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My late friend Christopher Hitchens once told me that his American friends often expressed surprise at the number of articles and books he was able to produce. He said that there was a simple reason for his high productivity, which was: “I never watch television.”
He was definitely telling the truth about this, since the only television in his apartment in Washington was in the spare bedroom where I was staying and it did not work.
Christopher was right to believe that time spent watching television was time largely wasted, or could be spent more usefully in some other activity. Television supplies less information, and at a slower speed, than newspapers, books or radio.
The internet is more efficient, speedy and weakens state and elite monopolies over news and knowledge. Misused it may be to spread misinformation and propaganda, but the internet remains the most democratic instrument of communication to emerge since the invention of printing.
The strength of the internet is that it supplies infinite quantities of information. But this is also its weakness, because this great torrent of data makes it difficult to distinguish facts that are significant from those that are trivial or meaningless. Emails, for instance, make it easy to communicate information in any quantity, but are less good at promoting discussion and explanation.
The sending and receiving of emails can become as big a waste of time as television ever was. I often have prolonged and inconclusive email exchanges over a period of days or weeks on a matter that could have been dealt with in 10 minutes by a short conversation on the phone.
Once I came near to cancelling a weekend book tour to Barcelona because I could not face another email from the efficient and energetic organisers of the event. When I printed their messages out, they covered 25 pages. Fortunately, everything was put right in the end by a short talk on the phone, which should have taken place weeks earlier.
Soon afterwards, I gave a lecture at a university in the UK which was reasonably well attended, but I pointed out politely to the people in charge that there might have been more people present if they had advertised the topic on which I was speaking.
“But you never sent it to us,” they replied defensively. I knew I had done so, and later found my email giving the title of my lecture, which my hosts had understandably missed, about half way through our lengthy exchange of messages.
The obvious reason for this plague of emails – along every other sort of internet communication – is that they are too easy to send. At a deeper level, their frequency and length may be fuelled by a natural human tendency to be over-impressed by the amount of information supplied and believe instinctively that, if there is a lot of it and it is in great detail, then it is more likely to be true. In practice, the opposite is usually the case.
In the 1990s, I used to interview Iraqis who claimed to have escaped from Iraq and to have secret information about the inner workings of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his weapons of mass destruction.
My heart used to sink as they produced more and more uncheckable detail, which they assumed would add to their credibility, but made me ever more convinced that they were making the whole thing up.
Politicians and security forces have been traditionally prone to believe that accumulating mountains of data will enable them to influence or monitor whole populations. Their critics buy into the idea that the internet has vastly increased the amount of information about people that can be garnered from their online activities.
Part of Cambridge Analytica’s pitch to its clients was to claim that, once its computers had harvested information about millions of voters, it could identify and target those most likely to support a particular party or politician.
In practice, this data-driven approach never worked and campaigns that relied on it, like Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016, have usually ended in failure.
Cambridge Analytica: Whistleblower Chris Wylie testifies Steve Bannon sought voter suppression in 2016 election
Security agencies are likewise vulnerable to a similar myth – in which they themselves may not believe – that trying to identify all potential “terrorists” will make the country safer.
The Prevent programme, which aims to detect potential Islamic jihadis before they act, has proved useless or counter-effective for many reasons, but a main one is that by trying to turn everybody into an informer the authorities produce a deluge of dubious information.
This clogs up the system and leaves those who were truly dangerous, like the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi, to slip through a net that has been spread too wide and has too many holes.
People have always had an exaggerated respect for facts and, thanks to the internet, these are now easily accessible in far greater quantities than ever before. There is a tedious debate about “fake facts”, but this is not really the problem. The fact is, people do not really know what a fact is.
My father Claud Cockburn, a journalist formerly on The Times, once did some damage to his reputation by explaining that facts were not “like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon”, waiting for the prospector to dig them out and give them to the world.
Unlike gold nuggets waiting to be excavated, there are an infinite number of facts in the universe, but these only gain significance and have a meaning because somebody – a journalist, a policeman – decides that they matter, so every fact in the media is the result of the point of view of the person who chose to report them and related them to other facts.
This theory, which became known as the “heresy of the facts”, earned my father some abuse from people who thought he was admitting, as they had long suspected, that journalists make things up.
But many years after he had written about it, I requested his file from MI5, and a year later 26 bulky folders were deposited in the National Archives at Kew. They very much bore out his belief that what mattered most was not the collection of facts, so much as the choice made about which of these were significant and true.
MI5 had been much interested in my father’s activities in the 1930s, when he ran a newsletter similar to Private Eye. The security men had many sources of information, several of them well-informed and accurate (such as his former boss, the bureau chief of The Times in Berlin), but others were conspiracy theorists and crackpots.
One man was convinced that my father was the head of a Comintern sabotage ring in Western Europe, its counterpart in the US being The Time magazine office in New York.
Claud told one woman he had met at dinner (as a joke) that revolution was imminent, and would begin with a mutiny by the Brigade of Guards. She immediately wrote to MI5 in extreme alarm, warning them about the plot.
Looking through the MI5 reports, it becomes clear that their usefulness, like that of the great quantities of information transmitted by the internet, depended entirely on the quality of the person (in this case an MI5 officer) who reviewed them.