I watched the BBC’s early evening news on Saturday: not something I would normally do but for the football. (Unfortunately I cannot find a recording of it.) The bulletin reported the IMF post-Brexit forecasts, and then (for balance) had Patrick Minford saying why the IMF had got it all wrong. The impression most non-economists viewers would have received is that the long run economic impact of Brexit could go either way.
I think we can talk about at least four types of politicisation of truth:
- Ignoring facts: ‘shape of the earth: views differ’ type reporting.
Ignoring expert pluralities: for uncertain outcomes, failing to mention that one side is a minority view. The economics of Brexit is an example.
Allowing politicians to create untruths. Labour profligacy caused austerity is an example.
Repeating politically generated untruths. For example 'the 364 economists were wrong'.
The first is created by the overriding need for balance. The second and third may be, but they can also just reflect inadequate reporting, which is responsible for the fourth. They all are examples of political views overriding truth.
A clear Brexit example of ‘shape of the earth: views differ’ style of reporting is the £350 million a week figure. Furthermore it is a clever lie, because it focuses attention on a direct benefit of Brexit, and away from probable costs. (I’ve no idea if this is true, but I once heard that when Joseph McCarthy claimed there were many communists working in government, he would keep changing the number. As a result, the topic of conversation became how many there actually were, rather than whether there were any at all and whether it mattered.) It is not the only example from those campaigning for Brexit.
In practice I think more damage is done by the treatment of uncertain events with probable outcomes. The medium term cost of Brexit is of course uncertain. But a huge majority of economists think it is much more likely to be an economic cost rather than an economic benefit. So Minford was proposing something that only around 5% of UK economists believe. That is widely acknowledged on all sides, so when the BBC or any other media organisation fails to mention that, they distort the truth. Or, to put it another way, it is not balance at all but favours the Leave side. Another example from those campaigning for Brexit is the prospect of Turkey joining the EU.
This is a generic problem which politicians and others exploit. There is a huge consensus among climate scientists, yet if the ‘balance’ model is applied to global warming - which it will be if the subject gets politicised - we get the media giving the impression of scientific division. That is why in the US over a third of people think that scientists do not generally agree about man made global warming. Perhaps it is also why so many people think Brexit will not be a medium term cost to them.