Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Letter to Polly Toynbee

I've just returned from a lecture given by Polly Toynbee on "The Art of the Column". It was the Economist's 2007 Bagehot Lecture and was delivered at Queen Mary, University of London.

No discussion of how to write an opinionated article could have stayed entirely clear of politics so this was, of course, why I went along. I wasn't disappointed: she was disarmingly frank at times and, as one might expect of an influential columnist, articulate.

I failed to think of any good questions to ask during the Q+A period, which is annoying because I came up with several as soon as I left. So I sent her an email instead.

Dear Polly,

I have just returned home after attending your Economist Bagehot lecture this evening. I found it interesting, enjoyed it immensely and I am grateful to you for taking the time to prepare your talk.

Forgive me for not asking a question during the event or raising these points in person but I hope you will not object to receiving them via email.

* You implied that you believed you were preaching to the converted when writing in The Guardian. You shouldn't worry. I deliberately buy The Guardian because I disagree with most of what I read (and almost all of what you write, I should admit). I find it can become rather tiresome perpetually to read the opinions of those with whom you agree. Therefore, I make a point of reading your columns to keep me on my toes: if I can't immediately see the fault in your logic, it tells me I need to do more reading or thinking! I don't think I'm the only one who does this. So, don't worry... people who disagree with you do pay good money to read what you're saying.

* I think you were a little unfair to the "anonymous" bloggers who seem to hate you so viscerally. Some of the blogs I read link to your articles from time to time and, whilst you are right that some of the bile you attract is extremely unpleasant and entirely unacceptable, there are some regulars commenters on your articles ( e.g. Tim Worstall) who make reasoned arguments and who do not hide their identities. In other words, those who disagree with you online are not all nuts.

* I was surprised by your frank claim that the facts you use in your articles "are nothing of the sort" and that they are chosen precisely to support the case you're trying to make. This was good advice for an audience of aspiring columnists but I think it also goes a long way to explaining some of the attacks you receive from those on "the right". Some of the more reasoned critiques I've seen of your work have tended to get closest to fury when dissecting what they see as your misleading use of statistics. I remember a particularly memorable article you wrote that appeared to suggest that because the large amount of money spent on SureStart had failed to show any effect in a large study, that was a reason for spending even more! Of course, you didn't present the argument in that way but it was an example of how your conclusions can appear to have no relation to the "facts" you are relying on. The combination of advocacy for state-intervention and selective use of data is just too much for classical liberals to bear!

In any case, I enjoyed your lecture and, despite reading them through gritted teeth, enjoy your articles :-)

Best regards,

Richard Brown

p.s. I intend to post this letter on my blog. Of course, I will not make any reply you should send public unless you explicitly make it clear you are happy for me to do so.

Richard G Brown

[EDIT 2007-01-24 11:27 Edited to remove errors introduced when copying and pasting]


Ben said...

hehehe .. absolutely classic RB ... In the true spirit of an opinionated columnist and blogger, you didn't actually ask Polly any questions ... simply threw some opinions back her way :)

Richard Brown said...

Why would I want to *ask* her anything?! She needs to be *told*!!! :-)

Andrew Ferrier said...

Did you ever get a reply?

Richard Brown said...

Not yet. Apparently, she is on sabbatical!