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Trump's troll: why ITV should worry about Piers Morgan

Good Morning Britain has become one of the most mortally embarrassing shows on television. Plus: The Moorside .

The Moorside (7 and 14 February, 9pm). It sounds picturesque, doesn’t it? In a literal sense, at least, it is accurate, because parts of Dewsbury are, like those of so many West Yorkshire towns, at once urban and quasi-rural. But there isn’t much that is lovely in Neil McKay’s depiction of the disappearance in 2008 of Shannon Matthews, aged nine, from the council estate (the Moorside) where she lived with her mother, Karen, and her mother’s boyfriend, Craig Meehan.

The Radio Times sells this series as a drama examining the “ties that bind despised communities with only themselves to rely on”, which might also have been a line that its producers used when pitching their idea to the BBC. McKay, though, has done his research and resists such easy romanticism. Even its more noble protagonists have motivations that are open to doubt.

Matthews disappeared for 24 days, during which time the police search for her became the largest for a missing person since the “Yorkshire Ripper” investigation. But she had not – as was feared – been abducted. Her mother and Meehan’s uncle, Michael Donovan, had drugged and hidden her. The cruel, mind-bogglingly dumb plan was that Donovan would eventually “find” Shannon, at which point he and Karen would share any reward money offered by newspapers. In December 2008, both were convicted of kidnapping and false imprisonment and given eight-year prison sentences. (Meehan, who was not involved with the kidnapping, was found guilty of possession of child pornography during the investigation.)

The Moorside tells this pathetic and troubling tale through Karen’s neighbour Julie Bushby, played gutsily by Sheridan Smith. In the weeks before Shannon was found, it was Bushby who rallied the community, organising marches and candlelit vigils to keep the girl’s name in the news. But if she (rightly) sensed that the media were tiring of the case because the family involved was poor and working class, something else, as McKay’s script makes plain, was also at play. The relish with which we saw her addressing the cameras wasn’t as unnerving as Karen’s comment that Shannon was “getting really famous now”. Nevertheless, it was all of a piece with it in a world seen through the prism of reality TV.

“We’re as good as anyone,” Bushby declared, sentimentality oozing from every pore. “We look after our own.” Such wishful thinking. Karen (Gemma Whelan) singularly failed to look after her own and she, in turn, had no protector: Meehan (Tom Hanson) was a creep and his relatives were bullies. Should we take her blankness for stupidity, or malevolence? Or was she also a victim? That this miniseries leaves you asking such questions is a mark of its ambition, its determination to be both factual and – another thing entirely – emotionally true.

Reluctantly, we stagger on to Good Morning Britain (weekdays, 6am), one of the three most mortally embarrassing shows on television (the others are The Pledge on Sky News and The Agenda on ITV). You may have noticed – and if you haven’t, might you be willing to give me a brief period of respite care in your social-media-free bunker? – that one of its presenters, Piers Morgan, is a) a devoted friend and defender of President Trump and b) apt to troll those who are not the above on Twitter and in the columns he writes roughly every five minutes for the Daily Mail.

What are the implications of this? In the UK, it has no precedent. For Morgan, the consequences could ultimately be very serious. But he won’t be the only one to find himself in disgrace should the gravest calamities occur. In the meantime, I don’t see that ITV can go on giving him a free pass, for all that he has his fans. What I knew of his activities elsewhere infected every bit of his banter I heard. Does his employer worry about this? Surely it must. When I emailed ITV to ask what it made of his activities ­online, a day-long silence was followed by the statement that it had no comment. On my third request, a “spokesman” noted only that Morgan is “well known for his views”. Too well known? We shall see.

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 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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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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