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Friday, 3 July 2020
Cummings Thinks He Knows What He’s Doing
Amid all the criticism of falling journalistic standards, as an increasing number of supposedly reputable hacks resort to taking dictation from a variety of “Downing Street sources” (some of them “senior”), has emerged a silver lining in the gathering gloom, and that is the sure and certain knowledge that we now know those sources’ limitations.
Because journalists desperate to hang on to their “sources” are so frightened of upsetting them, and so cutting off the flow of juicy morsels to feed readers and viewers, what they tell us is not the result of the source being interrogated. There is no to and fro, no probing questions are asked. All we read and hear is the product of stenography.
It is with this in mind that one should approach this comment by James Forsyth of the increasingly alt-right Spectator magazine, which teases his latest article: “The paradox at the heart of Boris Johnson’s political project is that [it] is clear-eyed, brutal even, about the failings of government but it is also pinning its hopes on government to solve this country’s economic problems”. Not everyone reading that was cheering.
And not anywhere near cheering was Jonathan Portes, who is a Professor of Economics, and so might be expected to understand a little about the former “Dismal Science”. His response was to ask “Where to start with this stuff? ‘Not even wrong’ doesn't even begin to cover it”. Forsyth had been talking about data and modelling. Here’s what he said.
“The new emphasis on data must properly distinguish between data and modelling. Data has real analytical value - it enables robust discussion of what has worked and what has not. Modelling is a far less exact science. In this crisis, as in the 2008 financial crisis, models have been more of a hindrance than a help”. And in his lunch break, Forsyth’s source will be considering the latest exhibition at The Pretentious Gallery.
Meanwhile, Portes put his response directly. “This article really does tell you a *lot* about the structural failures of the British state. Just not what [James Forsyth] thinks it does”. And on Forsyth’s next revelation, the much-trumpeted reshaping of Government, “For Whitehall insiders, this will be the funniest bit. The government's radical reshaping of the centre of government will be - to restore the O'Donnell/Heywood model of 2008-11 or so”.
Added to that is the mildly paranoid assumption of Forsyth’s source that, although there is no demand for Mark Sedwill’s successor to be a Brexiteer, almost all 40 of the Permanent Secretaries voted Remain. Were they lined up and interrogated? That, though, is not the most worrying aspect of Forsyth’s inadvertent giveaway.
Two further items encapsulate that. First, Portes was asked what Forsyth’s article meant. His response was “apart from fact that Forsyth, and the people he spoke to, don't know anything about the use of data/analysis? Search me”. And most damning, Peter Oborne, who knows about the current lack of proper interrogation of sources, read another of Forsyth’s teasers and mused “Dominic Cummings' stenographer hard at work today”.
You read that right: the Polecat is so confident of his own abilities that he has dictated the whole pretentious shebang to James Forsyth, only to reveal his serious shortcomings.
Cummings thinks he knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t. Also, he isn’t listening.
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