A few years ago in Malaysia I found myself reading the national paper, the New Straits Times.
There was a headline on the front page that caught my eye. It read something like ‘New road to the airport will make it easier to get to the airport’. I’m sure those weren’t the exact words, but that was pretty much the import of the thing. I read the whole of the ensuing article, which effectively confirmed at length what I already had been led to believe — that the new road to the airport would indeed make it much, much easier to get to the airport.
I read it again. Something seemed wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It felt altogether different from any newspaper article I had come across before.
And then I spotted what was odd. None of the usual paragraphs I had been expecting had appeared. There was no call for the resignation of a minister over delays to the road’s construction; no reports of environmentalists having discovered a rare toad nesting on the proposed route; no interviews with the hastily convened Road-to-the-Airport Residents’ Association decrying the noise from the proposed road or demanding a public enquiry. There wasn’t even an inset photograph with the caption ‘Resident Mrs Asiyah: “I don’t like the new road to the airport”.’
One of my colleagues wandered over. ‘You realise that paper is effectively a government propaganda sheet, don’t you?’ he asked.
‘Is that so? Well, in that case, I have to say I’m all in favour of it.’
To me the trouble with modern journalism isn’t that its practitioners spend so much of their time rooting around in celebrities’ bins. That’s the good bit. The trouble is that the whole business has become lazily formulaic.
Ever since Woodward and Bernstein, the story ‘rich or powerful person surreptitiously doing naughty thing’ has become the mother lode. The suspicion this generates is crippling.
As well as political bias, we need to be alert to what psychologists call narrative bias — the fact that certain stories enjoy a power and plausibility unconnected to how closely they represent the truth. The Robin Hood myth — or its modern incarnation ‘cheeky protestors disrupt road-building programme’ is one such example.
Our brains understand the world through stories — with a few familiar storylines carrying a particularly heavy load. It should not denigrate their achievements to say so, but both Steve Jobs and Winston Churchill benefit in the public imagination through having experienced ‘wilderness years’ in the middle of their careers. Had both of them simply enjoyed a gradual and uninterrupted rise to the top, they would not enjoy quite the same reverence. Their life-stories have a plotline we instinctively find attractive.
The problem now is that every media event or debate is forced to conform to one of about six standard narratives.
You’ll know this if you have ever been approached to appear on a television or radio debate. A researcher will call you at some inconvenient time and ask your opinion on some subject. As soon as your views on the subject diverge in the slightest way from their preconceived structure for the programme, you can hear them losing interest. An hour later you get a call back explaining that your presence on the broadcast is no longer needed.
If you want to understand the effects of these journalistic formulae, have a look at The Onion’s parody of 24-hour news channels entitled ‘Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere’. It’s a perfect illustration of how the treatment of any news item must be shoehorned into a standard journalistic framework.
The problem with these narratives is that they quickly become self-reinforcing. ‘The euro — an obviously futuristic and forward-thinking idea opposed only by a bizarre cabal of jingoistic little Englanders.’ That was pretty much the story for 15 years on the BBC.
Or property prices? For no logical reason, rising house prices have been portrayed in the media as if this were a universally good thing — entirely disregarding the bad consequences for the young, or for those with growing families, or those seeking work elsewhere. It was rather as though the media had presented rising food prices as good news because some of us happened to have rather a lot in the freezer that week.
But at least one of the most persistent narrative biases of the last 30 years seems to be in retreat. The unthinking opposition to larger infrastructure projects seems to be diminishing. Significantly this includes our instinctive approach to nuclear power.
After the Fukushima crisis, the population of the UK, in particular the male population, had a significant change of heart about nuclear energy. What was surprising was that they became more favourable to it. Their attitude seems to be one of ‘well, if that’s the worst that can happen, maybe we should think again’.
There are, of course, other objections to nuclear power. But when a nuclear power plant built to an outdated design is hit by an earthquake and a tsunami and still results in casualty figures lower than those incurred in an average day in the Chinese coal mining industry, we can’t reject it altogether.
So, to end the year on a optimistic note, this to me seems to be the most valuable thing about crises — whether environmental or economic. As Margaret Thatcher showed in 1979, a severe crisis allows you to change the default assumptions and stories by which society operates. Something we are simply too lazy to do at any other time.
Perhaps this helps explain why, by some estimations, the 1930s were the most inventive decade in the history of the world. Or, as physicist Ernest Rutherford said, ‘We have no money, so we shall have to think.’
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.