“Future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialise in,” joked the author David Burr Gerrard on Twitter. Imagine having to write a first draft of history while the year unfolded. I’ve tried to assess the methods, biases and blind spots that I brought to covering 2020.
This spring’s lockdown was both the most dystopian and utopian period I’ve lived through. Did it mean the death of offices? Peak aviation? Or didn’t it change the future at all? I see my job as producing semi-original hypotheses about the world, but this time I was shooting in pitch darkness. I suspect future historians will read the newspapers of 2020 only to gauge our naivety.
The year’s other big novelty was an American president’s attempt to overthrow his country’s democracy. But I grew overly obsessed with Donald Trump. US politics has replaced Hollywood: an addictive spectacle in English, mostly talk, but with violence always a possibility, featuring a Gothic main character locked in a Manichean struggle. The American show distracted me from the other 96 per cent of humanity.
Readers rightly accuse me of bias against Trump and Brexit. Both movements offend my cosmopolitan instincts. However, the FT has various procedures to stop biased journalists from bashing out misinformation unchecked. Many readers don’t know how the FT works, which is fair enough: I don’t know how accountancy or dentistry work. Let me briefly explain.
First, the newspaper is innately respectful of (dread word) experts, though I hope not credulously so. For last week’s column on Brexit, I spoke to a former British national security adviser, a professor of Chinese history and a professor specialising in European politics. You could dismiss them as “elitist Remainers”. But experts are meant to adapt their analyses to ever-changing reality.
Had Britain done a trade deal that combined full access to the European single market with enhanced sovereignty, some would have said, “Brexit is working out unexpectedly well.” That would have influenced my analysis. Similarly, if Trump had “run the country like a business” and managed the pandemic well, I’d have taken notice.
Second, the FT’s basic ideology (beaten into me as a young reporter) is that inaccurate is worse than boring. I send the subeditors sources for every factual assertion in my columns. They then do their own sceptical fact-checking. Some mistakes do get through. In June, I wrote that Manchester’s population in 1902 was 1.25 million. A reader caught me: the British census of 1901 had clocked 543,872. Only Manchester’s broader conurbation had anything like 1.25 million inhabitants. The FT posted a correction. I was mortified. A couple of mistakes like that and I’m in trouble.
Many readers accuse me of writing liberal or “socialist” propaganda on orders from the FT’s editor or owners. In fact, I write what I want. I suspect the FT would be pleased if more columnists supported Brexit or Trump, because readers with those views have often felt abandoned. But columnists speak their own minds.
In any case, I have no illusion that I ever change readers’ minds. We’ve learnt since 2016 how unpersuadable most people are. Some even formulate their beliefs in deliberate opposition to newspapers. I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m just trying to think my way through important topics.
My biases also show in what I don’t write — what postmodernists call the “holes in the text”. I’ve almost entirely ignored China. After a visit there in 2011 when I felt like a baby, unable to read or understand a word, I decided to leave the topic to Mandarin-speaking colleagues. Shamefully, I’ve never even mentioned the Chinese camps for Uighurs. But now that China is arguably the world’s most important country, my ignorance is becoming untenable.
I’ve written too little about developing countries in general. Being based in a rich western metropolis creates more blind spots than just the much-cited one about the white working class.
And during what may prove the hottest year ever recorded, I’ve mostly ignored climate change. It’s partly that I’m not cosmopolitan enough: living in temperate northern Europe, I feel almost immune to the world’s biggest problem. I’d probably be more engaged if I wrote from an unravelling paradise like California or Australia, let alone Bangladesh or Nigeria.
I also struggle to make climate change readable. Even Michael Lewis, the most gifted populariser of ideas in contemporary nonfiction, told The Correspondent podcast: “It’s very hard to dramatise . . . Until it’s too late. And then it’s very easy to dramatise . . . I can’t just go and write a book about climate change. No one would care.” But these are poor excuses for missing the main story. Perhaps December 2019 was the peak of human existence, and we were all too busy whining to notice.
My most damaging bias may be an attraction to stories about vivid characters, mainly white, in English, where there’s an opportunity to choose a side and clarify my own identity. It’s a bias I share with many readers.
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