The line between political activist and commentator

Owen Jones wrote a great piece the day before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the UK Labour Party, reflecting on his own role and how people’s perceptions of his writing might be affected if Corbyn won.

It was never my intention or ambition to become a writer. … All I’m interested in is reaching people with political ideas that are otherwise banished. Obviously, the role of any individual in political change is limited and modest. I’ve spent the last few years trying to contribute to rebuilding an alternative politics, and unashamedly so. I see myself as an equal to any other activist: we’re all trying to achieve political change and contribute in different ways.

That makes my relationship with the mainstream media pretty difficult and conflicted. … Choose your metaphor or simile: but it feels like swimming against an extremely strong tide, without getting out the world’s smallest violin (oops, another one).

The point I’d make is this. I make my opinions and biases abundantly clear. But there are news journalists who are as opinionated as me, but pretend to be impartial. Indeed news and opinion are extremely blurred in this country. It is often possible to read through a news article about British politics and have a fair guess at the political convictions of the writer. As for the mainstream press as a whole — while, it serves as a very sophisticated de facto political lobbying operation, overwhelmingly promoting the cause of right-wing politics.

Go read the whole thing, it’s excellent.

It obviously gave me a bit of pause for thought. I don’t have anything like Jones’ reach or platform (no paid media gigs is a significant one) and I don’t think I’m anywhere near his level. But I am a party activist. I was fairly closely involved in Andrew Little’s campaign for the Labour leadership (enough so, and proud enough of my work, to stick it on my LinkedIn page like a total nerd, prompting a few interesting “who’s viewed your profile” results.) I work for the biggest Labour affiliate union, and blog in my free time on a clear understanding I am expressing my personal opinions.

There are plenty of other people in the NZ political blogosphere and commentariat who wander back and forth across the pundit/activist lines. Many, unfortunately, don’t draw clear lines about when they’re acting as one or the other – and that goes for people on the left as well as the right. And many, I believe, don’t reflect Jones’ commitment to only put in print what he would say behind closed doors anyway.

I can tell you I’m happy to make that commitment. I may choose to comment or not to comment on different issues, but when I comment, you’re getting my opinion on the matter. (Of course, if you already think I’m a party hack regurgitating Head Office’s key messages you aren’t going to believe me, but that’s up to you.)

I have an agenda, just like Owen Jones and just like anyone else who believes passionately in their politics. I want to see “my side” succeed. But a pillar of my ideology is that democracy is the bedrock of our society, and for democracy to function properly it needs an informed, aware electorate.

If we start telling voters what we think they want to hear, in order to gain power at any cost, we don’t deserve power. The other side don’t deserve power either, but I’m not willing to destroy everything that makes our movement worthwhile to get them out. What precisely would we achieve then? The same cold-hearted value-free government with a different arrangement of faces on the front bench.

Words are my tool. I love to write and express my political beliefs through writing. Sometimes that’ll be within the Party of which I’m currently a member. Sometimes that’ll be here. Usually it’ll be on Twitter.

I do work in communications, and I haven’t always worked for employers whose policies or processes I agreed with. And yeah, in those instances I’ve given advice on how to communicate their terrible policy or process best, if that was my job. But when I tell you something is my opinion, you can believe it, and you can believe I will say it to anyone behind closed doors who wants to listen.

If someone wanted to pay me to say it in a major newspaper I’d be down with that too …

freddie mercury wink

Brent Edwards takes a bow

It seems thoroughly unfair that hot on the heels of losing Dita de Boni from our political commentariat, we’re saying goodbye to Brent Edwards as political editor at Radio New Zealand.

the craft crying

But it’s not all bad news – he’s moving to the position of director of news gathering at Radio NZ. He and Mary Wilson, who’s moving to director of news programming, should make one hell of a team.

So here’s his sign-off. It should probably be required reading for #nzpol nerds.

… with ministerial press secretaries and political advisers on their case, public servants increasingly appear to consider the political implications of anything they do, including when it comes to releasing what should be publicly available information.

Couple that with the rise of political spin, a practice adopted widely around the world, and politicians’ natural aversion to speaking in a straightforward manner it is little wonder the political debate has become less and less relevant.

Politics has become a profession and now politicians are judged by how they practise their profession.

While that might be good for politics, it is not necessarily good for democracy.

Dita de Boni: a loss to our national conversation

Dita de Boni’s final column for the Herald is a cracker:

People have asked me over the years why my columns have become more strident in tone; more “biased against” the Government. The answer’s that the examples of contempt for the public, hypocrisy, and flat-out bulls***tery have become too overwhelming to ignore.

And while these traits can also be found in the opposition, it’s not the same. A journalist – even an opinion columnist writing on politics, which is not the same thing as investigative journalism and certainly not as important – must necessarily give more weight to the actions of the party in power. Anything else starts to look like meaningless diversion.

Just go read the whole thing, and mourn for the loss (I hope temporary) of de Boni’s voice in #nzpol.

QOTD: Beware that latest “diet breakthrough”

A must-read article at io9:

I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

Here’s how we did it.

The story of how they got their study published and turned into blaring, inaccurate, weight-loss-promoting headlines across the world make for fascinating and worrying reading.

But it’s not just about the reporting. There’s a hugely important message about weight-loss “science”:

I know what you’re thinking. The study did show accelerated weight loss in the chocolate group—shouldn’t we trust it? Isn’t that how science works?

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.

So why should you care? People who are desperate for reliable information face a bewildering array of diet guidance—salt is bad, salt is good, protein is good, protein is bad, fat is bad, fat is good—that changes like the weather. But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.

Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who cofounded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative—one of the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.”

The ironic thing about Attia’s “lament” is that the lack of clear evidence about diet and health didn’t stop him cofounding an organisation whose website cries out for proper research and funding – but still assumes that the “dramatic rise in obesity” in the US is a “crisis” and not a blip caused by changing the definition of “obesity” in the 90s.

The authors of this terrible study did it deliberately to make a point about bad science and bad science reporting. There are plenty of others out there doing it for a far worse reason: the ridiculous amount of money there is to be made from promoting health anxiety and fat panic.