Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 15 August 2016

The BBC and Statistics

If you think this is not the most exciting blog post title, then you will get part of the problem identified in a report on that very subject. The report does not pull its punches. For example:
"We were surprised that an organisation the size of the BBC, with a high (and increasing) volume of statistics in its outputs, does not itself have an explicit expert statistical capability. If guidelines were issued advising journalists to seek statistical advice, virtually noone we talked to could complete the sentence “For advice, contact ….””

There was until recently a Head of Statistics, but that job has been abolished.

However, having statistical expertise within house is only a partial answer to these kind of problems. As the report makes clear, journalists need to have some knowledge of their own, so that they can challenge politicians in real time. If an education minister says spending has gone up in real terms, a good journalist should immediately ask whether it has also increased per pupil. Lot of this is about the appropriate normalisation of statistics, which was the central message of my own submission to this inquiry.

That submission, and the report itself, is about the detail of how to improve the BBC’s use of statistics. Three more general points also occurred to me.

The first is about economics. Much that is written in this report about statistics could also be said about economics. The current view about economics reporting in much of the media is that this is a specialist (albeit generally topical) area that needs one or more specialist reporters, to be filed under the heading of ‘business reporting’. In reality a great deal, perhaps the majority, of political discussion depends crucially on economics. Mediamacro is not the product of the occasional confused economics editor, but the lack of economics understanding among political reporters.

The second is about balance. Many have rightly complained that an obsession with balance during the Brexit campaign allowed Leave lies to go unchallenged. But moving beyond balance requires the ability to access and judge expertise: to tell the lies from the truth. If that expertise is not there, balance is the cheap and only feasible option.

Which brings me to my third, and perhaps most contentious, point. This report makes many sensible suggestions. They generally involve more resources: training, in house expertise, better research. Yet journalism is under pressure like never before, largely as a result of the medium you are using to read this post. For most that will inevitably mean less time to check statistics, consult and research. The BBC is often said to be in a privileged position in this respect, but I would turn that point on its head. We may need somebody with deep pockets, rather than the competitive market place, to sustain quality journalism.

Good journalism may be what economists call a public good. The obvious body to produce public goods is the public sector. But good journalism is also about holding the public sector and the politicians that run it to account. [1] Implementing this report requires more resources, at the same time as the government is squeezing those resources because elements within it dislike the BBC. This illustrates a contradiction that goes well beyond the BBC’s use of statistics.

[1] Good journalism also often requires holding the private sector, and in particular large corporations, to account. If that journalism is financed through advertising, we have a similar problem.


  1. I think your final points a very good one. Whether they're any good or not, we've seen the BBC lose Peston, Mason and Flanders in a relatively short space of time. If the BBC can't pay, they won't be able to appoint the best. This is amplified by the government forcing the BBC to publish salaries: it's no good, and reminds one of Tony Benn's channeling Oscar Wilde when describing Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps the best strategy is graduate recruitment? But even there, you'd imagine the City remains a powerful lure.

  2. In its current guise the BBC is worse than useless as it is believed to be doing a satisfactory job by most people, it is generally trusted, while in fact is most often repeating back the untruths of the journalistas [my neologism, unless someone got in before me].

    Elsewhere, Corey Robin has a link to Lawrence Glickman's essay on the term 'neoliberalism' on his blog (On Neoliberalism. Again. 08.14).

  3. What do you mean by balance? Balance, impartiality and objectivity are not the same things.

    Balance implies devoting equal coverage to competing ideas, or devoting equal time and space to different schools of thought based on their popularity.

    Impartiality should mean approaching each debate with an open mind and presenting all the evidence pertinent to each side of any viewpoint. In short it is the process that should be impartial, but the conclusions may not be, particularly if the evidence overwhelmingly falls on one side of the debate. Impartiality should not mean appearing to be neutral on every subject and refusing to be supportive of any definitive conclusions on anything. Unfortunately this is what the BBC often ends up doing.

    Objectivity requires critical thinking and this is where many journalists are found wanting because it requires a scientific mindset and subject knowledge. As a result their ability to find flaws in the arguments of others is weak.

    Ideally the BBC should strive for all three of the above, but in practice it takes the safe option politically and concentrates on balance. This is partly a consequence of years of political pressure, mainly from the Tories with their media monitoring unit, but also from New Labour under Mandelson and Campbell. The only way you can counteract this is to give the BBC greater independence. Maybe if its funding was set by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament rather than a government department this might help.

  4. I agree with the point about economics being lumped in with business reporting. That's why you invariably tend to get city economists invited on BBC shows to discuss this (nice suits, camera friendly), rather than academics.

    The BBC can afford to, and should improve the standard of economic literacy of their journalistic and commissioning staff. But the dismal conclusion I am drawing is that their main concern is to kowtow to the present government to secure their jobs, rather than instil a culture of being sceptical and offering challenge to government statements.

  5. The problem of journalism kind of economic articles is the use of publicly available, easily reachable information. The jurnalists rarely create information from original source by themselves. I myself, not being an economist in the academy, have no time for survey, so when writing an essay or comment using statistical information, try to find the right sequence of numbers to support my hypothesis. Usually i find it from verified source, like US federal reserve or other central bank publication, or central bureau of statistics. If the numbers are not supporting my claim, or there is no information about the subject, either i drop the idea or look for alternative source less reliable. Sometime it happens that others citate me as reliable source, and so a lie can become a perfect truth.

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  7. There is one real world, and then thousands of false worlds which form in people's minds. Often people end up living in bubblewords where they feel they know everything and it's the others that are wrong. This blog seems to live in a Guardian/BBC/London dominated bubbleworldd, whereas although years ago the BBC and Guardian were trusted they no longer are; there are many blogs, twitterfeeds dedicated to discussing the BBC minute by minute errors and misleadings eg BiasedBBC. org . Browsing their comments you can see that there are daily many items of misleading statistics broadcast over the BBC. Things are quickly highlighted on Twitter the first time, but then people get tired and don't bother pointing out the misleadings next time. Getting things right takes a great deal of care.
    For instance being aware of strawmen arguments.
    - Take the posts mention of balance. It is wrong to suggest that by balance, impartiality, objectivity the public are taking some dictionary definitions; like of EQUAL time for each side.
    The balanced problem most complained against is GATEKEEPING where some narratives are not challenged properly due to counter arguers being kept off the airwaves or some friends being invited on air and given a free ride whilst opposing voices are given a hard time.


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