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Dialogues of the deaf

    Frank Ramsey, the economist and philosopher, died at 26 though his fame may outlive that of his brother, who became Archbishop of Canterbury and lived to a great age. In an after-dinner speech he once tried to show in a few minutes that conversation is impossible because it always came down to:

    “I went to Granchester this afternoon.”

    “No, I didn’t.”

    All we can do, he suggested, is compare notes about ourselves rather than communicate. In the philosophical idiom of the Twenties, this was perhaps a wittier and briefer version of something Marx had said much earlier: that since, for him, all political arguments were based on class interest, on our own personal economic position, no real discussion was ever possible and so, for him, where interests differ force must decide, which meant revolution. Of course, it took Marx many large volumes to try to overcome this impossibility of communication.

    These pessimistic memories were stirred by reflection on the current turbulence in our national press and how little communication much of it engenders. The Red Tops have abandoned information in favour of endless recyclings of sex, scandal and ‘slebs’, aside from a quinquennial surfacing to tell readers how to vote. Even The Daily Mail, whose print edition still has the form of a newspaper, has developed a quite separate and enormously popular web version that is indistinguishable from a Red Top, except that it has half its readers in the US, where they have nothing quite like our Red Top market.

    The former broadsheets, at least from a US perspective, have abandoned any claim to separate news from opinion, and can only be taken as party or faction sources, at least where anything contentious is concerned. They also see themselves increasingly as campaigners - thalidomide, MPs expenses, NI phone hackings, etc. - rather than as sources of trustworthy news. Their defence is that at least they are not dull, in the way that virtually every US newspaper is mind-numbingly boring and self-satisfied, with the possible exception of Murdoch’s New York Post. That fact must go some way to explaining the Mail and Guardian’s huge US readerships on the web.

    All this is too negative, you may reply: internet editions of our major broadsheets now allow extensive feedback and criticism of their performance; they even undertake campaigns against the interests of the party they support, as with the Telegraph’s recent savaging of Cameron and the Cameroons. And as to editorial partisanship, recent snipings at NI and Murdoch’s own political affinities show no memory at all of the shameless days of Lords Beaverbrook, Camrose and Northcliffe, let alone Robert Maxwell. But if anyone feels complacency returning, half an hour with Le Monde should reveal levels of clarity, depth and detail - especially in foreign affairs - that have long left our national dailies.

    Nonetheless, one should surely resist any moves by the Government to control our press further by statute, as they are clearly thinking about no matter what the PM’s protestations to the contrary. Our leaders find it so hard to see that Governments are simply the worst possible organs to have any say in the content of the press, no matter what its faults, which can be contained by the criminal law we have, if rigorously applied. Many readers will remember the pseudo-newspapers of the Soviet bloc, whose spirit survives in the Chinese press that is forbidding all mention of the recent disastrous bullet-train crash.

    Jefferson put it well: he said if he had to choose between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would unhesitatingly choose the latter. Belgium has had no government for a year or more, and no one minds much; it still has Le Soir, and at least the restaurants are open.


    Yorick Wilks is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Insitute and professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield.

    Yorick Wilks is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, and is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studied maths and philosophy at Cambridge, where he got his PhD in 1968. He has published numerous articles and six books in artificial intelligence concerned with language processing.

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