10 May 2016

The "Digital News Microclimate"

Are the Brexit Remainers creating an echo chamber? 

I haven’t seen any reference in the UK media to an article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on 8 May in print under the title, The Storyteller and the President, and on their website as The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru. It is a lengthy profile by David Samuels of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications in the White House, 38 and described by Samuels as “The Boy Wonder of the Obama White House”:
He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself … in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. … On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.
Perhaps in the UK we are all too wrapped up in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership, but it’s worth remembering that Obama was here on 22 April telling us that we would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with the US, if the country chose to leave the EU. Private Eye caught the tone of his message when their cover captioned the Obamas’ photo-opportunity with the young Royals:

If Samuels is right, Rhodes is very likely to have been involved in formulating Obama’s messaging in London – if nothing else, as a fan of CS Lewis and George Orwell he would be aware of the usage of “queue” here rather than “line”. Samuels emphasises how close Rhodes is to Obama:
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Although Rhodes’ background is Eng Lit/creative writing not foreign policy/international affairs:
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling. 
Having recently spent time working in Hollywood, I realize during our conversations that the role Rhodes plays in the White House bears less resemblance to any specific character on Beltway-insider TV shows like “The West Wing” or “House of Cards” than it does to the people who create those shows. And like most TV writers, Rhodes clearly prefers to imagine himself in the company of novelists.
But it seems that Rhodes’ skills are now the relevant ones (my emphasis):
Price [Rhodes’ deputy, Ned Price] turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.” I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate — a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.
Because, according to Samuels, we are in “the soft Orwellian vibe of an information space where old media structures and hierarchies have been erased by Silicon Valley billionaires who convinced the suckers that information was “free” and everyone with access to Google was now a reporter”:
The job he was hired to do [in 2007], namely to help the president of the United States communicate with the public, was changing in equally significant ways, thanks to the impact of digital technologies that people in Washington were just beginning to wrap their minds around. It is hard for many to absorb the true magnitude of the change in the news business — 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade — in part because readers can absorb all the news they want from social-media platforms like Facebook, which are valued in the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars and pay nothing for the “content” they provide to their readers. You have to have skin in the game — to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products — to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed. Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
A long section in the article is an account of how the nuclear deal with Iran was sold in the US, so not particularly relevant to the UK, although one extract is interesting:
Rhodes “was kind of like the quarterback,” running the daily video conferences and coming up with lines of attack and parry. “He was extremely good about immediately getting to a phrase or a way of getting the message out that just made more sense,” Kreikemeier [one of the team] remembers. Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move — and proved to be a winning argument.
Interesting because of Cameron’s speech on Brexit on 9 May at the British Museum in front of an audience which included the US ambassador:
The serried rows of white headstones in lovingly-tended Commonwealth war cemeteries stand as silent testament to the price that this country has paid to help restore peace and order in Europe. Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash as to make that assumption.
So the Brexit Remain campaign might be expected to follow Rhodes’ approach:
“We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Today, five former NATO secretaries-general have written to the Daily Telegraph, warning that it "would be very troubling if the UK ended its membership of the European Union” and The Times has a letter from 13 former US secretaries of state and defence and national security advisers telling us “The special relationship between our countries would not compensate for the loss of influence and clout that the UK would suffer if it was no longer part of the EU”.

Samuels’ article, which seems to have created a small storm inside the DC Beltway, is well worth reading in full. Some of it probably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt:
[Rhodes’] New York City prep-school-kid combination of vulnerability, brattiness and passionate hatred for phonies suggests an only slightly updated version of what Holden Caulfield might have been like if he grew up to work in the West Wing.
Obama won’t be President for much longer, and Rhodes will probably be persona non grata to the next White House incumbent, whoever “she” may be:
He [Rhodes] referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.
But political messaging has probably changed for good:
Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ” 
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging. 
Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ” 
“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling. “And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.” 
This is something different from old-fashioned spin, which tended to be an art best practiced in person. In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a “narrative” over any serious period of time. Now the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.
On this side of the Atlantic, my guess is that the Conservatives might be ahead of Labour in appreciating what’s involved in the new spin, though if Number 10 has a Rhodes equivalent, he or she seems to have been too busy with Brexit to take on the Mayor of London campaign.  Although Seamus Milne, Corbyn's spin doctor, may be politically well to the left of his New Labour predecessor, Alastair Campbell, he too comes from a traditional newspaper background.  Whether by 2020, Labour will have a new leader, mind-melded to someone versed in these new arts, remains to be seen.

7 April 2016

Churchill and the Appeasers, Johnson and the Remainers

Would a Prime Minister Johnson "forgive and understand" their wrong-headedness?

Back in February, I remarked in a post here that:
There is even one school of thought that whether the result [of the Brexit referendum] is leave or remain, Boris Johnson will become the next leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister
and, if anything, this outcome seems more likely, not less. In fact, if being taken seriously is a measure, recent excoriating attacks on Johnson by, for instance, Matthew Parris on 26 March in The Times (Tories have got to end their affair with Boris, Charm can make us forget the dishonesty and recklessness that would be ruthlessly exposed if he became leader) and Nick Cohen in the Guardian a few days later (Boris Johnson. Liar, conman – and prime minister? The mayor of London has been treated with woozy indulgence by the media. But Britain may pay the price), suggest much more likely. Reacting to Parris, John Rentoul in the Independent was calm, It's time to get used to the idea of living under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or perhaps just resigned.

Not long before, I had come across the biography which Johnson had written in 2014, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. Reviewers tended to regard it as very readable in the style of Johnson’s Daily Telegraph opinion pieces which appear most Mondays (at £5000 a time they say), as not adding much to the huge amount of literature on his subject already available and as being as much about Johnson as Churchill.

It occurred to me that if Johnson were to become PM after a Brexit vote, he would be leading a Cabinet many of whom had been "remainers". How would he deal with them? Would his portrayal of Churchill who, after only three weeks as PM and in a much greater crisis in 1940, had to work with senior members of a Cabinet who had been advocates of appeasing Hitler, offer any insights?

Rather to my surprise, Chapter 1 plunges straight in at this point in Churchill’s life with The Offer from Hitler, made via Italy to negotiate an end to hostilities. This was put to the Cabinet in May 1940 by Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and long-term appeaser of Hitler:
[Halifax] was tall, very tall; at 6 foot 5 he loomed about ten inches above Churchill – though I suppose advantage matters less around a table. (page 11)
Johnson is no more than 5 foot 10 by the way. Later after describing the Cabinet’s deliberations, Johnson comments:
It makes one cringe, now, to read poor Halifax’s defeatism; and we need to forgive and understand his wrong-headedness. (page 16)
and later:
All we are saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. (page 17)
Over 200 pages later (Johnson’s book is thematic in structure, not chronological) Halifax re-appears in 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry to WW2, as
… the British ambassador in Washington. This was none other than our old friend the Earl of Halifax: the beanpole-shaped appeaser - he who used to go hunting with Goering. Halifax was the British envoy charged with appealing to the finer feelings of the United States and he was having a terrible time. Shortly after arriving he is said to have sat down and wept - in despair at the culture clash. He couldn't understand the American informality, or their habit of talking on the telephone or popping round for unexpected meetings. In May 1941 the aristocratic old Etonian endured fresh torment when he was taken to a Chicago White Sox baseball game and invited to eat a hotdog. He refused. Then he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a group called the Mothers of America. Even for an appeaser, it seems a hell of a punishment. (page 247)
Johnson, if not inclined to vindictiveness, at least seems to have a taste for schadenfreude. He fingers a few other appeasers, for example:
Rab Butler, then a junior Foreign Office minister, was caught telling a Swedish diplomat that he thought Britain should do a deal – if Hitler offered the right terms (page 230)
returns to Johnson’s sights
… Tory drips such as Butler (the old appeaser) … (page 288)
So perhaps Tory remainers shouldn’t hold out too much hope of forgiveness and understanding from a Prime Minister Johnson.

There are some good things in The Churchill Factor. Johnson gives a whole chapter, An Icy Ruthlessness, to the decision to destroy the French fleet at Mers-el-K├ębir, a tragedy which the British tend to overlook when revisiting the events of 1940. And another, The Ships that Walked, to Churchill’s sponsorship, when at the Admiralty during WW1, of the initial development of the tank by the Directorate of Naval Construction.

Unlike some celebrity writers, Johnson is happy to give credit to various helpers in the Acknowledgements, in particular Dr Warren Dockter, but my favourite is the one to a fellow Old Etonian:
David Cameron did some invaluable devilling into the exact locations of the pivotal meetings in May 1940 – not at all clear in Lukacs, for instance. (page 361/2)


Remarks by Johnson about President Obama at the time of the visit to London have led to Borises being sold heavily in the reputations market in the last few days – perhaps never to recover, although there are still 60 days to go before the Referendum.

Earlier in the month Johnson had published his tax return:

 - his earnings from the Daily Telegraph seem to match their reputation. In The Churchill Factor (pages 72 and 73), Johnson dismisses Evelyn Waugh’s criticisms of Churchill’s literary style:
Is it that Waugh was a teensy bit jealous? I think so; and the reason was not just that Churchill had become so much more famous than Waugh had been, by the time he was twenty-five, but that he had made such stupendous sums from writing. And that, for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point of comparison. (page 73)