The old rules don’t apply

For once, it appears, the Small Data Forum three are ahead of the news.

So often in recent months and years, we’ve recorded an episode on a Friday morning and by the Sunday night before publication we’ve had to make rapid edits to the show notes because … a president has been impeached, a special adviser been sacked, or a new lockdown announced.

But today – today feels different. Is it because we were recording first thing on a Monday for next-day publication? Or is it because so much news had happened of late that we had the timing right for once? Time – of course – will tell.

On day 110 of Russia’s war on Ukraine – a topic that doesn’t delay us beyond a heartfelt appeal for the nonsense to stop – Thomas opens proceedings by reflecting on Prime Minister Johnson’s “victory” in his vote of (no) confidence handed to him by his own members of parliament.

Well, 211 MPs (59%) voted for the bloated bloviator, while 148 (41%) wanted to see the back of him. A smaller majority than that recorded by Johnson’s lame duck predecessor, Theresa May (a 63%-37% split), who was history less than six months on.

Indeed, according to fashion and style bible Tatler – a hapax legomenon in the annals of these show notes if ever there was one – it was May who was ‘the real winner’ of the vote, by virtue of turning up to the vote in a ball gown.

No confidence, Prime Minister

Thomas wonders if Tatler is right. Sam reflects on the badly-kept secret that Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, delayed the announcement that the threshold of 54 letters (15% of sitting Tory MPs) had been reached until after the double bank holiday jubilee weekend … so as not to spoilt the party.

Given the reception given to Daddy Pig and the latest Mrs Johnson on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral during a service to mark Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee – a chorus of boos and disapproval, whatever sycophantic parrots such as culture secretary Nadine Dorries may have tried to claim – it seems as if Johnson is not a popular premier. Particularly as those members of the public who were rubbernecking outside St Pauls are so c/Conservative.

Sam believes that the Great British public that Johnson says he’s there to support and “level up” most certainly aren’t the winners, especially if – as hinted by Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell – Johnson was under the influence of illegal class A drugs in his interview with Sky TV’s Beth Rigby immediately after the results of the vote were announced, sniffing, wide-eyed, angry, and claiming “a very good result”; that really would take contempt to new depths.

For Sam, the real winners are probably the political commentariat, of which we at the Small Data Forum form a tiny corner.

Neville took a look at Google’s latest news results for the PM shortly before recording, and it makes for grim reading for Johnson, a figure caught in the crosshairs of negativity. He predicts that Johnson will limp on … until he doesn’t, a moment which may well come if the Tories lose two, critical by-elections, one in the so-called Red Wall constituency of Wakefield (where Labour currently holds a 20% lead), the other in Tiverton, where the Liberal Democrats look like the probable winners.

Both by-elections are taking place after Tory MPs were forced to resign in disgrace. Neville looks overseas, too, and finds foreign media as unimpressed by Johnson – “a walking disaster” – as the British press.

Yet more Eton mess

For Thomas, the Eton mess of British politics is symptomatic of the ‘new normal’ of world politics where the old rules no longer apply, occasional bright spots such as Macron when he first emerged in France to less optimistic, less democratic demagogues from Johnson to Trump, Bolsinaro to Orbán.

Communications and government is run by “wedging”, and this strategy of deliberate divisiveness is one of the stock-in-trades of thPeppa Pig,e commentariat where of course – from the Spectator to The Daily Telegraph­ – Johnson cut his teeth. Johnson, the man who had two speeches written on the eve of the EU Referendum, enabling him to support whichever side won.

Thomas draws parallels with the Italian fascist poet turned commentator, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the subject of a recent episode of Thomas’ new favourite podcast, The Rest is History, presented by Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook.

D’Annunzio switched from poetry to political commentary because he believed this was the route to delivering mass support, and he fell in line behind Mussolini and the Italian fascist movement. Johnson is treading the same path and perhaps even a step ahead, argues Thomas, from commentariat to political leadership. At least for as long as he can do the one thing the U.K. Conservative Party will tolerate – winning elections.

Much though he’d love to see the back of Johnson, Sam refuses to be depressed by his continued tenure at Number 10. We fail to learn from history – as recent as D’Annunzio, as distant as the demagogues of fifth century Athens (Kleon and others), with whom we’ve compared Trump and Johnson and others in previous episodes.

As lapsed classicist Johnson will be only too well aware – or should be, if he was paying attention in his Aristotle tutorials back at Oxford in the 1980s – the longer he holds on with his fatal flaw (or hamartía) of hubris (“overweening arrogance”, playing by different rules), the more precipitous the fall will be.

Neville is concerned about the collateral damage Johnson is causing, inside and outside the country, and he declares the faction Johnson is leading to be more damaging to political integrity than the Momentum Group inside Labour that was allowed to flourish and ultimately fester inside the Labour party under failed leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Neville reports on suggestions that Peppa Pig might make a better PM, and Sam reflects on the prescient brilliance of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and the 2013 episode, The Waldo Moment, in which a potty-mouthed blue cartoon dog wins huge popular support in an election campaign. Thomas takes solace in Tory party grandee, Michael Heseltine, writing in The Guardian, about his party’s ministers psittacine tendencies, wheeled out to support Johnson: “Need to move on. Draw lines in the sand, squawk. Get on with the job, squawk … squawk”.

From Musky aroma to foul stench

Switching domain – but ultimately not gear – Neville considers what’s happened to Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter since we last met.

The signals being sent out – particularly about bots – are strong enough. The arch protector of free speech seems to want to get out of the deal, whereas Twitter executives appear hell-bent on forcing Musk’s hand to make good on his deal, giving “Tony Stark” the platform’s full firehose to evaluate his claims about fraudulent accounts and traffic.

If he does back out of the deal – expected to close in August – he’ll face a fine of up to $1bn, but as Neville observes, that’s just “loose change”.

There’s trouble over at Meta, too, and Sam reflects on the journey soon ending for COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Since she arrived in 2008 – having turned Google into an advertising behemoth – she spent the next 14 years doing the same for Facebook, growing revenues from $500m to $117bn and users from 100m to three billion. OK, she’s had to ride out lynchings in India, Myanmar, Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Brexit, and Molly Russell, but Nick Clegg’s been drafted in to look after “issues”.

The instant Sandberg declared it was time to lean out, Meta’s share price lost 4% of its value, though this is the latest slide from its September 2021 peak at $379 to just $176 today, down almost 55%. Something is rotten in the state of Meta, and Sheryl’s going home.

A comprehensive analysis in The Times covers Sandberg’s career in detail, suggesting she might be “burnt out” or “tired of being the public ‘punching bag’ of Meta” and worse. The article only really hints at suggestions of impropriety and allegations that Sandberg used company time, resources, and personnel to look after her own affairs, including arranging her forthcoming second marriage.

Neville shares the recent Wall Street Journal report which goes into these allegations in much more detail and scrutiny, including the splendid journalistic euphemism of “people familiar with the matter”. For Neville, the backwash from the end of Sandberg’s hegemony may well end up being much more about corporate governance than burn out, and for Thomas, there is a golden thread linking the Johnson and Meta story of the old rules no longer applying in either politics or business.

The sense of entitlement and doing as they please rather than playing by the rules sums up all that is wrong with the world today.

Deeper and deeper fakes

Jumping back from Meta to Twitter, Thomas wonders how possible it may be to separate humans from machines, bots from true accounts, and whether Musk has the time, will, or ability to use his recently-acquired Twitter fire hose to work out the true degree of fake and fraudulent traffic on the platform.

AI and data science appear to be making it more and more possible for machines to pass the Turing Test, perhaps enabling malign forces to embed deeper and deeper fakes into the business and political narrative, posing an existential threat to even free speech fundamentalists like Musk.

In trenchantly dystopian form, Neville reports on the recent suspension of Blake Lemoine, a Google engineer who claimed a computer chatbot he was working on had become sentient; “thinking and reasoning like a human being”, like a “a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics”.

Acknowledging that we’re making rapid progress in AI and have “moved on a bit since Eliza”, Sam is somewhat sceptical of Lemoine’s claims, given that psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy are incapable of agreeing on a meaningful definition of consciousness or sentience.

Sports washing

As we approach the hour-mark, Thomas points our direction towards one, last topic: the attempts by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund to take over larger and larger swathes of world sport and in the process clean the reputation of the country, whose human rights’ record is in many respects questionable.

This has swung into focus in recent weeks with the LIV golf tour, ruffling the feathers and threatening the very existence of the long-established PGA golf tour.

For Sam, this is just the latest chapter in the efforts of many oil-rich Middle Eastern governments turning to sportswashing, from Manchester City to Newcastle United, from horse racing to golf, with apparently much more money to come and many more events to be bought.

He reminds Thomas and Neville of the forthcoming football World Cup in Qatar and the entirely coincidental fact that FIFA President Gianni Infantino now lives in Qatar. FIFA and UEFA, of course, are long mired in financial controversy and corruption, with former President Sepp Blatter and his aide de camp, Michel Platini, currently on trial for fraud.

Thomas believes that genuine sports fans are finding this financing starting to stick in the craw, and we agree that the public mood is different today (e.g. the takeover of Newcastle United) compared with 2008 (when Manchester City were bought).

Golfers with career earnings of $75m taking signing-on fees of $150m for the LIV golf tour and saying “I must think about my family” are beyond the pale. Thomas recounts his recent visit to watch his beloved “little” SC Freiburg (€100m annual turnover) take on the corporate shills of RB Leipzig (€300m, thanks to Red Bull) – sadly losing 4-2 on penalties. Mention of German football offers a flicker of hope. Bundesliga clubs – uniquely in Europe – are 51% fan-owned, and this model adopted more broadly could minimise opportunities for sportswashing.

On the terraces in Berlin, Thomas heard mutterings of German football fans who’ve decided not to watch this winter’s – yes, winter’s – World Cup in Qatar. There is a sense that now may really be “the time for the public to take a stand”.

But Sam isn’t convinced that enough, non-commentariat sports fans will boycott watching or attending events that are bankrolled by sportswashing sovereign wealth funds to make any kind of meaningful difference to audiences or advertising revenue.

You know what? The old rules really don’t apply.

Listen to Episode 58:

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