Thursday, June 26, 2008


I'll admit that I haven't bought Standpoint and that I'm probably not going to. This could be a problem here because I can imagine times when print articles have some kind of introductory paragraph added by a sub-ed which the online version omits thereby depriving those in the cheap seats (ie me) with vital context.

In the absence of said context, I'm going to have to improvise. Nick Cohen reviews Shooting History by Jon Snow for reasons we can't work out at present. There are no footnotes, links, or other references to where Snow said the things attributed to him - everything should be taken as Ibid.

Snow published his autobiography in 2004; as Nick mentions near the end of his piece, it was reviewed thoughtfully by Denis MacShane in the Independent. Nick gets MacShane exactly wrong by the way, quoting the last sentence from this, the last paragraph:

Now he presents Channel 4 news, the thinking person's Newsnight. The rainbow ties, the stiff collars, the undimmed boyish enthusiasm for great stories and important causes, the trouser bottoms stuffed in socks as he gets ready to ride home to his beloved partner and children, have turned Snow into a national treasure, whose pastoral interventions have more impact than those of most bishops. But after three decades of brilliant reporting, one senses Snow asking himself an awful question. "I have reported the world. But have I made it a better place to live in?" Therein lies the existential dilemma of all engaged television reporters. Like philosophers, they offer an interpretation of the world. Snow, one suspects, would prefer to have changed it.


MacShane’s use of past tense was instructive. For if you want to change the world, you go into politics, or argue your case as a polemicist or join a campaign group.

(Nick has already noted that Snow did, in fact, work for "Lord Longford’s drop-in centre for homeless teenagers". I don't know Snow's reasons for leaving; but he did start at the "doing something" end.) But this isn't MacShane's point. He started with this:

There has been endless chatter, since Marshall McLuhan, about television turning the world into a global village. The science fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke, who first described the possibility of satellites bringing instant reports from trouble spots, argued that the immediacy of such broadcasts would expose the folly of, and thus prevent, wars, famine and violence.

We know better now.

That is what MacShane is suggesting that Snow wanted: for journalism to change things. That wasn't so naive when Snow started as a journalist. Perhaps Snow does regret that the world didn't turn out that way. If so, I don't blame him.

I don't know what suggested to Nick that he take on a book approaching its fourth birthday. Perhaps it was ...

The American critic, Paul Berman, wrote recently that “neocon” had become a show-stopper in upmarket liberal circles. The mere use of the word was enough to convince an audience that a man was a monster. “You should say it out loud in falsetto, as if a mouse had just run across your foot,” he explained. “Otherwise you will not have captured the right tone.”

(Interlude. Thanks to comments on my last post. Jonathan Bate, also a Standpoint writer, wrote to the Times Higher Education Supplement to complain about an article which quoted Nick's higher education piece in the Observer. ("Officially, our universities are now world leaders in the study of French literature but awful at studying English literature." My emphasis - to highlight Bate's claim that "My article (freely available online) made clear that the startling discrepancy between research assessment exercise results in English and French occurred in the 1996 exercise, when it was much remarked upon, whereas Cohen writes about it as if it were a more recent phenomenon.") Nick has an interesting approach to the present tense himself.)

Paul Berman's "recent" "writing" was in an interview for Decentiya (probably conducted via email, so he did write it):

Paul Berman: The very word 'neoconservatism' has become troubling. There are a vast number of fantasies about who 'the neoconservatives' are, what they stand for, and what role they have played. It has reached the point that whenever you read the word you should say it out loud in falsetto, as if a mouse had just run across your foot. Otherwise you will not have captured the right tone. At some level I don't like to use the term. Many people who are called neoconservatives, it seems to me, are just Washington operatives who have worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, and who have held a variety of views.

"The interview was conducted on May 24 2006." I don't call an interview two years ago 'recent'.

While I was writing this article, the Ministry of Defence announced the death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan. Channel 4 News said that it was “duty-bound” to examine Gordon Brown’s claim that our soldiers had died in a noble cause. “Reliable measures” were hard to find, it concluded with a shake of the head. The conservative Spectator went wild and pointed out that the army had pushed the Taliban back to the Pakistani border, allowed the preparations for the upcoming elections and prevented al-Qaeda from re-establishing an Afghan base.

Wikipedia entry on the War in Afghanistan:

The Tora Bora Mountains lie roughly east of Afghanistan's capital Kabul, which is itself close to the border with Pakistan. American intelligence analysts believed that the Taliban and al Qaeda had dug in to a fortified networks of well-supplied caves and underground bunkers. The area was subjected to a heavy continuous bombardment by B52 bombers

They've been there, in other words, since the invasion. It's true the army "pushed" them out of Kabul, but not such a long way. That was six years ago.

MacShane, BTW, comes up with a much more damning - to me - flaw of Snow's.

Snow has been a witness to the high moments of drama in recent history. But history is made up of connections that the TV journalist cannot show. In Central America, Snow recalls the plight of the guerrillas fighting to take power. But he did not report Daniel Ortega acting as an altar boy in Berlin in 1985 at a high mass of Stalinist reaction, where the Sandinista endorsed the repression of Solidarity in Poland. The world's then most fashionable anti-American icon said no to Somoza's rule over Nicaraguan campesinos but si to Communist dictatorship over Polish workers.

Nick finishes with:

Broadcasting brings the politically engaged presenter or reporter celebrity and money, but extracts a dreadful price. It allows them only to push the impartiality rules so far by, say, asking tough questions of a political opponent but giving powder-puff interviews to a friend. When challenged in debate, their employers will not allow them to stand and fight their ground. They must scuttle away and pretend to be nothing more than civil servants of the airwaves. To use a word they would never use, their chosen careers are “unmanly”.

Conservatives should pity rather than condemn the liberal locked in the gilded cage of broadcast news. For these are lives half-lived.

Wow. Et tu, Brute.

I'm not sure about the Drudge/Prince Harry thing. I sort of see Snow's point. The Daily Mail covered it better than Nick does.

And then it gets really weird.

The bias feels all the more insidious because of the huge advantage politically committed broadcasters enjoy. Politicians realised long ago that taking them on is like swearing at the ref or throwing your racket at the umpire — a mug’s game they can never win. As soon as they are challenged, broadcasters retreat behind the mask of impartiality and present themselves as mere adjudicators. It is no good using the normal tactics of argument against them by pointing out the previous failures of their ideology or their hypocrisies and blind spots.

So politicians are supposed to use "the normal tactics of argument" - ie ad hominems, rather than justifying their policies. Does any politician think this is actually a good idea?
Finally, damning evidence of Jon Snow's treacherous support for fascistic regimes, etc.


Blogger ejh said...

But he did not report Daniel Ortega acting as an altar boy in Berlin in 1985 at a high mass of Stalinist reaction, where the Sandinista endorsed the repression of Solidarity in Poland.

I recall this quite well and McShane's point is straight out of the Decent Tardis. The Sandinista government was in its seventh year, and for most of that time it had been under military attack by what would have been called a terrorist or a fascist organisation had it not been organised by Washington. (Incidentally, there was no shortage, at the time, of former US leftists writing in support of the Contras on the grounds that the Sandinistas had betrayed socialism - I can recall, for instance, much polemic on the subject from one Christopher Hitchens. I think this may help explain why Tom Griffin locates the roots of the Euston Manifesto across the Atlantic.)

Eventually the Sandinistas were obliged to go looking for friends among Washington's international opponents and of course there was, as there always is, a price to pay for doing so.

Now it doesn't follow that Ortega was right to do what he did, and he received some criticism at the time, but at the same time it was understood that he found himself in a position that was not of his choosing and where he was forced to choose between different and even unpalatable alternatives. Or at least, it was understood by everybody except people who took the view that aha, at last Ortega had ripped off his mask and exposed the real totalitarian beneath.

Which reminds me. Talking of the Decent Tardis, I'd like to introduce the concept of the Decent Gotcha. The Gotcha is identified whenever a Decent writer takes a passage written by any leftists, or any action carried out by same, which supports or appears to support some action taken by a Stalinist regime, and uses said action or passage to declare said leftist a supporter of totalitarianism per se.

(The writings of Oliver Kamm are exempted from this process on the grounds that there is no merit merit in locating a pint glass in a public house.)

Incidentally, I liked this:

"I have reported the world. But have I made it a better place to live in?"

Is this a manifestation of the Decent tendency to consider what they're doing serious and practical action to change the world (even if it only consists of internet postings imagining the invasion of North Korea) whereas their oppoenents, including and maybe even especially sites like this, are mere carpers and dilettantes? Fair makes me want to fan my forehead with my handkerchief, I can tell you.

6/27/2008 07:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get the feeling this was partly an off-cut from "What's left" - that's why he is reviewing a 2004 book in 2008. He's revived it because he needs to blame the meeja for the failure of everybody to line up behind decency and be less mean to neocons. Oddly enough, Nick is a personal example of where media bias lies. the old left wing Nick had one column in the Observer, and was paid peanuts to write a book for Verso. The new right wing Nick has a column in the Observer, a column in the Standard, a book published by Murdoch, a column for "standpipe" (which I bet pays more than his occasional contributions to left ish publications like Red Pepper), and I guess (ratbiter) an occasional column for Private Eye.

6/27/2008 07:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I just mention in passing that the opening of the news report on the Saudi visit is just priceless. I'm still laughing.


6/27/2008 09:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'But he did not report Daniel Ortega acting as an altar boy in Berlin in 1985 at a high mass of Stalinist reaction, where the Sandinista endorsed the repression of Solidarity in Poland'

As a trotskyist, I obviously carry no sympathy for the former Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe but it's worth putting in context the fact that by 1985 the deaths at the hands USSR and its allies could be numbered in the tens, whereas the US-backed Contras were killing thousands of Nicaraguan civilians, and the killing by US-backed dictatorships in neighbouring El Salvador and Guatemala was nearing genocidal levels. Given MacShane's own support for a war which has cost 6'00000-1 million lives this shows some Chutzpah

James O

6/27/2008 12:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

* obviously i have excluded Afghanistan, as Macshane refered only to events in Europe.

James O

6/27/2008 12:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick seems to be turning into a weird hybrid of Hitchens and Mad Mel. He seem to have taken on Hitchen's penchant for attacking sacred cows, and they don't come more impeccably liberal than Snow. He also seems to have adopted Mad Mel's overwrought and very angry writing style. You can almost feel the venom in some of the passages.

Surely, the charge that a dull-witted and narrow-minded group of upper middle-class liberals has smarmed its way through British broadcasting is proved beyond reasonable doubt.It is easy to feel that way, particularly when you watch Channel 4 News.

Ouch! Meooooow!

FWIW I read Shooting History when it came out and a jolly good read it was too. I really think Snow is a damned fine journalist.

Nick appears to be moving toward the nuttier extremes of HP'dom where the great man is routinely referred to as 'Jon Bin-Snow'. And the stuff on Ortega is just plain nuts.

6/27/2008 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Incidentally, I can remember Jon Snow carrying out a will-you-condemn-a-thon on an animal rights activist (who personally had done, advocated or supported nothing that was violent or dangerous) on the occasion of the conviction of another, unconnected activist for endangering life.

As I remember it, she even condemned one thing and then instantly was asked to condemn another. And now Snow is condemned for failing to condemn somebody who .....

6/27/2008 03:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There also appears to be quite a bit of falsetto shrieking in some quarters whenever Jon Snow or the Sandanistas are mentioned.

Moussaka Man

6/27/2008 06:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw standpoint in WH Smith's the other day. A single copy costs £4.50. I'm not entirely sure how getting Nick Cohen to review books which came out four years ago (even when the only time the book is mentioned is in a quotation from another review) is going to convince anyone to part with their hard-earned cash for such poor quality writing and editing - enlisting Melanie Phillips to repeat her former blog posts on the al-Dura trial is hardly going to challenge anyone's perception of the topic.

Incidentally am i the only one to find the use of 'unmanly' as an insult staggering - the equivalent of Hitchens calling his opponents 'lesbians'? Nick has apparently forgotten that being 'manly' is not intrinsically a good thing, at least not to a good 'liberal' like Nick is meant to be. What would, say, Mad Mel think? is she a 'manly' journalist?

Or is he? the last sentences seem instructive:

Conservatives should pity rather than condemn the liberal locked in the gilded cage of broadcast news. For these are lives half-lived.

The readership he is intending - and by implication his own 'standpoint' is fairly clear. Looks like he's not their token 'lefty who hates the left' (as someone suggested in a thread on the start of Standpoint) after all.

6/28/2008 02:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just been thinking about this a bit more:

Conservatives should pity rather than condemn the liberal locked in the gilded cage of broadcast news. For these are lives half-lived.

There is a shift from the penultimate paragraph's 'politically engaged presenter' to the final paragraph's 'liberal'. This is hardly Orwellian plain style, in fact it is actively dishonest writing. The sentiment would be tolerable if it was about the problem of all 'impartial' news reporters. But this is just more leftie-bashing from what is meant to be a genuine intellectual magazine.

if you want to change the world, you go into politics, or argue your case as a polemicist or join a campaign group. You suffer the disappointments, but also feel the satisfaction that comes with making a commitment and fighting for it.

i'm guessing Nick thinks that he comes under the description 'polemicist'. Which would be fine were it not for his curious about-turn in almost all his political beliefs in the last six or so years. Who did he 'campaign for' in typically weak fashion in the London mayoral election? the Lib Dems. The same party routinely pilloried by him in other pieces for opposition to the Iraq war. A party which literally could not win. So much for changing the world.

And as an aside, given that (for example) Live Aid stemmed from a news report, isn't there an argument to be made for the influence of impartial journalism on the world? is working for Fox News a 'manly' occupation, and a 'full life'? this logic leads to some fairly weird places.

6/28/2008 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Incidentally am I the only one to find the use of 'unmanly' as an insult staggering

I suspect he thinks he's channelling Orwell.

6/28/2008 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I saw 'Standpoint' in Smiths too. It was prominently displayed on little shelves behind the assistants. I imagine the publisher pays for that. If so, they ruined it by having such an unspeakably ugly cover.

I was joking about the book review, by the way. It's just that Snow's book seems to be Nick's only source, so what else to call it? What will he do next month? Ask why so many people mourned Humphrey Lyttelton - are all the fithly-minded comedy show hosts really Etonian former Grenadier Guardsmen? And 'liberal' ones at that.

The Hitchens 'lesbian' thing is _almost_ excusable. He said it to Andrew Sullivan so it was sort of gay 'trash talk'. But it was offensive in context.

I agree about Live Aid; good things have come from reporting. To a greater extent than MacShane recognises, it has changed the world. Still, it hasn't changed it much. As for Nick, he probably does think he's a polemicist: well, he ain't no Emile Zola.

Interestingly, the MacShane review did suggest that Jon Snow enjoys a full life. Having a look at Nick's piece again, I see that he introduces Snow with "Jon Snow is no stranger to the hitched-up skirt and high-pitched scream" which at least has the merit of suggesting "unmanly" which he articulates only at the end. Otherwise, it's all crazy. Nothing is quite as crazy as "It is no good using the normal tactics of argument against them by pointing out the previous failures of their ideology or their hypocrisies and blind spots." This seems to mean that MPs should answer every difficult question with, "Didn't you used to be a Communist?" So much for the Democratic right to criticize those in power and interrogate their actions.

6/28/2008 05:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you're right about that being the most crazy idea - allied with that really strange approach to the Afghan war, whereby asking why we're there is akin to denying terrorism iexists or something. As usual with people opposed to C4 news, what cohen seems to want is a more partisan and more
infantilised approach to reporting. Asking someone 'didn't you used to be a communist' ad nauseam is the Decent approach to pretty much everything.

I was joking about the book review, by the way.

Dunno if my memory is really patchy, but from what i remember the piece is billed as a review on the front cover.

It was fairly prominent in the WH smith where I saw it, though not behind the counters. But almost right next to it was a copy of the New yorker, for 45p more. I don't really see why anyone 'unashamedly grown-up and serious' (their selling point) would choose Standpoint over that, or over the Economist (whose advertising it royally rips off), or even the Spectator, which is at least honest in its politics. For something that is meant to blaze a path for independent thought, just like Prospect, Standpoint actually sticks resolutely to the party line on every single issue (Prospect is Blairite and centrist, Standpoint is slightly to the right of that).

The idea that they have the inside story on Obama-McCain (and guess what, they think Obama is all about spin, while sticking to the McCain party line) is pretty laughable really. A good job it's all funded by a 'charity'.

6/28/2008 05:58:00 PM  

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