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Memo to left and right: please stop generalising about the looters

The debate about the riots is being hijacked by those who want to push partisan agendas and narratives.

Some on the left -- including Ken Livingstone, Harriet Harman and Seumas Milne -- have been accused of resorting to knee-jerk, ideological, socio-economic explanations for the recent outburst of violence and vandalism in our cities and towns. It's too simplistic to blame the "cuts" or "poverty" or "racism", say their critics on the right. Indeed it is.

But what of the right's own knee-jerk and ideological explanations for the riots? In today's Daily Mail, for example, Melanie Phillips -- who else? -- rails against Britain's "liberal intelligentsia" and fumes about the "feral children" behind this week's riots. The standfirst (not available in the online version) sums her argument (if you can call it that!):

"Breakdown of the family. Single mothers. Soft justice. Drugs. Multiculturalism. Welfare. Educational failure . . . We're now paying the price."

Simple, eh? But as the Times's crime editor, Sean O'Neill, tweeted earlier this afternoon: "The stories coming out of the magistrates courts say very clearly that this is not all about 'feral youth'."

The fact is that not all of the accused rioters and looters are members of the so-called underclass. The Sun says on its front page, under the headline, "Riots: meet the accused":

"Lifeguard, postman, hairdresser, teacher, millionaire's daughter, chef and schoolboy, 11."

The "millionaire's daughter" is Laura Johnson, who is alleged to have helped loot a branch of Curry's. According to the Telegraph:

The 19-year-old is a high-flying pupil who attended St Olave's Grammar School -- the fourth best-performing state school in the country.

She is now reading English and Italian at the University of Exeter.

. . . She achieved four A*s and nine A grades after taking her GCSE exams at St Olave's sister school, Newstead Wood.

She went on to take A-levels in English literature, classical civilisation, geography and French.

While studying she offered her services as a tutor.

Her parents, Robert and Lindsay Johnson, live in a large detached farmhouse in Orpington in Kent. They bought the house, which has extensive grounds and a tennis court, in 2006."

Hmm. Not very "feral", is she? And I'm not sure how she fits into Mel's welfarism/multiculturalism/liberalism narrative? She's been raised by two parents, in a wealthy environment, went to a fantastic school and is now at university.

So can we stop generalising please? On the left AND on the right?

Indeed, as Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today's Guardian, we should have anticipated . . .

. . . how this week's mayhem would be used by the political classes: as a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets -- and see precisely what they wanted to see.

If you're a left-winger, the causes of the violence and looting are straightforward: they're the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.

For the right, explaining the violence is even simpler -- because any attempt at understanding is tantamount to condoning it. Better by far to talk of a society with a sense of over-entitlement; or to do what the Prime Minister did and simply dismiss "pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick". You can expect to hear more of the same rhetoric in today's debate in parliament, especially from backbenchers on either side.

And then there are the think-tankers and policy entrepreneurs who must scan the daily headlines for hobby horses. At a conference on Wednesday on well-being, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Lord Richard Layard opined that the British rioters were "unhappy". In case you didn't know, Layard is the author of a book called Happiness (a new edition is just out).

Offering up a single explanation for the violence and looting that began in one London borough on Saturday and has since spread as far as Birmingham and Salford must be a nonsense.

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.