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The UnHerd and the Whining of the Perfectly-Well-Represented

A media think-piece about media think-pieces.

by Simon Childs
25 July 2017, 10:22am

A media scrum (Photo by Theo McInnes)

Last week, former Times columnist Tim Montgomerie unveiled a new media project called "The UnHerd", for "people and things not given a fair hearing, or even listened to at all".

Here's what Tim wrote when he announced the site's logo:

"Today I'm unveiling the icon that will top those emails – a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behaves in unmissable ways as a result."

The post has since been removed, but if you've ever found yourself thinking, 'Like a cow, I avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result,' you might want to head on over for a look.

Editor Tim Montgomerie is a Thatcher fan-boy who became comment editor for Times in 2013 and lasted a year before resigning. He still had a column, which he used to make a big huffy deal publicly when he quit the Conservative Party last year, to protest David Cameron wanting to stay in the EU. Previously he had edited ConservativeHome, the "grassroots" Tory comment website that has been owned by billionaire Michael Ashcroft since 2009. Before that, he wrote speeches for William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, two failed Tory leaders. The UnHeard looks set to be another huge and epic contribution to British public life.

It's unfortunate for a new media venture to be bizarrely unable to articulate its intended audience. It's especially unfortunate when the theme of its launch is dedicated to the state of journalism, with a whole raft of content under the banner "Newsaholics Anonymous – our deep dive into the news industry". One of the holding site's first articles was about why former Tory Chancellor George Osborne's editorship of the London Evening Standard is actually a good thing.

With the media industry in a bad way, there has been a lot of that going on recently. Every month or so another journalist writes a profound Medium post either strongly defending or bleakly questioning the point of it all when a data robot can write a story for the Press Association, and a murder weapon can be rinsed for clicks.

What makes the UnHerd different is that it wants to defend journalism by saying there should be less of it. This comes across in the site's launch video, in which Donald Trump's live-tweeting-my-reactions-to-Fox-News leadership style is contrasted with that of Winston Churchill, who, we are told, prevailed in World War Two with four 15-minute news bulletins a day on the BBC World Service. "Somehow that man with a cigar managed to prevail without the help of round-the-clock-punditry", says Montgomerie.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of The Unherd (Photo via Policy Exchange)

It's telling that the age of total war – where journalists waited to be told what they could and could not print by the Ministry of Information – is seen as a golden era. This is a disconcerting echo of a fake rumour following the Grenfell Tower fire that there was a "D-notice" on the number of deaths. The story was pushed by the kind of blogs which love nothing more than to drag the hated "MSM". It was also obvious bullshit. A "D-Notice", now called a DSMA-notice, is a non-binding agreement not to report things that would impact national security. Media outlets queued up to do withering takedowns of the fake news. Journalists felt smug – we'd never actually put up with that sort of censorship, and our professionalism had called out the idea as a joke. Well now, we have the UnHeard being fairly explicit that they preferred a time when information was tightly controlled.

Somewhere between the "D-Notice" episode and the editor of clickbait site The Canary appearing on Question Time, the antipathy between professional journalists and their social media detractors reached some kind of bitter zenith. On the one hand, you had irresponsible conspiracy theorists being more sensationalist than any tabloid hack, using the vernacular of journalists while trashing the MSM to give more credibility to their own nonsense stories. On the other, the smug dismissal of people like Rupert Myers – the political correspondent for GQ, who looks like he's wearing a rubber face like Ryan Gosling at the end of Drive – who tweeted his condescension, missing the significance of the contempt with which people hold his profession, and how journalists were seen as part of an establishment they're supposed to hold to account. It's this sense of the media's entitlement that can explain the UnHerd.

The site that claims to be for unheard voices, while its contributors are a parade of people who already have big media profiles, or are think-tank directors with books out. On Monday, the UnHerd had a piece by Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Tories, writing about another of the UnHerd's tragically marginalised themes – that capitalism is... good! Among the regular contributors is Ian Birrell, a contributing editor of the Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the i paper. There's former minister David Laws and former MP Angus Robertson. There's Douglas Murray, associate director of foreign policy think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, who's seemingly never short of a TV slot on which to promote his book, while voicing his opinion that "less Islam in general is obviously a good thing".

The site is funded by Paul Marshall, founder of Marshall Wallace, one of Europe's largest hedge-funds. He gave £100,000 to the Leave campaign. He also co-edited The Orange Book, a free-market loving tome which is influential among the right-wing of the Lib Dems. Now, he's giving four years of financial backing to a career Tory politico/editor to end the cruel silencing of the incredibly wealthy.

While the voices it represents aren't really marginalised at all, the site also promises to be brilliantly crap. Much of what Montgomerie wrote in the build-up to the launch is almost incomprehensible. Its ten-point editorial guidelines offer baffling advice about "factfulness" and "teamsmanship". Would-be writers are asked:

"6. Have you, good team-player that you try to be, embedded a link or two in your piece to the work of other UnHerdians, encouraging readers to experience more of what our rebellious cow stands proudly above."

Writers producing "deep dives" were asked:

"how can it all be chopped up into both digestible and as-self-contained-as-possible mini-masterpieces. By being self-contained it will ensure people who only ever read your part one or part three have at least learnt something from sampling but not completing your journalistic submarining."

Try reading this paragraph without getting a headache:

"9. For people who want to learn more about the subject you're addressing which books, TED talks, podcasts or websites etc etc have you in mind for those UnHerdians hungry for more? And – treating our readers with the respect they deserve – strive to include thinking by people who may take a very different view from yours but who still possess a seriousness or learnedness. And, a related thought, have you plans to develop further reading etc materials yourself in the weeks/months to come? What videos, podcasts, events or other UnHerd-shaped multimedia products might you suggest to the Editor as next steps?"

The Unherd is the pinnacle of journalistic anguish and confusion, and also a perfect example of the kind of media nobody needs any more. It makes some nods towards worthwhile things, like giving its journalists time to dig into stories, but there's no sign that they'll use it to come up with anything new or interesting. They say they want to present more than one side of an argument, but the whole thing comes across of a whiny rejection of a media landscape in which other people are talking over all their dreadfully important think-tanks. The UnHerd isn't doesn't represent people who have been silenced, it represents people whose ideas are no longer hegemonic. It's a desperate cry for relevance.

The social media news cycle can be a jading stream of ill-informed narcissists, but it's refreshing to be reminded that at least it offers a more diverse outlook than Tim Montgomerie funded by an oligarch publishing the kind of people who are generally "unheard" because people edge away from them at parties.

@SimonChilds13