How should the BBC deal with competing evidence?
Thus Paul presents us with three statements:
“1) The planet is warming and will continue to warm as a result of man-made climate change. 2) If Scotland were to become independent from the rest of the UK it would need to raise taxes or cut spending relative to what would happen if it remained part of the UK. 3) The UK economy would grow more strongly within the EU, and the single market, than outside.
None of these three is absolutely certain, indeed each is disputed. But each is backed by the overwhelming weight of evidence and analysis and by the vast majority of qualified experts.”
The implication? Paul concludes that the “the BBC needs to get better and braver in interpreting and explaining rival statistics and guiding the audience”.
This may sound innocuous. Nay, even common sense. But the implications are pretty profound. In essence, journalists on a broadcaster paid for by a compulsory licence fee would be interpreting competing evidence and almost concluding what the ‘right’ answer is in coverage. Given the extraordinary reach and TV news dominance of the BBC and the trust placed in it, this could have strong effects on public opinion.
My own conclusion on thinking about these issues in relation to studying bias is that there is no satisfactory or even formulaic way of dealing with competing claims. Journalists and editors have to make editorial decisions about what stories are important, how they are presented and the voices used within the stories every single day – and these will inevitably be shaped by their own priors. A free press and broadcast media environment where ideas, theories and evidence can be challenged and debated across the piece is thus the best way of leading us to objective truth.
But here’s a further few thoughts that make me sceptical about Johnson’s line of argument:
- We should be careful about putting consensuses on a pedestal, obviously. There have been strong economic consensuses in the UK for prices and incomes policies and joining the euro in the past 40 years. Ideas evolve and rigid credentialism can thus slow the progress of new evidence.
- Quite often different commentators disagree not because they have a different understanding of economics, but because they have a different interpretation of what’s important. For example, suppose we all agreed with the OBR’s projections that the National Living Wage will increase unemployment by 60,000 by 2020. Some economists might think that’s a price worth paying for increased pay for others, for other economists each job loss is an individual tragedy that government should not be willing to legislate for. That the ‘consensus’ might take, say, the former line does not make them right.
- Likewise, much economics is scenario analysis. Those of us who disagreed that leaving the EU would be negative in the long-term primarily did so because we thought much Remain-concluding analysis made bizarre assumptions about what we’d choose to do with policy freedoms. Our disagreement was not that we thought analysis given assumptions was wrong per se, but that economists’ claims about what was possible politically (which is not an economics issue) meant they were coming to faulty conclusions.
- There is a difference between hard facts on the one hand and predictions or forecasts based on assumptions and modelling. And this makes Johnson’s list of examples where he thinks ‘rigid impartiality’ creates problems interesting for its omissions. How often do we hear commentators asked onto the BBC to talk about spiralling inequality even though we know this is categorically untrue from official statistics? So why does this not exercise Johnson more than these other debates where the uncertainty is much greater?
- There are a range of issues where the economic consensus favours non-intervention but where this ‘rigid impartiality’ works against libertarian ideas: rent controls and industrial policy being two examples. Strangely, the economic consensuses on these issues rarely get discussed. Having fought to make these points on interview after interview, I’m afraid my sympathy for pleading for special efforts for evaluation in other areas of policy is somewhat limited.
- Finally, the news that the BBC gave rigid equal airtime to competing sides on the economic consequences of leaving the EU will be news to any pro-Brexit person who actually appeared on or watched the BBC. In almost every interview it was put to me that I was in a minority of economists and the anti-Brexit economic arguments were reported relentlessly. I continually made the point that viewers should judge their understanding on the quality of the arguments, rather than credentialism. There still appears to be a denial among Remainers that so many people could vote for Brexit and thus an assumption that their views must have been warped in some way. The truth is that people internalised the warnings, listened to the counter arguments from those of us who said that our long-run fortunes would be determined by domestic policy and the result was that the Remain lead on the economy fell the more the public considered the issue.
Nevertheless, this is a difficult area and something that really affects all journalists, regardless of whether it is the BBC or others (particularly if they do not themselves have specialist economic knowledge). I’d be interested in hearing how readers believe competing evidence should be dealt with by journalists in the comments section below.