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Mark Shenton: What do we experts know?

Manchester Royal Exchange's production of Guys and Dolls. Photo: Manuel Harlan Manchester Royal Exchange's production of Guys and Dolls. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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One of the most notorious, noxious statements of the pro-Brexit campaign was Michael Gove’s infamous declaration: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”

As Helen Jackson and Paul Ormerod put it in a jointly-authored response in Prospect magazine: “The plastering of demonstrably dodgy statistics on the side of the Brexit battle bus last year stoked indignation on the part of many who think of themselves as rational and well-informed. The arrival of Donald Trump, an American president who feels no compunction about disseminating falsehood, has further darkened the mood among the liberal intelligentsia. There is a strong sense that the forces of reason must now rise up and see off the purveyors of the “post-truth” world.”

But we also now live in a world of the democratisation of opinion. Since anyone with a Twitter account has a platform (if not necessarily a following) to promote their views, reason is not always so easy to find.

Who, or what, to believe anyway? Janice Turner recently wrote a feature for The Times that was headlined: ”Online reviews are a five-star world of fakery.”  She cites a young Vice journalist Oobah Butler, who recently exposed “the herd-instinct and chicanery of online reviewing,” she says. Adding: “He pretended to set up a restaurant in his south London shed and made ‘food’ with shaving foam and bleach tablets that he photographed and posted online. His ‘concept’ that all dishes are named after moods is no more annoying or improbable than a Hoxton cafe that serves only breakfast cereal. Once registered on TripAdvisor, Oobah began writing glowing reviews while ignoring the phone that rang constantly with those desperate to dine. This exclusivity drove customers wild: they would scour the streets trying to guess the unlisted address from location data. Without ever existing, The Shed became the number one restaurant in London.”

Turner duly concludes: “Online reviewing, like every facet of the internet, was once a heady democracy of truth. You could connect with those on the ground, sharing experiences across the world. Now it has become a babel of voices, some cynically gaming the system. Who to trust? I am back to getting book recommendations from friends, my white goods based on rigorous testing by Good Housekeeping or Which?. I see films on the advice of trusted critics. I know that mainly they dispense harsh words and stars mindful of the craft involved and that creative hearts are easily broken. I’m not sick of experts: they’re our only protection now against fake reviews in an ocean of fake news.”

But who exactly are the “trusted critics” and why should they be trusted?

Readers are mostly asked to take on trust that the critic has been vetted and appointed on the basis of some kind of expertise and talent. And then, of course, simply read them and find out whether the critic’s tastes and views align with their own.

As a critic, it’s always a fascinating exercise to read the columns of colleagues, after filing your own review and finding parallels and divergences of opinion. That’s par for the course: we all have different tastes and it’s one of the pleasures of the critical landscape – that the many professional outlets provide a wide range of opinions.

But one thing we shouldn’t diverge on is the facts. Yet we are subjective in what we choose to highlight: you can’t mention everything in 400 or 500 words, after all. Last week, I reviewed the new production of Guys and Dolls at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and my review – among the six in national publications (the others were the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Observer and WhatsOnStage) – was the only one to comment on the absence of one of the show’s key songs A Bushel and a Peck. It was replaced with Pet Me Poppa, a song written for the 1955 film version of the show.

Admittedly the programme makes no mention of this substitution. And yes, I know this show inside out and back to front. I can probably speak or sing every line of dialogue and lyric. It is absolutely my favourite musical of all time. But I was surprised none of the other experts pointed out this key change.

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