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Arrogance and ignorance

Posted by Richard Saturday, July 14, 2007

Anthony Jay, former BBC producer and co-writer of "Yes minister", holds forth (at length) in The Daily Telegraph today, in a clinical dissection of "media liberalism" – as it applies to the BBC.

The hidden joke of the piece, of course, is that what applies to the BBC also applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to the whole of the MSM, including the newspaper in which Jay writes.

For those (very few) who really want to try to understand the media, and why it exercises such a malign influence on political discourse – and life in general – however, Jay does us a service. He isolates some of the underlying currents which determine the phenomenon - for once correctly – identified by the title of the piece: "Here is the news (as we want to report it)".

That phenomenon, Jay notes in one simple sentence when he observes that what he calls the "metropolitan liberal media consensus" from time to time finds an issue that strikes a chord with the broad mass of the nation, but – and here is the key part of his sentence – "in most respects" is "wildly unrepresentative of national opinion."

Although he does not use the exact phrasing, what he is taking about is the media's "selection bias", one which, in an earlier piece, we labelled, "the most powerful of distorting prisms through which current affairs may be viewed", for it is that which affects the media's choice about what we shall (and shall not) see.

And, as we are indeed talking about this very powerful bias, what Jay does is tell us, in some detail, about why it occurs and why it takes the form that it does. This he sums up as a simple question: "what is behind the opinions and attitudes of what are called the chattering classes?" – the subculture which has managed to install itself as the principal interpreter of Britain's institutions to the British public.

One of his factors, and to me, the crucial part of the long pieces, is that this media class sees itself as:

…the intellectual élite, full of ideas about how the country should be run, and yet with no involvement in the process or power to do anything about it. Being naïve in the way institutions actually work, yet having good arts degrees from reputable universities, we were convinced that Britain's problems were the result of the stupidity of the people in charge. We ignored the tedious practicalities of getting institutions to adopt and implement ideas.
He goes on to write:

This ignorance of the realities of government and management enabled us to occupy the moral high ground. We saw ourselves as clever people in a stupid world, upright people in a corrupt world, compassionate people in a brutal world, libertarian people in an authoritarian world. We were not Marxists but accepted a lot of Marxist social analysis. Some people called us arrogant; looking back, I am afraid I cannot dispute the epithet.
Thus, in two short paragraphs, two crucial concepts occur: "ignorance" and "arrogance" – these from a man who used to be at the centre of the "liberal media elite" and one who should know.

In this, I am reminded of the comment by the philosopher Ortega y Gasset (not usually my most favourite person) who once commented of the new mass-man, that:

… he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line … In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of – this is the paradox – specialists in those matters …
For one who wrote this in 1930 (in the original Spanish), Ortega y Gasset was extraordinarily prescient, especially as he went on to write:

Anyone who wishes can observe the stupidity of thought, judgement and action shown today in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the "men of science" and behind them the doctors, engineers, financiers, teachers, and so on.
The arrogant, yet ignorant know-all, therefore, is hardly a new phenomenon, but those who display these distressing (and dangerous) characteristics now exercise their power through the mass media, which gives them free reign to promote their brand of "stupidity of thought".

Jay, however, leaves the problem hanging, in that he ventures the view that, had he remained in the maw of the BBC, he would probably have remained a devotee of the "metropolitan media liberal ideology", thus suggesting that it is an incurable condition for those whose exposure is continuous.

However, the man is not at all internet savvy and, like so many, has probably not realised the power of this alternative medium, which is doing much to break the monopoly of thought of those who are trapped in the metropolitan bubble. To the extent that we can offer our own unique brands of "stupidity of thought", there is at least now a countervailing force to counter those whose arrogance and ignorance we find so offensive.