On the Campaign couch: Jeff Bezos, truth about jokes and bad questions
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: Jeff Bezos, truth about jokes and bad questions

Has Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for schadenfreude or quixotic reasons?

Has Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for schadenfreude or quixotic reasons?

I haven’t asked him, but I suspect neither.

People have seldom wanted to own newspapers for purely financial reasons. People who want to own newspapers are already rich – and have found to their intense pleasure that many people treat them with great deference and respect.

But it’s clearly not at all good for one’s self-esteem to concede that the deference and respect to which one has now become accustomed is the result not of the wealth of one’s wisdom but of one’s wealth. So, quite soon, rich people become convinced of their superior intelligence and their infallibility; a belief reinforced on an hourly basis by those by whom they are surrounded.

From there, it’s an easy step to concluding that it’s morally wrong that such rare abilities should be available only for the benefit of a single commercial enterprise; indeed, that it’s a kind of selfishness not to put such rare abilities to the service of the nation as a whole. The only stumbling block, of course, is democracy.

Our plutocrat is well aware of the importance of decisiveness; of clear, firm leadership; of ruthlessness on occasion and the unremitting application of common sense. How else, after all, did he become a plutocrat? Say what you like about Mussolini: he got the trains to run on time.

But democracy favours the wishy-washy. If our plutocrat were to put himself forward as a Parliamentary candidate, he’d have to talk to stupid people and pretend to listen to them. And, anyway, it could be years before his voice was heard with the respect it deserved. And while the House of Lords has its attractions, he’d still be beholden to the grubby politician who put him there; or so the grubby politician would expect.

No, no, no. The only way he, as an individual, can make an immediate and wholly beneficial contribution to the prosperity of the nation as a whole is to own a newspaper: a decision of such unselfishness as to deserve significant tax concessions.

Even today, the influence of newspapers is extraordinary. More than any other product, they continue to exemplify the power of The Brand. We may know perfectly well that today’s leader was written by a 24-year-old only recently graduated from Corpus Christi. But we say: "I see The Times is against HS2." And everyone even remotely concerned with the country’s future transport policy will know that very morning that The Times is against HS2; or, as it might be, in favour of it.

As Jeff Bezos knows better than most, and for reasons that are still unclear, no online title has yet come close to acquiring the authority – and therefore the influence – of the old-fashioned printed newspaper.

My own totally baseless theory is that we believe there to be private media and public media. And we continue to believe that online media, despite their acknowledged millions of users, are somehow private; and that they therefore have little or no aggregate effect. While newspapers, despite their relatively tiny circulations and limited readerships, are automatically believed to be influentially public. I’ve no idea if this is the case, and even less if it will continue to be the case. But that’s why Jeff bought The Post.

Do you believe that there’s a grain of truth in every joke, including ones at someone’s expense?

Despite what a great many tellers of jokes clearly believe, a joke isn’t a joke until it has been found to be funny by an audience.

And why a joke is found to be funny is because, in the decoding of it – what’s called "seeing the point" – some truth, some observation, some insight is revealed.

All jokes start as hypotheses: "This should make people laugh: I wonder if it will?" In this respect, jokes are much like ads. "This should make people want it: I wonder if it will?" But, with jokes, you know the answer instantly and, with ads, you may never.

Are there questions that shouldn’t be asked, and could you give an example of one?

I rather think you’ve done it for me.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919 Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP