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Press: Ian Jack avoided the usual columnists’ vices

04 November 2022


IAN JACK died last week. A Guardian columnist and former editor of The Independent on Sunday, he was the best journalist that I’ve known, and the nicest man who ever sacked me. He was a professional in the very best sense of the word: there was a clear link between his personal qualities and his excellence as a writer and editor.

Curiosity, sympathy, and a bone-deep sense of history distinguished all that he wrote. He reported from a viewpoint, as we all must, but he avoided the usual vices of a columnist: idleness and pomposity. Even as a columnist, he was always reporting, and there was always work behind it; he neither opined nor repined. Whatever the evidence of folly, nastiness, and corruption that he uncovered, he never gave up hope nor allowed his readers to do so.

Anyone who wants to understand what’s wrong with most journalism today should study Ian’s work — which is in several anthologies — and consider how much isn’t taught these days, either in journalism schools, or — more — in the websites where people nowadays learn their trade.

The pressure that makes for bad journalism doesn’t come just from proprietors eager for “content” of any quality so long as it doesn’t slow the reader down with thought. It doesn’t even come just from readers anxious not to have their prejudices disturbed. There are also the threats coming from within the building, where heresy hunts are used as a weapon in the struggle for internal status. At the moment, this seems to be worse on the Left, if only because papers on the Right need not pay as much attention to the opinions of the workers. Trying to win the favour of the proprietor involves slightly different dynamics from those required to mount a campaign against a dissident colleague.

THE American podcast Blocked and Reported has its flaws — in my household, it’s known as the smugcast — but it is by far the best place to learn about “cancel culture” in academia and the media in the United States. This is partly because its two voices, Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog, were both themselves cancelled and lost their staff jobs (on magazines on opposite sides of the country) for writing about the phenomenon of “detransitioners”.

So they moved across to Substack, where attractive journalists (and anyone else) can publish what they like and offer subscriptions. This has ended up as a profitable move for both of them. They report carefully and in some depth on subjects such as race and policing, where views are so polarised that no one in the mainstream dare say anything that might be accused of giving aid and comfort to the other side.

Singal had a piece out last week which was an instructive variation on the theme of “Yah boo sucks”: “As a journalist, you have no right to be mad at successful Substackers if you’re chronically 2–5 years behind them on every hot-button subject. If people come to me for my take on these controversies, and they ignore you, that could be because you are terrified of enraging the Twitter masses, and therefore your work is becoming increasingly uninteresting and indistinguishable from all the other partisan takes out there.

“Nothing we’re doing is particularly fancy, nor does it require sky-high intelligence or talent or any other rare qualities. We’ve just stopped caring about angry people on Twitter. That’s really most of the equation. And because our ongoing employment does not rely on close relationships with any particular mainstream institution, we can afford not to care when the angry people get angry. Because what happens when they do? Very little.”

itself is, of course, about to get very full of angry people, and perhaps to lose many who are trying to maintain little oases of civility and unpredictability. The takeover by Elon Musk is enough to make anyone nostalgic for the days of traditionally insane press barons such as Lord Northcliffe.

For those who have not been following it closely, Mr Musk’s first action was to demand that all the software developers print out their work for the past 30 or 60 days, so that his team, or in some cases he himself, could examine and criticise it. Within hours, this order was countermanded, and all the printouts had to be shredded.

It appears, although we can’t be certain, that he is intending to sack most of the content moderators. This order will be countermanded in turn when all the advertisers leave, because what is now 40 years of experience of online discussion shows that bad comment drives out good, and that content moderation is the central skill — in fact the central product — of any social network.

There is, however a more fundamental disagreement concealed in this platitude. Is moderation a matter of allowing individual consumers to protect themselves from anything that they don’t want to see, or is it fundamentally about protecting society as a whole from the transmission of things that we find corrupting? Europe takes the second view; the United States the first. The conflict between them will prove interesting.

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