A new star is born today into the centre-right blogosphere: UnHerd. The latest brainchild of Tim Montgomerie, founder of ConservativeHome, it has launched with a mission statement to ‘dive deep into the economic, technological and cultural challenges of our time’. Its launch blogs show a wide mix of subjects: a YouGov poll revealing the low regard with which the public view traditional news media, Peter Franklin on why we should get ready for Prime Minister Corbyn, James Bloodworth on the crash ten years on and Graeme Archer on how meat-eating may come to be seen as barbaric by our grandchildren.
UnHerd is also marked out by its financing model. It has no paywall; all articles will be free to read with the costs covered by an endowment from Sir Paul Marshall. He is a former Liberal Democrat donor and a Brexit backer – but, unlike the others, has not run away from the field. At a time when the anti-Brexit press is infected by what Wolfgang Munchau calls confirmation bias there’s a need for a more dispassionate analysis. Brexit has had a profound effect on the reporting of finance, economics and foreign affairs. The Economist, for example, makes no pretence at being unbiased: its correspondents happily declare that they ‘consider Brexit a national catastrophe’ and the endeavour is reported in that way. Fair enough: I suspect most of its readers see it the same way, and any publication exists to serve readers.
Times change and so do newspapers. Few have changed as successfully as The Economist – and it’s evolving now, in a way that is recruiting thousands of new subscribers. As for the FT, I read it now more than I’ve ever done (and I used to be a financial journalist); it boasts several writers who are, on their own, worth a year’s subscription. But nowadays the reader needs to adjust, to filter out the bias. So if you read a p2 lead in the FT saying inflation will hit 4pc due to Brexit you learn to ignore it, assuming this is an outlying prediction chosen for its sensationalism.
This a tested formula. The Daily Mail is one of the world’s most successful newspapers and it editorialises news. And the bias certainly exists on the other side: there are a great many writers who think Brexit means everything will be fine. A dangerous error, in my view. Brexit is the removal of a constraint: things could be better after we leave the EU or much worse. It depends on how the government uses its greater powers. But we’re in a strange stage of the debate, where people feel the need to gravitate to an extreme. Accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive – or vice versa. To not just disagree with the other side, but to dismiss it as nonsensical – and probably malign. This polarisation of debate, that happened in Scotland in 2014, is happening over economics now.
The editorialisation of news has long affected political reporting on certain titles but not – until now – financial and economic reporting. The proud declarations of Brexit bias from reporters, rather than commentators, is also new. This is a fascinating development in the industry. You can certainly see a herd mentality, which UnHerd explicitly defines itself against.
There is certainly a demand for in-depth, Brexit reporting from a non-hostile slant – conducted with the same resources that the FT and Economist are able to deploy. Last week, I spoke to a UK ambassador working in a major foreign capital. He asked where his team is supposed to find unbiased news, a balanced report about Brexit. The titles who they’d normally look to for unbiased in-depth coverage, he said, are now fulminating against Brexit. And the people they liaise with in foreign capitals also read these titles (the New York Times very much included) and get the impression that Britain is falling apart. Or that the rest of Europe is surging ahead.
Let’s take Wolfgang Munchau’s example: we read a fortnight ago that the EU and Japan had struck a free-trade deal. In fact, it was a so-called ‘political agreement’, a staging post to a free-trade deal that may or may not arrive in two years’ time. But many titles were so enraptured by the idea of the EU and Japan shafting Trump and Brexit that it was written up as a finished free-trade deal. So at a time when fomerly-straight newspapers are invested in a line of argument – Trump evil! Brexit a calamity! – and distort the news to fit their agenda where can you go to find out the actual facts? As Munchau put it:-
The uncritical reception of the EU-Japan trade story is a good example of what psychologists refer to as confirmation bias, a tendency to filter out everything that is not consistent with our beliefs. We believe in free trade, hence, we want an EU-Japan deal to be true. And then we take the fateful step of believing it is, as opposed to calling it what it really is: a shameful attempt at manipulation.
Rather bravely, Munchau links to his own newspaper’s editorial as a case study of this ‘shameful manipulation’. You can agree or disagree with him, but suffice to say that Brexit has changed the nature of financial journalism. The titles with the most resources to cover Brexit have declared themselves passionately opposed to it. Which, for those simply trying to work out what’s going on (ie, whether Japan really has done a trade deal with the EU) is a frustration. UnHerd does seem to have the budget and the resources to enter this arena and provide an effective counterbalance. We at The Spectator wish Tim Montgomerie, and the whole team at UnHerd, every success.
PS As readers know, The Spectator‘s approach to unbiased writing is simple: we try to avoid it. Our motto is ‘firm but unfair’ and we seek to serve up cask-strength opinion from all perspectives on all topics. The balance of our columnists’ opinion is towards Brexit but we have the best dissenting writers. In this issue is Matthew Parris asking Brexiteers to accept that it’s all going wrong; our recent cover story had Prof Robert Tombs disagreeing. As the journalist Helen Lewis graciously put it, ‘the best source of writing slagging off Spectator articles is The Spectator’. If you like reading well-written articles that you disagree with, then do join us from just £1 a week.
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