Since I landed my new job as executive editor at Breitbart London, my old Fleet Street friends and colleagues have reacted with a mix of envy and horror. The envy part comes from the fancy title and their ludicrously exaggerated idea of how much I’m being paid; the horror from the fact that I’ve gone and joined what’s known disparagingly in the trade as a ‘vertical’.
A vertical — the opposite of a horizontal, obviously — is an online enterprise that caters to a niche audience: dog owners, say; or foot fetishists; or, in the case of Breitbart.com, readers of a mainly American persuasion who like their news curated and served up in an uncompromisingly right-wing way.
So, for example, at Breitbart.com you won’t find too many stories on the shining genius of Barack Obama or the government’s lamentable failure to provide more social housing for one-armed lesbian single mothers. But you will find plenty on Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Islamic extremism, enviro–lunacy, fake Republicans and all those other push-button issues guaranteed to send red-meat conservatives into paroxysms of ecstasy or righteous rage.
All this is fine by me. When Lee Rigby was nearly decapitated with a cleaver in broad daylight in Woolwich by two Islamist converts, my instinctive response was not to agonise over what more could be done to prevent the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. When I hear a Cameron loyalist agitating for the selection of more MPs solely on the criterion that they possess breasts and vaginas I don’t go: ‘Yes! This is exactly what needs to be done to drag the Conservatives kicking and screaming into the modern age.’
And although they’re American conservatives, which can sometimes be a worrisome thing, Breitbart are the right kind of American conservative: the freedom-loving, classical-liberal variety who aren’t going to be disapproving if you ask as your next assignment — as of course I have done — if they wouldn’t mind sending you to Colorado to check out the quality of the weed in all those newly legalised dope emporia….
Given that this kind of right-wing libertarianism is my politics — and widely known to be my politics (see Delingpole, Spectator, passim) — I’m a little puzzled by the response I’ve had from some quarters suggesting that I’ve sold my soul to the devil. One old friend went so far as to accuse me of having joined ‘fruitloop central’, which I could perfectly well understand, say, if I’d taken the Auto Trader shilling and gone to write a new blog as a hard-left controversialist in the Guardian’s whacko Komment Macht Frei section. But ‘Conservatarian journalist joins conservatarian website’: where exactly is the controversy in that?
Well, I’ll tell you where I think the controversy lies. It has to do with our culture’s peculiar snobbery towards news media organisations which give their punters what they want. A phrase you often hear used in this context is ‘pandering to readers’ prejudices’. That use of ‘pander’, with its connotation of pimping and of forbidden fruit, would seem to suggest that the job of any halfway decent newspaper is to deny its readers what they want and challenge their preconceptions at every turn.
To appreciate how absurd this notion is, try applying it to other industries. Should chocolate manufacturers reduce the sugar levels in their confectionary and make their packaging more sober, in order to ward off potential customers who are fat, greedy and unhealthy? Should arms dealers refuse to sell to third world dictatorships lest their weapons be used in ways which don’t accord with the Geneva Convention?
This cultural snobbery goes back a long way. In his insightful pamphlet There’s No Such Thing as a Free Press, Mick Hume traces it at least as far as the Wilkes riots of the 1760s. MPs of the time were appalled that newspapers should be allowed to report freely on parliamentary proceedings. As one said: ‘It is unfit that the people should be misled by printers and it is for their good that they should know nothing but came from the authority of this house.’
Hume notes the horror with which high-minded Victorians greeted Lord Northcliffe’s launch in 1896 of the Daily Mail — which, he declared, in order to maximise profits would ‘deal with what interests the mass of people’. And the priggishness of the NUJ conference in 1946 where it was complained that the growth of ‘commercial newspapers with millions of circulation has reduced news to the quality of entertainment’.
But this is exactly where the snobs are wrong. If news isn’t a branch of the entertainment industry, how come the columnists we always turn to first are the ones who are most witty, elegant, snarky or shocking? And if news isn’t about what interests the mass of people, how can it possibly ever survive as a viable business, especially in the internet age when audiences are now free to read whatever they like — not just what their supposed superiors have decided they ought to like?
One of the things I love about my job at Breitbart is counting the hits, the comments, the Facebook and Twitter shares, which tell us that our audience is growing. This is free-market capitalism in excelsis. Sure it’s a brutally honest system, the way the market rewards you if you give people what they want and punishes you if you don’t. But it’s undoubtedly the fairest and most efficient way we’re ever going to find of allocating scarce resources. And it’s also — because ultimately it’s about scratching people’s itches, making them happy, fulfilling their needs — the kindest.