Archive for July, 2005

The expression “you can’t have your cake and eat it” was around before behavioural science, or our favourite description of confirmation bias – Paul Simon in his song The Boxer. But it is hard to understand how a report this week, first seen in the New York Times, but then repeated elsewhere, can act as both as an indictment of British intelligence, but also be framed by the press as a validation of the claims that the war in Iraq has increased the risk of terrorist attack.

The bigger story must surely be the past failure of the UK Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre, which had said, “at present there is not a group with both the current intent and the capability to attack the UK.” But most journalists – ignoring the JTAC’s past record – seem to have led with its condemnation of allied governments and Tony Blair in particular, when it said “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK.”

In journalism, the quality of a source must be measured by the reliability of his/her/its information. If he is wrong on one thing, as the JTAC was so manifestly in gauging the imminent threat, then he must be treated cautiously on all other assertions.

In truth, it should be no surprise that the war in Iraq increased the risk of terrorist activity. Quantifying it may prove much more difficult in the absence of knowledge of a different path of history. However, whether the war was the right or wrong decision at the time, focusing on it is a significant mistake of bias when the greater revelation in the NYT story is that the intelligence services grossly underestimated the current “sophistication” of the terrorist networks.

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Amazon.com achieved an entertainment coup of sorts when it managed to persuade Bob Dylan and Norah Jones to perform for a party to celebrate its 10th anniversary, not only separately, but also for a duet. The pairing of two such disparate artists would have been unimaginable until last Saturday’s concert, but Amazon’s ability to link the two is indicative of the company’s sense of imagination and innovation, the foundation of its success.

To labour the point, Amazon generates add-on sales by highlighting the behaviour and tastes of its customers to one another, through reviews and recommendations. A bias toward Dylan and against Jones might be reversed if we see that other Dylan fans are buying Jones’ music and vice versa. Equally a bias toward a best-selling product or well-reviewed item may reinforce that product’s success against better, but more obscure brands. It can cut both ways, but Amazon doesn’t need to care.

Amazon first started as an internet retailer for books, well before there was much faith in the ability of the net to form the basis of a good business model. It survived the tech collapse, and has moved from strength to strength. It’s also gone beyond books to music and movies and is even starting to turn a profit.

Dylan and Jones sang “I Shall Be Released,” a track from Dylan’s “Basement Tapes,” and while it spoke of a message popular during the 1960s, the title is also suggestive – in the more practical era of the 21st century – of how Amazon has freed retailing from physical and geographical constraints as well as enhanced the power of the customer in terms of choice as well as the sheer enjoyability of shopping.

The performance in Seattle was attended by some 2,500 of Amazon’s employees, but in true Amazon style, it was also broadcast live to the rest of the company via its website. If anything, Amazon has demonstrated that imagination in one area can easily be applied to another.

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Zimbabwe’s president does a good turn to journalists by grabbing the hand of politicians and royals, making major news out of so-called “gaffes” by UK home secretary Jack Straw and even Prince Charles. But what happens when a journalist seeks out the hand of a war criminal?

The BBC took credit this week for uncovering Afghan warlord Faryadi Zardad, who was living in London under a false passport. Tracked down by John Simpson, its star correspondent and the self-styled liberator of Kabul, the broadcaster repeatedly showed a clip of the journalist arriving with a TV crew at the non-descript terraced house in which Zardad was holed up before his arrest and unprecedented prosecution on English soil for crimes committed abroad.

Seeking to show how its intrepid reporter unmasked the truth in an “exclusive” for the BBC’s flagship news programme Newsnight, every broadcast reporting Zardad’s 20-year conviction showed Simpson in a handshake with a man who, the broadcaster delighted in explaining, kept a human “dog.”

The point is not that Simpson made a mistake. It’s just that accidental handshakes should not distract reporters and editors, especially when such actions mean nothing more than juvenile embarrassment.

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There has been a consistent bias in the reporting and analysis of the latest terrorist incident that the source of the crime is “somewhere else.” That extends both to the human and technical resources deployed. So there is a great “shock” when the terrorists are discovered to be young local men living in relatively tight-knit communities, and a similar reversal when the explosives used are “home-made” rather than of an industrial/military source.

Still, we look for identity cards, and controls on the movement of suspect foreigners, when already we should know different. The two shoe bombers were both home-grown and with home-made explosives. Only their arrest avoided last week’s catastrophe occurring earlier.

The bias on display is that ordinary folk live in a safe well-ordered and relatively low-tech society and the bad stuff is extrinsic. The truth that we are discovering about globalisation is that threats that used to be foreign are now indigenous, and this may be much more of an issue of technology and media than immigration, religion or multi-culturalism to which the right will point. Necessary discussion of the latter meanwhile is hampered by the liberal bias of political correctness, and dare one say it, the ostensible quality of Muslim leadership in the UK if those put up for interview are anything to go by.

In any event, the underlying cause is probably one of cultural alienation and despair, probably involving some level of mental illness, and independent of religion. After all Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma bombing was no immigrant, or Muslim. Nevertheless, this does not let the religious communities in which these terrorists live off the hook–quite the contrary.

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When a bomb goes off in a busy city, it is reported by eye witnesses that the immediate aftermath is followed by silence. This makes sense, because so dramatic and unexpected, so random is such an event, that all our senses must be reorientated to take account of what has happened to determine what danger we are in and what course of action is necessary.

In media terms, with 24-hour news programmes available to the public, there is no silence any more. Not only are those engaged in reporting, editing and presenting not allowed any moment for reflection, they stream unbroken incoherence to the public, depriving them the necessary time and distance as well as accurate facts to make their own sense of what has happened. This creates a new danger; a sort of information pollution that sets up and feeds particular biases.

In the immediate aftermath of last Thursday’s bombing of London, initial reports described seven blasts–six on the underground and one on the bus. There was double counting because those escaping the three underground blasts emerged from six underground stations.

This was still the case at least three hours into the story. At that point too, only two deaths had been reported, which commentators were already taking to indicate a much less serious incident than was initially feared. While the casualties went up, and the number of bombs went down, the latter information was taken to indicate a much lower level of coordination, or fewer people involved, again suggesting a much weaker organization than at first feared, or compared with the Madrid bombing.

The police, however, described the crime scene on Monday as the biggest in British history, and urged patience on the part of victims families, as their evident frustration was starting itself to be picked up by the media. How can a forensic, scientific examination match the media’s real-time response rate, and flexibility with the need for accuracy? If we don’t acknowledge the need for reflection, we won’t get it. Those with the ability or propensity to rush to judgement will get promoted. Decision making will be impoverished, and the risks will increase.

Real-time coverage leaves its mark. Few people will return to more considered writing, or pick up on the smaller, often more salient facts that emerge at a much later date.

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