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I have spent the past several years on my blog trying to highlight one thing above all others: that the institutions we were raised to regard as authoritative are undeserving of our blind trust.
It is not just that expert institutions have been captured wholesale by corporate elites over the past 40 years and that, as a result, knowledge, experience and expertise have been sidelined in favour of elite interests – though that is undoubtedly true. The problem runs deeper: these institutions were rarely as competent or as authoritative as we fondly remember them being. They always served elite interests.
What has changed most are our perceptions of institutions that were once beloved or trusted. It is we who have changed more than the institutions. That is because we now have far more sources – good and bad alike – than ever before against which we can judge the assertions of those who claim to speak with authority.
Hanging out together
Here is a personal example. When I started work as an editor at the foreign section of the Guardian newspaper in the early 1990s, there were few ways, from the paper’s London head office, to independently evaluate or scrutinise the presentation of events by any of our correspondents in their far-flung bureaus. All we could do was compare the copy they sent with that from other correspondents, either published in rival newspapers or available from two or three English-language wire services.
Even that safeguard is far less meaningful than it might sound to an outsider.
The correspondents for these various publications – whether based in Bangkok, Amman, Moscow, Havana or Washington – are a small group. Inevitably they each bring to their work a narrow range of mostly unconscious but almost identical biases. They hang out together – like any other expat community – in the same bars, clubs and restaurants. Their children attend the same international schools, and their families socialise together at the weekends.
Correspondents from these various newspapers also have similar backgrounds.