Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 20 January 2022

The BBC’s crisis over scientific fact


The BBC is under attack, and there is no doubt we should support it with all the energy we can. Of course there have been many failings in its attempts to appease a threatening government, but that can change. It is watched by so many people as a vital means to present news unfiltered by a mainly right wing press in the UK, and in the rest of the world too. Just imagine if the BBC had not shown the PMs press secretary footage, so the right wing press could have also kept quiet. Like the NHS, it is a unique British institution that admired around the world. But our support cannot be uncritical.

David Jordan is head of editorial policy at the BBC. Last week he testified in front of the House of Lords Communications Committee. He said this:

“It’s critical to the BBC that we represent all points of view and give them due weight.”

He went on

“Flat-earthers are not going to get as much space as people who believe the Earth is round,” he said. “But very occasionally it might be appropriate to interview a flat-earther. And if a lot of people believed in flat Earth we’d need to address it more.”

The model is clearly that the amount of airtime a group should get should reflect the number of people who hold that view.

The consequences of such a policy are stark. Rather than flat-earthers, let’s look at anti-vaxxers. Under this policy we should regularly expect to see them occasionally putting their case on TV. Similarly for all kinds of quack medicine, some of which could also be harmful. Are we to hear from those who think the moon landings were faked, or you can get Covid from 5G? Those who deny the existence of man-made climate are another group. Scientists had worked very hard to convince the BBC not to hold debates containing climate deniers, or interview climate deniers, but that now seems to no avail. Climate deniers will get airtime, the amount depends on how many there are of them.

There are three fundamental problems with that approach. The first is how the BBC judges what proportion of the population hold a particular view and regulate the amount of airtime they get. Does all airtime count equally? To do this properly would require resources the BBC does not have and even when it does are better used elsewhere. Indeed the one job the BBC should be doing, which is to ensure the opposition gets reasonable coverage, the BBC fails to do (see Justin Lewis here). Nor was the policy followed when the issue of austerity was discussed.

A danger is that in practice ‘a lot of people’ will be replaced by either those who make the loudest noise, or more probably those people who have political connections or support. This is what happened in the 2016 referendum, where those who thought Brexit would improve the economy (often within years) were given equal airtime to those who thought otherwise. (the evidence is clear who turned out to be right.). Individual producers decide who will appear on their programmes, and that is invariably based on those who make the loudest noise, or more probably those people who have political connections or support.

A second problem is beliefs such as racism and prejudice generally. The proportion of the population that is racist is quite high, but you will not see them given proportionate coverage on the BBC. So why isn’t the BBC representing this part of the audience? I suspect it over compensates for this ‘failure’ (in their eyes) by giving excessive time to political parties that represent views that appeal to racists. They must implicitly be qualifying their idea that coverage should be proportional to what the audience believes to exclude racist ideas like holocaust denial , so why not qualify it to also generally exclude those whose ideas are untrue.

The third problem is that the truth doesn’t get a look in. As Patrick Howse points out, the BBC says that it is “committed to covering all subjects with due impartiality. This does not mean denying facts nor scientific consensus, and we will always make these clear to audiences. However, there are times when it’s editorially appropriate to hear from, examine, and challenge people who have dissenting voices”. As my last post showed, the ability of everyone who might interview ‘dissenting voices’ to know the science sufficiently well to combat everything an anti-vaxxer (say) states in argument or as fact in an interview is zero.

Even holding debates between scientists and ‘dissenters’ is problematic, and this is shown particularly with climate change. Deniers are snake-oil salesmen, with the emphasis on salesmen, while scientists are not. Invariably the climate deniers sound more impressive to those with no knowledge, partly because there is no uncertainty in their beliefs, while scientists are always questioning their own.. Whether people believe an idea should not depend on the personality of its proponents, but on the evidence that backs it up.

Eryn Newman et al in the Conversation raise a number of problems with the idea that as long as the interviewer mentions what is true (which they rarely do), that stays in the viewer’s mind. Experiments show people forget truth statements easily, while still remembering the untrue claim. To quote “Cognitive science research shows people are biased to believe a claim if they have seen it before. Even seeing it once or twice may be enough to make the claim more credible. People tend to believe simple things over complex things. This is why austerity was so appealing to people at the time they were reducing their borrowing - it made sense to them.

For this reason it is silly to say ‘let the viewer decide’ what to believe. Most people do not have the time or inclination to do their own research about what is right, and as cognitive science shows the truth of an idea is often forgotten when the idea itself is not. The duty of the BBC is to inform, and it is failing to do that by giving ‘dissenters’ airtime.

All this matters so much because in society there is a crisis over scientific fact, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown all too well. The BBC needs to be on the side of science, and at the moment their policy actively seeks to undermine scientific belief.

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