In search of cricket on the BBC: shall I rend my garments now, or later?

Howzat! Kerry Packer's War and Horizon: the Truth About Personality.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War;
Horizon: the Truth About Personality
BBC4; BBC2

This column is about misery and happiness. First, the misery. I don’t have Sky and the Ashes series has now begun. Putting aside the glory that is Test Match Special – if you want my opinion, that programme is to the BBC what the ravens are to the Tower of London – when it comes to television, I am going to have to make do with a daily hour of sweaty old Mark Nicholas on Channel 5. So, tell me: shall I rend my garments now or later?

All the BBC appears to have on offer, cricket-wise, is Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (8 and 15 July, 9pm), a somewhat dusty twopart Australian series about Packer’s battle to establish World Series Cricket, starring Lachy Hulme as the somewhat pugnacious media mogul. (The story goes – and I’ve no reason to disbelieve it – that when Packer first asked the Australian Cricket Board if he could buy the rights to televise the sport, his opening gambit was: “There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?”)

Is it any good? It’s not bad – though it’s unlikely to be the ratings hit here that it was in Oz. Howzat! is strictly one for the nerds, because half of the fun of any biopic lies in goggling at all the remarkable lookalikes and if you don’t know that Mike Procter, the South African fast bowler, resembled a podgy choirboy and that John Snow, the “Abominable Snowman” of Sussex and England, had the hair of a Romantic poet, you will miss out on this particular pleasure.

You probably remember Packer’s charming visage but if for some reason you don’t, all I can say is: picture a really spiteful porpoise in a Brylcreem-ed wig and you’re close. Hulme, who puts in a truly fantastic performance in this series, looks just like him – and you might want to watch him for ten minutes, even if cricket bores you to sobs.

Now for the happiness, which comes via Michael Mosley, the man who brought us the bestseller The Fast Diet, and his latest, potentially life-changing Horizon programme (10 July, 9pm). This time, his film was about personality and how we might adjust it, the better to increase our happiness and health (optimists apparently live up to seven years longer than the rest of us). Mosley claimed to be a catastrophist at heart, always expecting the worst, and the scientists he met agreed with him (though, if you ask me, starving yourself for two days of every week is unlikely to improve anyone’s mood).

Apparently, his “baseline arousal” is higher than many people’s, which sounds saucy but in reality just means that he is prone to anxiety and stress. What to do about this state of affairs? Eschewing what I call “cognitive chocolate modification” – in essence, scoff a bag of Minstrels and you’ll feel much better – Mosley instead plumped for cognitive bias modification (CBM), with a little mindfulness meditation on the side. The CBM involved him clicking his computer mouse on a happy face among a sea of cross faces for ten minutes every day; the meditation required him to close his eyes and breathe deeply. And what do you know? Seven weeks later, he was a good deal cheerier.

If you missed Mosley’s documentary, I recommend you watch it: he is a natural communicator and the science surrounding happiness is interesting, even if one can’t help but fear how some of the latest discoveries might be used against women. (To sum up: baby rats who are not licked often enough by their mothers tend to be more sickly and dysfunctional than some other rodents . . . You can see where this is leading.) But if you want a much less tedious and time-consuming means of improving your mood – I speak from experience, for I, too, am a catastrophist – then why not try the old trick of counting your blessings?

Seriously. At the end of every day, I write down three good things that have happened. Sometimes, I have something quite big to put on the list: some praise from an editor, say, or a wonderful new commission. And sometimes, it’s something small: a delicious cup of coffee I drank, the sun coming out during my walk from the Tube. Either way, it works. It’s almost as cheering as the teatime chunter of the Test Match Special commentary team – the quotidian stuff of life becoming, once you take the trouble to notice it, a weird kind of epiphany.

Field of dreams: Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer (right). Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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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