Notes on understanding what’s really going on.
If you’re going to take reporting seriously (and this isn’t me being pretentious – I am only an amateur reporter) there is a real need to build up a trusted spectrum of folks who will talk to you.
When I started this lark eight years ago, I had seven solid-gold contacts. They were all leftovers from a misspent youth in advertising, and the many ways in that profession interlocks with editorial media and politics. They were split more or less 50:50 between the UK and the US. In the UK (four of them) three were from Government – that is, the Civil Service in Whitehall – and one was working on a national newspaper. It also has to be said that I retained some 80+ close mates and valued acquaintances from advertising itself….and each of these in turn had valuable contacts in related areas.
In the US, one was based in California, but with quite extraordinary links to big money. A liberal himself, he quickly became a good source of inebriated gossip. One was in New York advertising – the only woman in that City with whom I felt a true kinship, who later went on to much bigger things. The other was (and is) a Washington civil servant now sadly close to retirement.
Looking back, it feels like I might have been a very early proponent of ‘networking’ – a term I loathe, because it is suggestive of using people: but in the end, if the cap fits, one must wear it. If you’ve worked in senior corporate life for over thirty years, it’s amazing how many people one can contact….and thus gain access to folks who might tell you stuff.
The two key things, I have found, if you want them to tell you stuff, are these: create absolute trust in their anonymity; and make it clear that you want to ‘use’ those people for a good cause. These are absolutely mutually inclusive considerations: informants need to know they can trust you – and trust you to do the right thing with what they tell you.
Sometimes, one’s hubris gets the better of one. A contact from the commercials business was able to tell me something important about the Blair Premiership. In using this snippet to put something else together some months later, I got what he’d said wrong. He was not best pleased, and I can understand why. But we all learn from our mistakes: there is no reason for anyone to trust us if we betray that trust.
However, it’s not just contacts that breed contacts. As I frequently observe – but it deserves repetition – these days over 60% of all stories run by The Slog come from Sloggers. There is no way I can express the gratitude I feel about this. Not only does it justify my starting point – blogging by use of startling facts to stimulate an intelligent audience rather than just yelling at the knuckle-draggers – it has given this site a real credibility which (at last) is making inroads among professional journalists. Some Slog readers refer in an acidic manner to ‘the MSM’, but you’d be amazed at just how many highly principled hacks there are out there. Their stuff gets spiked, and if the Eye won’t touch it, they’re increasingly likely to come to The Slog…or a hundred other largely online organs who will only spike stuff they see as spin.
I posted a piece about the pain of being outside the mainstream yesterday. To my genuine astonishment, it got around 120 responders, many of whom thought I was about to do a Frank Sinatra retirement thing. Not a bit of it: I was merely registering how disappointing it is to see The Slog still relegated by many to the Lunatic Fringe. As a bloke whose self-image is one of being a sane realist – and, being honest, as a pack animal who’d much rather belong to the pack – it does irk quite often that the vast majority of my fellow-citizens either don’t see (or don’t care) about how big a scam they’re enduring.
As many of those comment threading to that post pointed out, there is a growing feeling – almost taken for granted in 2011 – that the majority somehow must be right. Whether this has come from majoritarian voting on juries or the furore over such weight of numbers in the EU I really wouldn’t know; but it reflects yet another appalling ignorance about the difference between lots of folks thinking something, and it being right.
A bloke I knew at school – one of the first to set an example of being different to be right – would often say, when faced with others talking up the majority opinion, “Yeh, well – eat sh*t, right? I mean, 400 trillion flies can’t be wrong”.
A lot of the time, it’s very difficult indeed to get at the truth. Often, we don’t find out what it was until much later. That said, it has never been easier to spot bollocks. Bollocks is, after all, not the opposite of Truth. Rather, it’s what the powerful put out to hide the truth.