The new Murdoch, getting personal with Andrew Marr, and foodies in the East End

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Many youngish journalists in the newspaper industry, wondering if their job will still be there next year, may rejoice that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has taken over the Washington Post, where operating profits have more than halved in the past seven years. But the news alarms me.
 
Amazon is a threat to every form of retail life on the planet. It avoids taxes. It provides cloud services to the CIA. It allegedly treats warehouse workers with the severity of Victorian mill-owners and does all it can to discourage unionisation. Bezos has bought the Post personally rather than through Amazon but it surely isn’t, as some commentators have suggested, an act of philanthropy. There is nothing to prevent him from using Amazon’s platforms to promote and sell the Post and its digital offerings, potentially giving him almost as big a stranglehold over news as his company now has over book retailing.
 
As the Post’s Lydia DePillis suggests, he could put a print copy of the newspaper in every Amazon package, offering the paper’s advertisers a new audience of millions. He could make the Post the default app on every Kindle. He could feature Post videos on the Amazon Prime welcome screen. He could use the prestige from owning the Post brand to persuade politicians writing their memoirs to publish digitally with Amazon.
 
We worry about Rupert Murdoch acquiring too much control of media outlets. We should worry as much – probably more – about Bezos.
 

Reality bites

 
By the time you read this, the most awful slaughter may have occurred in Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East. So I know that I am risking a large and messy quantity of egg over my face. Yet, so far, the only sources for the belief that an al-Qaeda attack is imminent –which has led to the closure of US embassies and advice to US nationals to leave Yemen – are the US National Security Agency and the Yemeni intelligence services.
 
Both have a clear vested interest in talking up threats. Perhaps it is very cynical of me (and, again, I know I may look foolish in a day or two) but I don’t think it is a coincidence that news of this “threat” has emerged so soon after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.
 
When intelligence services are criticised, they can defend themselves, to borrow the words of a George W Bush aide, by creating their own reality.
 

Road rage

 
One of the things that I like least about Conservative ministers is how they never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with whingeing motorists who believe that the world should be organised so they can park 3,000 pounds of steel wherever and whenever they wish. (I write, of course, as a non-driver.)
 
Local councils, ministers insist, should not treat motorists as “cash cows”. The revenue from parking charges should be used for road maintenance and similar benefits for motorists, not other local services. Why? Should tobacco duty be used exclusively for the treatment of smokers’ ill-health?
 
Space to park cars without danger or inconvenience to others is a scarce resource. It should be priced according to what the market dictates. If people can’t or won’t pay, they should walk or take buses, with benefits to their health and everybody else’s.
 

Beat happening

 
Contemporary culture requires celebrities to discuss in public matters that they would once have hesitated to discuss with their closest friends. So Andrew Marr, in an interview with the Observer’s Robert McCrum, goes over the details not only of his stroke and its aftermath but also of his family life.
 
With Marr’s spouse, Jackie Ashley, on hand, McCrum finds “the moment to introduce a vexed question from the past”: an extramarital affair that Marr wrongly thought had resulted in him fathering a child. Mc- Crum reports the response thus: “ ‘If we need to go back over that stuff,’ says Ashley, resolute and phlegmatic, ‘our problems were from ten years ago. We have moved on anyway.’ A beat. ‘I suppose.’”
 
I like McCrum’s theatrical touch but for full dramatic effect, shouldn’t “a beat” have been accompanied by Marr illustrating the progress of his physio regime by delivering a firm boot to McCrum’s groin area?
 

Eastern promises

 
You wouldn’t expect to find a Michelinstarred restaurant in the historically workingclass district of Bethnal Green in east London, even though the area has been somewhat yuppified by its proximity to the City.
 
To celebrate our wedding anniversary, my wife and I decided to give Viajante (which means “traveller” in Portuguese), housed in the former town hall, a try. The restaurant serves a “blind-tasting menu”, which comprises a series of tiny portions, the only choice being between a menu of six, nine or 12 courses. The names and ingredients of each dish are disclosed when they are brought to your table.
 
The food turned out to be stunning and the waiters’ performance, over a meal lasting three hours, as absorbing as a ballet. Despite the eye-watering prices, the place was packed. This, I suppose, represents the future. While our staple diet comprises hamburgers, massproduced from stem cells, we occasionally escape to sample small, handcrafted dishes, presented with a flourish.
Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post for $250million. Is he the new Murdoch? Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt