Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"I say let them crash!"

James Joyner links to a piece discussing the perils of being a talking head for the broadcast news types.

Mysteriously, I've never been asked to air my prejudices on BBC News 24. However, I have met a number of people who have provided "expert comment" and I also happen to live with a Reuters journalist when in Westminster, so I've seen both sides of the wire.

I can only comment with regard to defence-related "expert analysis" on the television news, but my one piece of advice is to take most of it with a huge pinch of salt.* The journos, as noted in the article, want concise answers that fit easily into a short broadcast segment. They also want solid, unequivocal responses, even when there are none to give.

This is unfortunate, as in both war and the wake of terror attacks it is difficult to sit in a TV studio and give these sorts of answers. Or, more accurately, it's easy to give them but they'll be guff. In addition it is common for the editorial staff to have constructed a pre-conceived narrative and the questions the expert will be asked are often extremely leading, to put it mildly (often with the news host responding with incredulity or a persistent lading follow-up if the expert does not take the bait). Most of the expert analysis during the conventional phase of the Iraq war turned out to be total nonsense. Our own Sir Lawrence Freedman, who is as careful and nuanced an analyst as one would care to encounter in his written work, infamously predicted in 2001 that it would be next to impossible for the Allies to take Kabul by the end of the year - less than 24 hours before Kabul fell (this was, of course, the narrative being pushed by the news editorial staff at the time, replate with dire predictions of military "quagmire", unprecedented refugee displacement and "silent genocide" - all of which turned out to be wild speculation of the most irresponsible kidney). Similarly, following terror attacks the news people want answers and they want them now, even though in reality clear pictures don't emerge until at best days and more often weeks after the event - a fact they'd make clear to their viewers if they actually wanted to provide a serious public service. If anybody is unequivocal you should immediately have your guard up.

Here's vaguely what the expert analysis should sound like:

PRESENTER: I have with me in the studio Dr Dave Skidmarx from the Frank Gaffney Military-Industrial Complex Institute. Dr Skidmarx, clearly the question on everyone's lips today: Are we looking at an al Qaeda strike?
DR SKIDMARX: Well I think right now the only real answer I can give you is "I don't know". I don't know for sure and I don't think anyone else does. We can say that the MO, several simultaneous, co-ordinated attacks on serperate targets, is a traditional al Qaeda hallmark. However, the fact of the matter is that doing something like that isn't exactly rocket science and anyone with an awareness of roughly ho these things operate and how it's been done in the past could have taken it on board. We could be looking at a centrally planned al Qaeda operation. More likely, especially given the way they operate these days, is that it's some sort of loosely affiliated group that may have received some form of backing either in terms of finance or technical support. Or it could be neither of these and we could actually be looking at a completely independent group. We aren't likely to know within the next 24 hours and actually it could be a few weeks. The best thing we and your viewers can do is sit tight and wait for more of the facts to come in - and bear in mind that the theories that emerge in the first 24 hours often turn out to be wrong or at least incomplete. In a few days we may at least be able to take an informed guess. Until then anybody who offers you a concrete answer to your question is either a fool or a knave.


And here's what it actually sounds like:

PRESENTER: I have with me in the studio Dr Dave Skidmarx from the Frank Gaffney Military-Industrial Complex Institute. Dr Skidmarx, clearly the question on everyone's lips today: Are we looking at an al Qaeda strike?
DR SKIDMARX: Yes.

It's enough to make you choke on your Fruit and Fibre.



*said the pot to the kettle...

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