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A glimpse of other worlds

A glimpse of other worlds


This week saw people walk into the Tortoise newsroom and light it up with stories and ideas we hadn’t heard before. For a journalist, it’s the most exciting thing imaginable


My uncle – the one who so thrilled me when I was a kid and he ran over the car in a hop, a leap and a bound – he used to live in New York. And from his bedroom, he could, if he squinted between the apartment blocks, see could see the Hudson River. When he saw a boat chugging up or down, I remember him shouting: “Boat!”

As I’ve got older, I like to think that I’ve inherited his trait of pointless wonder. If I’m by the sea and, looking into the water, and I see a fish, I shout: “Fish”. And I’m not a fish spotter, I can’t tell what they are, but when I see them, I take great heart from a glimpse of another universe of life. 

I can only describe this week in the Tortoise newsroom as something like that – peering into a vast stretch of dark water and, now and again, catching a flash of silver. I’m James Harding, editor of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I just wanted to describe the thrill of being a journalist when you have an idea or a piece of information swims by and, for a moment least, you see the sliver of another world. 

At the start of the week, we held this year’s Responsible AI Forum. Machine learning is not my pub quiz subject and there were times that I struggled to keep up, but it was no less thrilling for that. Ilyas Khan, the CEO of Quantinuum, the company formed by the merger of Cambridge Quantum Computing and Honeywell Quantum Solutions, had me speechless – speechless at his excitement in how much in physics we are yet to understand. We may be able to wrap our minds, he said, around the idea of billions of stars and counting in further galaxies. But when we zero in on the atom, how much do we understand the multitudes within? If every atom, he said, was a blueberry, then you’d need five planet earths each made entirely of blueberries to accommodate the number of atoms in an apple. And that, he said, is before you zero in further on electrons. Quantum computing, Ilyas Khan described, well, he said it will set us on a path to understand the nature of reality. It was a peek into an aspect of life and a tiny, extraordinary community of people who will shape a future that I don’t know or understand, but feel the serious need to learn more. (I was recommended, by the way, Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli; it’s this weekend’s reading.)

Of course, it wasn’t all so theoretical at the AI Forum. Masayoshi Son, the Softbank founder, offered a view of the financial markets, drastically changed this year, that have cost his fund tens of billions of dollars. And again, there was a moment that put a lens on things: Son – or Masa-san as people call him – said it felt as though we were living through another 2000, the last tech crash when the dotcom bubble burst. For a year or two to come, he said, it won’t be nearly as easy to raise money for tech ideas and new businesses, but it won’t, he also pointed out, much slow the adoption of artificial intelligence. I found myself thinking that the 2000 parallel is a telling one: we’re only at the beginnings of the market reset, there may be many more nasty corporate surprises, but the funding squeeze in tech will benefit those that already have capital and have the talent. In other words: even more power concentrated in few hands. 

This is the problem that Stuart Russell, the Berkeley professor who has championed the need for provably beneficial AI, considered when talking about the EU’s proposed regulation. The ambition is simple – preventing risk from AI. The problem trickier: what’s risk? And what’s AI? For example, he said, mental integrity is a human right; and yet we’ve already seen what technology can do to mental integrity; so what then about AI? That all may sound obvious to you, but it hadn’t been to me. I’ve thought before about how do you protect human dignity when people’s behaviour and preferences can be so easily manipulated by computers. But mental integrity seems like firm ground upon which to have that battle.

Dave Taylor, one of the editors here, invited the Sheila McKechnie Foundation into our newsroom this week to host their campaigner of the year awards. It lifted our spirits; and our sights. On the back of it, we’ve tried to have something of a “Let’s Change the World” feel to everything we’ve done this week; Hattie Garlick’s conversation with Stormy Daniels in the Slow Newscast was an exploration of defiance; the Sensemaker, single stories we tell each day in audio to try and make sense of the world, profiled, among others, Kwajo Tweneboa’s campaign on social housing and Jo Goodman’s Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. And Jack Monroe, the writer, activist on food poverty and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Campaigner of the Year, was in the newsroom. She said something that I loved; I hope I’ve remembered it right: unless, she said, it’s available and accessible to everybody, it can’t be truly radical and revolutionary. Universality is not a new idea, but it’s not getting much play these days and, hearing Jack Monroe say it, so smartly phrased – “available and accessible” – it made me think about what lives up to that idea today. 

Truth be known, the joke was on me when Jack Monroe came to Tortoise; everyone in the newsroom seems to have followed her on social media, but not me; I felt very fogeyish admitting that I’d come across her in the argument she started – and, I should say, won – with the ONS, the Office for National Statistics. In my defence, my obsession over the last 6 to 12 months with inflation isn’t feeling quite so nerdy now that inflation in the UK has hit a 40-year high and looks set to top 10 per cent at some point this year. (And on that, a question for another time: are the central banks going to screw up twice, first by doing too little too late last year, then, second, too much too late this year. Last year, they didn’t raise interest rates because they viewed price rises as transitory; now they are raising interest rates, when increases in energy and food prices will, anyway, damp demand and potentially bring down inflation. The danger, this time, is that central banks damage growth by unnecessarily putting up interest rates, raising mortgage and borrowing costs when families and businesses are already tightening their belts to deal with the higher cost of living. But, as I said, let’s come back to that.)

And, then, if you like a parish notice. Tortoise’s work was recognised in three nominations for the Orwell Prize, the UK awards for political journalism that journalists really care about. Polly Curtis, whose family separation reporting was our first real case file, went on to write a book: Behind Closed Doors: Why We Break Up Families – And How to Mend Them. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore reported School 49, about social media, school and a suicide in China, as well as China’s Missing Tennis Player, the story of Peng Shuai. And Louise Tickle, working with Claudia Williams, Patricia Clarke, Matt Russell and Basia Cummings, investigated Hidden Homicides, the murders of women that go uninvestigated and uncounted.

When we started Tortoise, Ceri Thomas, one of our editors, said the idea that should motivate our newsroom is the power gap. Understanding it; and, if possible, figuring out ways to bridge it. In a week like this – and with the world like this – it’s difficult to put the pieces together into a coherent picture; it feels harder than ever to cope with information overload; you see a fish, you’ve no idea what’s going on below. But when I try to make sense of the experience of being a journalist in such precarious times, when there are so many “shocks” to the system that you’re almost expecting it, certainly exhausted by it, I come back to Ceri’s point about the few and the many, the pattern that keeps repeating itself, the power gap. 

The experience in the moment, though, of being a journalist when an idea illuminates the room is more chemical than that. You have a reaction. It’s excitement. And perhaps that’s enough, you don’t need to categorise it or marshal it for context. Sometimes it’s good enough to hear that voice in your head shouting: “Fish!”

My uncle died earlier this year, quite suddenly. I adored him. And over the years I have peddled many of his stories. One – and like the others, I’m sure I’m going to mangle it in the retelling – was about him, having just arrived in New York City, a young man, perhaps just knocking on 20, and looking to make a start in the music business. He was walking up Broadway and, coming the other way, he sees Louis Armstrong. And my Uncle Jon says: “Hey, Satch!” And Satchmo says: “Yeah.” I love that story; I don’t know what it means, but I love it.