In a distinctly un-Friday 13th Feeling, the @Podnosticators Three gathered for the 78th time to pick through the familiar themes of politics and social media, separately and intermingled. Spoiler alert: this episode may contain rants.
The rest is politics
Sam started by reviewing the remnants and the impact of the recent U.K. party political conference season. Least said about the Liberal Democrats’ opening event the better – not least because it didn’t touch the sides, of either our or the media’s consciousness. Though as Sam pointed out, several commentators have noted that the LibDems’ decision to try to occupy the centre left when disastrous Jeremy Corbyn was dragging Labour further left has come back to haunt them.
With Starmer reclaiming the centre left and the Tories lurching ever further right, there’s clear space – in terms of ideology and electorate – to occupy, and nobody’s making a play for this traditional kingmaker zone of British politics.
We then consider the Tories’ week in Manchester. Comic writer Armando Iannucci – creator of the legendary Thick of It and In the Loop – declared satire to be dead, and that he’d have never dreamt of setting a Tory party conference in the very city where a flagship policy designed to benefit that city was axed in a keynote, leader’s speech.
But sure enough, Lame Duck PM Sunak cancelled the Birmingham to Manchester link of the £100bn-plus HS2 rail project … from the lectern in Manchester. He came over as the modern day Beeching anti-matter – announcing £30bn on branch lines – but as many had already been budgeted and spent, it all rang a little hollow from the Thin (and Short) Controller.
You couldn’t make it up
Former (and future?) Tory party member, Nigel Farage, was much in evidence throughout the week at Manchester. He was officially there in his capacity as a ‘journalist’ for GB News, though his speechifying (not to mention dad dancing and crooning to I Love You Baby with Priti Patel) won admirers.
Indeed, the head of the Conservative web community – one of the darker recesses of the light web – said NF would be leader in an open vote of party members, and that might well be the future for the Tories in long-term opposition, first led by Suella “Hurricane” Braverman.
Manchester also saw the resurgence of Trussonomics. Tone-deaf Liz doesn’t seem to remember she and Kami-Kwazi Kwarteng crashed the economy just a year ago – and she certainly shows no contrition or remorse for the bizarre array of policies that characterised her shortest-ever-premiership. She was welcomed and fêted by low tax Tory MPs, 60 of whom pledge their allegiance to vote with Truss against any more tax rises in the rest of this parliament. This effectively removes Sunak’s majority, neutering his room for manoeuvre.
Perhaps the only saving grace for Sunak – destined to limp on for up to 15 more months – was that absent former MP Nadine Dorries’ book wasn’t able to launch at the conference “for legal reasons”.
We may have to wait into November for the appearance of The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson. Sadly, it doesn’t look like she’ll get legal clearance on this explosive bonkbuster before the 19 October by-election caused by her reluctant second resignation in mid-Bedfordshire.
Sunak is leading a Zombie government, and the polls – with consistent 15-20% leads for Labour and the party ahead on every issue – would seem to concur. As leader of the de facto Brexit Party, most of the British public appear to agree that it’s time to put this government out of its misery after 13 miserable, miserable years.
Team Sunak has undoubtedly read the following chart and wept.
Sam then considers the Labour party conference, a mix of confident and competent, and generating grudging positive headlines from most quarters (the Mail-Express-Telegraph trifecta notwithstanding).
There were two dangers or traps the party could have fallen into. First, appearing too triumphalist before the starting pistol’s even been fired, Neil Kinnock in Sheffield-style (“You alright?” No, Neil, we’re still not). And second, announcing too many costed policies.
Tories and Tory media had been goading Labour for weeks – and will carry on doing so right up until polling day – about what exactly they’d do if they won the next General Election. Without actual sight of how much money there is(n’t) in the coffers, opposition parties around the world are understandably reluctant to commit to uncosted, unbudgeted plans.
There was talk of changing the rules on tax for non-domiciled residents of the UK (bad luck, Sunak in-laws!) and using that £2bn to cut NHS waiting lists and commit to an extra two million operations annually. 1.5m new, affordable homes are also on the agenda. So there were some actual policy announcements after all.
All eyes focused on Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and his conference keynote. Barely had he started than a radical pro-democracy protestor had stormed the stage, started shouting, and tipped glitter all over the former Director of Public Prosecutions. After first looking alarmed, Starmer brushed himself off, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and got on with the task at hand. Very much the perfect metaphor for what he and his party would like to be doing come 2025.
Neville points to a considered piece from the Financial Times which concludes that Starmer is a solid mechanic and not a showman; that after years of chaos – from Cummings to Brexit, Johnson to Truss – perhaps this is what hope looks like. Neville is thoroughly disillusioned by the current shower in charge (at least in name) and was thoroughly impressed by the performance and vision of Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves. Sam observes that she has the approval of former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, whom Cameron’s money man, Gideon Osbourne, sweated blood to get in place. Ah the irony!
Thomas enjoys the Campbell-Stewart discussion on a recent episode of The Rest Is Politics in which they concluded – and he agrees – no-one in the current cabinet has any kind of ideology. The Crosby-Levido “war on woke” is generally a fuss about nothing – making problems when they aren’t there – and he relives a grilling BBC journalist Victoria Derbyshire gave Michelle Donellan about her repeated, Trumpian untruths about Labour plans for seven different types of bins and banning meat.
It is an X-platform; it has ceased to be (Twitter)
Social media enthusiast Neville reports on a fascinating experiment recently conducted by U.S. National Public Radio and its myriad regional affiliate stations. In April, when Twitter was still Twitter, one of Musk’s few remaining employees tagged NPR as “state-affiliated media”. Understandably objecting to this bracketing with the media mouthpieces of Putin and Kim Jong Un, NPR asked this to be changed. When Twitter refused, NPR quit Twitter. Not with a rant (like us), but with a whimper.
For Neville, this was quite a seismic moment. For years, Twitter (and particularly the DM function) has been used by journalists as a covert means of connection to sources, leakers, and whistleblowers. NPR chose to remove itself from the increasing chaos of the platform.
The result after six months, according to the Nieman Report study, was most certainly NOT seismic. Audiences and engagement are hardly changed – down very low single percentage points; effectively a rounding error.
NPR is experimenting with Threads, the Twitter (X) rival from Meta, and Neville feels at home there, too. He’s particularly fond of the recent release of audio transcription functionality. And he’s very much on the verge of quitting X altogether, not least because of the distasteful, unmoderated hate that’s filling so many users’ timelines.
Inside the heart of the attention economy
Neville and Thomas talk about the EU flexing its muscles over fake views and news (and we’ll come back to that shortly), and Thomas talks warmly about a WNYC Studios podcast about fake and inauthentic content plus misinformation being peddled about the Hamas-Israel conflict.
Thomas and Neville conclude that, in increasingly unmoderated format and without legal oversight – “They have no idea of how the sausage is made!” rants Thomas – X is systematically rewarding the algorithmically-driven battle for attention. For Neville, X is rapidly degenerating into a cesspit.
Then it’s Sam’s turn to rant. For him, ALL social media platforms use variants on the same category of algorithm, progressively serving ever-more extreme content based on eyeballs and stickiness.
If you build an attention economy, shit happens. If you let it run unfettered, really bad shit happens, but Facebook (as it was then) claimed it had removed all ‘self-harm’ content in the wake of the tragic suicide of teenager Molly Russell in 2017. It hadn’t. This is what – for Sam at least – social media platforms are like and about.
Thomas focuses our attention on the new EU Digital Services Act and the 24-hour ultimatum served recently by the bloc’s Technology and Information Commissioner on X and Meta to take down misinformation and disinformation purporting to be reporting on the Hamas-Israel conflict. They haven’t so far, and though the prospect of a fine of 6% of total, global revenue is potentially attractive, perhaps WIRED magazine’s (predictable) labelling of the EU’s stance as “empty threats” is rather closer to reality than Thomas would like.
VAR, TMO, MCC
Sam attempts to goad Thomas into a further rant by asking him how his pro-regulation stance is going, but Thomas zags rather than zigs over to tech and sport.
The ability of AI to enhance human judgment and minimise poor refereeing and umpiring decision-making is much in the news right now. The Rugby World Cup in France appears to offer a successful model for open scrutiny, with match officials and video assistants holding slightly surreal conversations in earshot of 80,000 spectators.
Some argue that rugby is a slower game with more natural breaks than football (soccer) and this is why the system works better with TMOs (Third Match Officials) in rugby than VAR (video assistant referee) do in footie.
Thomas cites the inexcusable lapse of the VAR system, which incorrectly ruled a perfectly legitimate onside goal for Liverpool’s Luis Diaz as offside at Tottenham last month, changing the course of the game but without recourse to change.
The release of the Keystone Cops audio of the clowns unable to make and then reverse a decision does nothing to restore confidence to a crumbling system.
Sam sees this as a failure of substandard tech (Champions’ League VAR seems altogether superior), a failure of leadership (it’s very definitely not intent-based leadership, the current vogue for giving more junior team members their head – the way airlines have for generations), and a failure forced on us by what Thomas dubs the hyper-financialization of football.
Neville brings our discussion to a close with reference to a recent interview that Match of the Day host, Gary Lineker, gave to the U.K.’s Daily Mirror. Lineker can’t see VAR being scrapped – far too much has been invested in it – but there’s a dire need for more openness, honesty, and transparency.
We pack away our rants and pledge to get together in another month or so, by which time … who knows how much more suffering will have been inflicted on the Middle East, X may truly be no more, Sunak could have thrown in the towel, but Luis Diaz’s goal will still be on side.
Some things are hardy perennials.
Listen to episode 78: