The purpose of columnists
Norm has been poking fun at some of the Guardian’s Libya punditry. But I fear he is making a common category error here. Criticizing a newspaper columnist for not being right is like complaining that your cat doesn’t make you a cup of tea in the morning. It’s not their job.Seamus Milne and Simon Jenkins had no expertise in military matters or Libyan politics; the latter is especially elusive given the problem of preference falsification (pdf), as discussed by Timur Kuran. So why did they write about intervention? It’s because they weren’t paid for their expert analysis, but rather to echo the prejudices of Guardian readers, which are that NATO and the military are bad things.The Guardian, of course, is not unusual in this. Bloggers love to slag off Melanie Phillips, but not one of them points out the key fact - that she’s paid to write columns and they are not. This difference exists not because Ms Philips is a better writer or better informed than her critics, but because she is better able than they to express Mail readers’ prejudices.Newspapers are businesses like any other. And the function of a business is to give its customers what they want. And in many cases, what the customers want is not the “truth” but the comfort that they are right.It’s not just newspapers that do this. Even the BBC does. Everyone has attacked David Starkey’s comments on the riots. But no-one has asked: what the bleedin’ hell were Newsnight doing inviting him onto the show? He might have had some especial insight into the rioting if it had been led by Henry VIII. But it wasn’t. Instead, Newsnight got him on because bigoted bollocks makes for “good TV” whilst sober cautious analysis doesn’t. Starkey’s appearance got much more publicity for the programme than the reasoned discussion of an expert criminologist would have.I’m making two points here. First, the culture of science - which requires that our beliefs be held sceptically and tested against the evidence - is weak against the culture of ego, which requires that our self-esteem be boosted by being told that we are right.Secondly, given this cultural background, there is a tension between market forces and the promotion of reasoned public discourse. Market forces require that our prejudices be confirmed, but reasoned discussion requires that they be challenged. For this reason, reports of the death of blogging, if correct, are a cause for concern.