Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Why the surprise?

Richard Norton-Taylor - who is a somewhat pompous bore but nevertheless reasonably competent, for a Guardian journalist (which isn't saying very much) - is ruminating on why revolutions such as Tunisia's (and the situation in Egypt) come as such a surprise.

The answer he comes up with is nothing particularly new or surprising, but it is neatly put. Diplomats and intelligence agencies, the strap to his piece reads, often tell ministers what they want to hear – and overvalue secret sources of information

Secret intelligence services, naturally enough, writes Norton-Taylor, want to emphasise secret intelligence – a product which only they, in their special and privileged role, can offer. As a result, they have seriously underestimated what can be gleaned from "open sources".

This came out in the Franks report into the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands in 1982. More accurate and timely information could be gleaned about the Junta's intentions from local newspapers than from British secret agents in Latin America, it said.

Norton-Taylor reminds us that Britain's diplomats and spooks, in common with all western intelligence agencies, also spectacularly failed to foresee the fall of the Berlin wall. Thus, he says, they must in future pay much more attention to "open sources", what they can hear on the Arab street, and what they can read, notably on the internet.

That last comment has a particular resonance and applied in spades when I was researching for Ministry of Defeat. Iraqi insurgents were especially internet savvy so that, while MSM defence correspondents were so often relying on MoD briefings, I was able to tap into their daily reports of activities.

These, and other internet sources – including Middle East media reports - often proved surprisingly consistent and accurate, far more so than British media and the MoD. As a result, I ended up better informed, in some respects, than the people who were actually in the country (but miles away from the action).

But this does not only apply to exotic situations. Anyone who relies merely – or even mainly – on the MSM for their "take" on what is happening in this country, or for their general news of events, would end up very seriously ill-informed. Yet it remains the case that the political "set" in this country rely for their information on such conventional sources, and are still unduly influenced by the MSM.

However, we cannot leave it there, without also referring to what could be called mindset myopia. Our "élites" very often do not realise what is happening because they already think they know, and therefore do not avail themselves of credible information sources, because they believe they know better. They don't look for information because they don't see the need for it. And that is what really catches them out.

Either way, when our revolution eventually arrives – in whatever form it finally takes – our politicians and other agencies will also be caught by surprise. If they had the ability to see it coming, they would also have the ability to head it off.

Almost by definition, therefore, revolutions must always come as a surprise to those at whom they are aimed. The happen because those people are so out of touch that they are capable of being surprised.