Tonight I am chairing an event hosted by the media analysis firm Editorial Intelligence (their events can be as good as ours but, as a business, they charge!). The subject is The Power of the Commentariat and more specifically a pamphlet with that name researched and written by Julia Hobsbawm and John Lloyd.
Based as it is on interviews with columnists and political insiders the research is largely anecdotal and the conclusions broad. Commentators generally claim neither to want nor to expect to have much impact beyond entertaining readers. However, politicians and their advisors say that columnists – particularly the most high profile and respected – can influence public opinion and decision makers.
Although newspaper readership is falling, many columnists are now bloggers and arguably the opinionated, iconoclastic tone of the political blogosphere represents the next stage of the ever expanding realm of opinion which has seen the number of national newsprint columnists rise from a handful thirty years ago to several hundred now.
Although I am a blogger I am no great fan of the opinion piece. In general, their one sidedness, polemical tone and overwhelming tendency to present politicians as self interested second-raters (something which of course distinguishes them from the selfless generous, socially transformative profession of commentators themselves), the tide of columns in daily newspapers contributes to the unhealthy atmosphere in which politicians find it ever harder to confront people with the difficult choices we face as a society.
My disillusionment with the commentariat (which has nothing at all to do with the fact that no one has ever offered me a regular column) was sealed when I developed an intellectual game based on reading the most opinionated columns.
The game is simply to read the column then consider your view. Then spend a few minutes constructing the best, equally opinionated, counter piece. Not only is it easy to do, but at the end of the process you will tend to find yourself now holding a diametrically different opinion.
Subject to even a cursory deconstruction columns reveal (and of course there are exceptions) not reality but the lens through which the columnist is viewing reality. And because we, their fickle readers, prefer to feel self righteous than challenged, that lens is generally one in which the poor reader is the blameless victim either of the venality or our rulers, or of some other class of citizens who are comfortingly described as being completely unlike us in their motives or interests.
What has arguably made the rise and rise of the commentator more pernicious is that over the last generation the profession has moved from being similar to a theatre critic - experienced, informed, authoritative, somewhat aloof - to being a rowdy audience, seeking to disrupt the performance on stage with catcalls and rotten tomatoes.
What matters less now is the weight and coherence of the opinion expressed more the capacity of the writers to whip up the rest of the audience – me or you – into a state of self righteous rage, booing the actors and demanding our money back.
I am chairing a panel of commentators tonight so may be it will be my turn to be thrown off stage.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.