From the fact-checking department: Let me count the ways

The errors and inaccuracies of Richard Bradford.

Here, for the record, is a list of some of the factual errors alluded to in my review of Richard Bradford's book Martin Amis: The Biography:

- "Around 1956-57 Martin's parents' marriage came close to collapse, due primarily to Hilly's affair with the journalist Henry Fairlie. Fairlie resembled the sort of character played by Leslie Phillips or Terry-Thomas in Ealing Comedies". Neither Leslie Phillips nor Terry-Thomas appeared in an Ealing comedy. Terry-Thomas did, however, play Bertrand Welch in the adaptation of Lucky Jim.

- "Butterfield was fully aware of Peterhouse's reputation as the most conservative ... of the Cambridge colleges - Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue was comprised partly of stories, many accurate, of the bizarre, ritualistic archaisms of the place." Herbert Butterfield may have been aware of Peterhouse's reputation in 1961, when he interviewed Kingsley Amis for a Fellowship, but Tom Sharpe's novel wouldn't have reinforced that impression for another 13 years.

- "Kingsley Amis met Elizabeth Jane Howard at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October 1962. She was, that year, director of the event. Its theme was 'Sex in Literature', drawing in such luminaries as Joseph Heller and Carson McCullers and encouraging flirtatious banter between all involved." I cannot be certain on this point; accounts differ. But it seems that Elizabeth Jane Howard was the honorary artistic director for that year's festival, of which "Sex in Literature" was not the theme, merely the title of one panel discussion. I am fairly confident that there was no flirtatious banter between Kingsley Amis and Joseph Heller.

- "Martin's and Philip's initial encounter with Jane occurred shortly after their return from Majorca and is described in Experience, rather as if a piece by Iris Murdoch had been rewritten by a copy-editor with some cognizance of the real world." Iris Murdoch possessed cognizance of the real world.

- "Thirty-five years later the letters between Amis senior and Philip Larkin would be published and recognized as the most outrageous epistolary novel ever". The letters of Kingsley Amis and the letters of Philip Larkin were published almost a decade apart. (Neither was recognised as the most outrageous epistolary novel ever - or rather, as half of one.)

- "His tutor Jonathan Wordsworth was the poet's great, great, great, great nephew and in case anyone suspected otherwise his rooms were generously distributed with 'family' memorabilia". Leaving aside the use of "distributed" in that sentence, it should be noted that despite the memorabilia, some might have suspected that Jonathan Wordsworth was in fact William Wordsworth's great-great-great nephew. (Christopher Ricks once said, memorably, that Jonathan Wordsworth had an Oedipal relationship to the poet, although he was only "a collateral descendant".)

- "Like most major writers he rarely if ever admits to anything so compromising as influence". It's hard to know where to start. Let this admission, from a 1980 article never collected in a book, stand for all the hundreds of reasons why Bradford's claim is false: "That bit about 'wiry wings' [in The Rachel Papers] was stolen ... from Dickens ... I once lifted a whole paragraph of mesmeric jargon from J G Ballard's The Drowned World."

- "John Gross, then editor of the TLS, and guest at one of the numerous, informal gatherings at Lemmons, asked Martin if he had any interest in a full-time junior post. He did but asked if the appointment could be deferred for about six months ... He began work officially at the TLS in March 1972." John Gross did not move from the New Statesman to the TLS until 1974 (as Bradford later informs us).

- "[In 1973, Clive James] had only been in London for three years." Clive James came down from Cambridge in 1969 (or thereabouts), but he had lived in London for three years in the 1960s, having left Australia in 1961.

- "'To get to [Tina Brown's] room in college I would have to step over waiting TV crews, interviewers, profilists.'... Martin's description is certainly not hyperbole." It is hyperbole.

- Jeremy Treglown did not work "mainly for the TLS" in 1977. At that time, he taught at UCL; he joined the TLS in 1979. According the Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, established in part by Jeremy Treglown, his first article appeared in the issue of 23 November 1979.

- Bradford quotes Clive James as saying that Leavis retired in 1964. However you define "retired" in relation to an academic, Leavis didn't retire in 1964.

- "Martin and Mary and later Angela were the Becks and Posh of their day." Really?

- "Martin continued for the simple reason that Kavanagh had settled a fee that went far beyond any advance even the most popular novelist could hope for: £30,000." At around the same time, Joseph Heller - hardly the most popular novelist - received around a $1m for Good As Gold.

- Ernest Hemingway is not an example of "the kind of essayist that the British press had not previously countenanced", and which Amis hoped to become.

- Philip Roth (b. 1933) and John Updike (b. 1932) are not "near contemporaries" of Vladimir Nabokov (b. 1899).

- Saul Bellow had not "three turbulent, and failed, marriages" but four.

- "Shortly after Money was published Martin wrote an essay for Atlantic Monthly on Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March". It was written more than a decade later.

- George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. was published in 1981, not 1979. Malcolm Bradbury, in one of his numerous books about fiction, described it as a "long novella", and recalls that it was one of the books - Amis's Other People was another - considered for that year's Booker Prize, on which he was chair of judges. The prize eventually went to Midnight's Children.

- In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character does not awake "in full knowledge of what fate has in store for him for the next twenty-four hours."

- Peter Hitchens doesn't contribute articles to "the Daily Mail that made Thatcherism seem spinelessly irresolute by comparison" - he did so for the Express and then the Mail on Sunday.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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