We can’t take what we read on the intranet at face value. (Who knew?) We should use the Yes Minister test
At the beginning of the first volume of James Hacker’s Yes Minister diaries, the editors explain that readers will have to decide whether
any given statement represents
- what has happened
- what he believed happened
- what he would like to have happened
- what he wanted others to believe happened
- what he wanted others to believe that he believe happened
These days, it’s wise to apply the Yes Minister test to much of what appears online. One example of a puzzling case occurred in the rough and tumble of vote counting during last week’s American presidential election.
By 4.00am, most British observers would have known that the White House was pretty much in the bag for Barack Obama. Mitt Romney had failed to take the battleground states that would have put him in pole position.
Now anyone who has ever sat up watching British, American or any other free country’s election night coverage will know that the numbers change as the night goes on. In the UK, at 1.00am Labour always looks from the seats already declared to be heading for a landslide. But only a fool would look at the seats already declared and extrapolate the same across the country.
We had already seen that on Wednesday morning. Romney was ahead in the Electoral College votes and then slipped back. By 4.00am he still had the edge in terms of the popular vote. But most of the map that hadn’t yet been coloured in – because the counts in those states hadn’t finished – was highly likely to vote for Obama.
At this point, most people would do some simple maths. Let Romney’s currrent lead be R. Let Obama’s likely lead in the remaining states (based on historical data) be O. Then if R > O then Romney wins, and if O > R then Obama wins. By 4.00am, R was about 1.6 million and O was (at a conservative guess) 2.6 million. Game over, Obama wins.
Over at the Telegraph Janet Daley didn’t need to bother herself with such calculations. Just as Fox News declared Obama the winner, she posted a piece telling us that it was quite possible that Romney would win the popular vote, thus vindicating clever people like her who had called it for Romney using ‘intuition’ as well as people who had ‘bored for the nation’ predicting an Obama win. Having made this triumphant announcement, she declared that she was off to bed, thus ending all debate.
Why post such a fact-free, graceless article? It just doesn’t make sense, so let’s apply the Yes Minister test. We know that the first option doesn’t really apply here. And the second is on dodgy ground if we assume that Janet Daley really must have watched election coverage before. But at the third option things it gets interesting. Much recent coverage has suggested that many Republicans simply refused to countenance the idea that their man might lose. Kept warm and cosy in their Fox News bubble, to assert a Romney win was enough. So maybe that explains our Janet’s post.
Option 4 – Janet as stooge – provides us with a conspiracy theory. Nate Silver had predicted the likelihood of an Obama electoral college win/Romney popular vote win at about 7%. Pretty unlikely in other words. I don’t remember the Bush/Cheney ticket complaining about what happened in 2000. But in 2012 the Republicans were quick to suggest that their man might really be the rightful winner of the election. That, of course, would have potentially (and I have to say potentially) changed the media narrative – useful if you’re playing catch up. All it takes is for someone like Janet to say that Romney is up. Then other conservative news outlets can link to her piece claiming it’s a genuine piece of an analysis. The idea is that it snowballs from there, and you’re in business.
Option 5 suggests that Janet is a troll, deliberately winding up her audience to increase the number of comments. There’s been some debate in the past about how seriously this was taken at the Telegraph. Janet is sitting behind a desk, stroking a white cat, pressing F5 and laughing maniacally as she strokes the anger bone of middle England. If that’s the case the joke is on me for writing about it. Fair enough. But I think even Ernst Stavro Blofeld would have set his sights a bit higher than being a wind-up merchant. Which ever way, Janet, is this the best you can do? As for the Yes Minister test, written for a pre-internet era, it’s every bit as relevant today.