Newspaper Article

What does objectivity mean when reporting on contentious policy issues?

Date: 19 August 2016
Authors:
Publisher: News International
Published in: Times
 
We should be told if evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of the experts, not the dissenters
 
What do these statements have in common? 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. How should we conduct a reasoned political debate in these circumstances? It is possible that scientific and economic consensus is wrong, and so it is important to test the arguments. But at some point we have to present the facts, and make policy decisions, as if these statements are highly likely to be correct.
 
Crucially, in none of these cases does an acceptance of the statements tell us what to do. We can accept that climate change is happening but that doesn’t in itself tell us whether we should do anything right away, let alone what actions to take. Accepting that an independent Scotland would need higher taxes or lower spending is wholly compatible with wanting Scotland to be independent. It could of course thrive as an independent country. Accepting that the British economy will do worse outside the EU than inside is equally consistent with wanting the UK to leave the EU. Money is not the only thing that matters.
 
Objectivity, or lack of bias, does not involve pretending that the evidence on any one issue is more uncertain than it really is. One does not need to take any view on whether or not the Scottish people should choose independence to believe that if they do they should do so in the knowledge that going it alone would almost certainly result in  higher taxes or lower public spending. 
 
Equally I absolutely could not advise the British people on how to trade off the economic cost of leaving the EU, or even the single market, against the gain in control over immigration that might entail. But an understanding that there is very likely to be a financial cost is important. It is rare indeed that big political choices have only positive consequences. If they did, politics would be a lot easier than it is.
 
The need to be clear about what evidence is robust and what isn’t was one of the messages of a review of the BBC’s use of statistics, commissioned by the BBC Trust and published last week. I, along with Sir Peter Stothard, former editor of this newspaper, was part of a panel supporting Dame Jil Matheson, the former UK chief statistician, in putting the review together. It was written before the referendum campaign and one consistent message we received from experts and audiences alike was the frustration at being presented with rival claims but without guidance as to their validity.  We recommended that “the BBC needs to get better and braver in interpreting and explaining rival statistics and guiding the audience”. 
 
It is little use just presenting rival claims without giving the viewer some guidance as to which is more credible, more strongly backed by the evidence. In some cases we just need to be told what is true and what is not. Does it fail some test of objectivity to point out that the claim that we send £350 million a week to the EU is plain false? I don’t think so. 
 
Of course this is a familiar problem. It used to be the case that climate change was reported as if there were real doubt about whether it was actually happening. A major review for the BBC Trust by the eminent scientist Professor Steve Jones in 2011 criticised an “over-rigid” application of guidelines on impartiality. A robust understanding of impartiality must imply even-handed rigour and scrutiny applied to each side of an argument, not treating all claims as equal. If some claims evaporate under such  scrutiny that should be made clear. Otherwise it is objectivity that suffers. 
 
In this context, the presidents of the British Academy and of the Royal Economic Society (RES), along with the RES trustees  (of which I am one), recently wrote to the BBC. Comparing the economics of leaving the EU with the climate change issue, we argued that by again frequently giving the views of a few dissenters equal weight to the work of almost an entire profession, much coverage had fallen short of providing the public with a balanced view of the evidence. The Political Studies Association has raised similar concerns about the role of broadcasters, worrying that in many instances objectivity lost out to a particular view of impartiality.
 
In many areas of public policy we do still know far less than we’d like. It’s the unenviable task of politicians, and voters, to decide what policies to pursue given uncertainty over facts and competing ideologies. An effective democracy requires debate and a means for voices from beyond the mainstream to be heard. It requires that the voters understand when and why experts are divided on an issue. However, it is not helped by pretending we know less than we do. We really will find that we have  “had enough of experts”, as one government minister told us recently,  if all we are presented with is spurious disagreement from which we cannot disentangle what the experts are actually saying, and why. 
 
This article was first published in The Times and is reproduced here in full with permission.