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Raising the odds on Lambeth

28 September 2012

Investigations investigated: The Times's abuse story

Investigations investigated: The Times's abuse story

IT IS rather unnerving to see a press release come out that has been clearly influenced by a story I wrote. But the bookies send out new press releases every time a story on the runners and riders for Canterbury appears.

So, after The Guardian published a long piece on the various candidates, both William Hill and Paddy Power sent out press releases saying that the odds on the Archbishop of York had lengthened, and those on the Bishop of Durham had shortened.

The purpose of these press releases is, of course, to get more people to bet. So, in one sense, they should give the impression that the odds are inaccurate (you can get 200/1 on Richard Dawkins, for example), so that people who fancy their own opinions can pile in. There is another sense in which they need to suggest that the odds convey real information - showing that sentiment is really shifting. That way they are more likely to make news.

In moments of less than pathological optimism, I think that the only time readers demand accuracy in journalism is when their money hangs on the result. More precisely, readers want accurate information when they are going to base decisions on it. Otherwise, they are just as happy to be entertained.

That is why bookies are important in the ecology of the news. It is also why the FT and The Economist will continue to make money by charging for their content while almost no one else will. The Times firewall would make a great deal more money, and finance a better paper, if only the old slogan were true, and Top People did read The Times.

THEY should have been reading it this week. The paper's coverage of the various child-abuse scandals in the north of England, where Asian gangs preyed on young, white, teenage girls has been exemplary. Has it also been inflammatory? I don't believe so. It is entirely clear, and relevant, that the authorities in Rochdale and in Rotherham quashed some investigations for fear of raising racial and religious tensions in places where they were already high.

One consequence of this was that the abuse continued. Another was that official denials will in future be discredited. Suspicion of Muslims, or Asians, will increase.

"Political correctness" won't have been the only motive for police failures. Rape is always a difficult crime to deal with, and gang abuse is particularly difficult. Some policemen probably regarded the victims as worthless slappers. But it is the Muslim angle that catches the eye, although The Times has been scrupulous to downplay it. Eye-catching is not at all the same as important. In fact, it is one of the tasks of good journalism to distinguish the two. But, unless we know what will catch the eye, all that is important will languish unread.

THE other good Times piece of the week was David Aaronovitch on "Muslim rage". He concluded: "Of course, Muslims are not the only people whose leaders harness and exploit the reactionary emotional power of grievance. But the idea of 'global Muslim anger' relies on the seductive trick of placing yourself always in the position of the done-to and not the doing, even when you run a quarter of the countries on the planet. It's not global anger. It's global adolescence."

The idea of "global Muslim anger" also relies on some other things that Aaronovitch does not mention. At a fairly generous estimate, there have been a million individual Muslims filmed or recorded doing globally angry and adolescent things around the world in the past decade. That would mean that, for every Muslim demonstrating in this way, there are 179 who aren't.

If we were to generalise about Jews on the basis of the actions of 1/180 of world Jewry, Aaronovitch would be first to the barricades, I mean the keyboard, to protest. He would be right to do so. So were those Roman Catholics who protested against the smearing of the whole priesthood because of the actions of a few.

In fact it is the Roman Catholics who have the least to complain about, because there was an institutional Church that properly could be held responsible for some of the scandals. There is no institutional "Islam" in the same way.

Yet the urge to label, to clump, and to generalise is absolutely fundamental to the way in which we think. It's one of the roots of intelligence.

That's the deep reason why newspapers make such use of labels, including party labels. I'm told that some people analysed the party labels in The Guardian's runners-and-riders piece closely for their hidden meanings: what is the difference between "Evangelical" and "soft Evangelical", they asked. Here's a secret. I just made them up on the spot.

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