tooth and nail – Sam takes us back to classical Athens, to show that it was ever thus. Remembering the Peter Oborne of the day, Thucydides, and his eight-book masterpiece The History of the Peloponnesian War, Sam reminds us of the demagogue, Kleon. A liar, a cheat, lampooned by the Spitting Image of the age (Aristophanes) and at the same time a political darling in times of crisis and plague.
Neville’s eye has been caught by a new tell-all book that reveals what Barack Obama really thinks of Trump. Atlantic staff-writer Edward-Isaac Dovere’s forthcoming Battle for the Soul shows that Obama held his tongue in public, according to the convention of former presidents not criticising their successors.
Behind closed doors, at Democratic party fundraisers, Obama called Trump a “madman”, “a racist, sexist pig”, “that fucking lunatic”, and “a corrupt motherfucker”. The tide is receding on Trump and financial irregularities are now being investigated by New York state attorneys as criminal; a 9-11-style commission is actively looking into his affairs. Meantime, Neville is actually more interested in which titles were prepared to say “fuck”, which preferred “f**k” (particularly the prudish Irish Times), and which – like the Independent – didn’t use any fucking swearwords at all.
Far from thinking we’re sinking into a cesspit, Thomas urges Starmer to get his Obama on and call Johnson “a fucking liar” at next week’s PMQs, while Sam is happy that Victorian prudery no longer requires wooden table legs to wear skirts. He also extols the virtues of the book How To Swear – a recent birthday present from his teenage son – and strongly recommends the NSFW, NSFH(ome), NSFA(nywhere) TEDxUniversityofGlasgow talk by Kate Lister, “An honest history of an ancient and ‘nasty’ word”.
Reflecting on Obama’s appearance on David Letterman’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, in which he signally failed to attack Trump, Sam finds his recent outburst all the more impressive. No cognitive dissonance there, just a clear delineation of what to say in front of which audience. Something all teenagers learn about the big and clever world of swearing by trial and sometimes fucking hilarious error.
We change gear and tack, but not far.
Thomas is obsessed with social acceleration and the increasing pace and rate of change and focuses his gaze on repeated and compounding polling errors in general elections. He goes a bit Carrie Bradshaw and ponders: “Is the world moving so fast that the polling industry just can’t keep pace?”
Inspired by a new piece in The Conversation, Neville reports that public opinion polling truly is in crisis, with the worst predictions in 40 years at the 2020 US Presidential Elections, a topic we’ve touched on more than once before. Major news organisations predicted Biden would win by a double-digit margin, when in fact the true delta was around 4.5%.
Sam wonders whether the shy Tories / embarrassed Republicans / right wingers wary of pollsters dubbed corrupt and overly-liberal by Trump and Johnson and others are simply looking to avoid … guess what … cognitive dissonance all over again. If they don’t say how they’re going to vote but vote that way out of selfish, private, “I’m alright Jack” motivations, they don’t have to live with themselves as hypocrites. He reminds us of statistician George Box’s maxim, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.
As we wind down, Thomas has early praise for Daniel Kahneman’s new co-authored tome, Noise, and gets the chance to air his love of Isaiah Berlin’s foxes (and disdain for hedgehogs) all over again.
Perhaps it is the Bayesian mindset that will save us, using, as the 18th century mathematician and clergyman encouraged: to adjust our models and positions based on new data. This is most certainly the spirit of the age, as exemplified by the Good Lord Spiegelhalter and his messenger on radio and in the FT, Tim Harford.
Which brings us nicely to our conclusion, cast in the form of another symptom of the Zeitgeist and the news that Cass Business School is changing its name. Cass was an early industrialist and philanthropist. Part of that philanthropy was made possible by his being a director of the Royal African Company, a company that traded mostly … in slaves. From September 2021, the prestigious business school will become, appropriately enough, the Bayes Business School.
BBS, not BBC, and able to adjust itself – fox-like – to the past, present, and future by taking on new data and modifying its model of the world. Or, as Thomas didn’t say, its Weltanschauung.
Listen to Episode 47:
Watch the recording of Episode 47 on YouTube: