The failures of political journalism

I've just watched a video of an interesting talk entitled ‘The failures of political journalism’ delivered by the journalist Helen Lewis on 29 May 2019 at a seminar organised by Oxford University's ‘Reuters Institute’. It can be seen on the institute's website and also on Youtube. The talk identified ‘seven deadly sins’ that political journalists perpetrated over the course of last two general elections and the two referendums. This article will first briefly discuss them then suggest some new ones. The sins are:

Deadly Sin No 1: Taking a teleological view

This was the main deadly sin. The other six looked like they were put in to make up the numbers. It is based on an analogy between the idea of ‘teleological history’, where historians portray past events as a march of progress leading up to some desired outcome, and a supposed ‘teleological journalism’, whereby journalists make lazy assumptions about what is going to happen and frame their narratives as if that outcome were inevitable. Though, of course, historians know the outcome of the events they describe whereas journalists don't. The reason why it is a ‘failure’ is that it sets up a prevailing narrative that influences the way events evolve, as much by what it ignores as by what it focuses on.

The examples quoted were:

2015 general election:
Journalists thought the most likely outcome would be a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP and the next most likely outcome would be another Tory – Lib Dem coalition. The Tory campaign used posters of Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond. Although I didn't quite follow exactly how this was a ‘failure of political journalism’, the argument seemed to be that the narrative of Labour being propped up by the SNP enabled the Tories to capitalise on the fears of people in English marginal constituencies that money would be diverted from them to Scotland. Furthermore, because the Tories themselves believed the prevailing narrative they put a load of policies in their manifesto that they didn't expect to have to implement, including an EU referendum. They thought that even if they didn't lose they'd have to ditch it in horse-trades with the Lib Dems. Nobody seems to have taken seriously the outcome that actually happened.
2015 Labour Leadership campaign:
Journalists didn't take Corbyn seriously and so didn't subject him to the same level of scrutiny as the other candidates.
EU referendum:
Journalists assumed that remain would win and therefore didn't bother to investigate the different kinds of Brexit that might be on offer if leave won, or what the process of leaving might involve. Had they done so the public might have realised that leaving was a genuine possibility and thought about what it would actually be like. Also, because of journalists' inability to take Jeremy Corbyn seriously they didn't notice or report just how euroscptic he was.
2017 general election:
We’re really not taking Jeremy Corbyn seriously are we?.

Deadly Sin No 2: Innumeracy

The media are full of arts and humanities graduates who are not good with numbers. They often make simple mistakes like putting decimal points in the wrong place, failing to understand the uncertainty involved in opinion polls and uncritically repeating dubious statistics.

This is certainly true, though I'm not sure most STEM graduates would do any better. It's very very easy to lie with statistics. Most numbers bandied about in the media and politics are wrong and checking them would involve a lot of hard work. Numerical data should be ruled inadmissible in political arguments unless their origin and derivation are clearly explained and everyone agrees firstly that they are correct and secondly what their implications are. A good rule of thumb is that if you hear a journalist or politician quoting a number in support of an argument assume it's wrong unless you have very good reason to think otherwise.

Deadly Sin No 3: the ‘neutral amplifier effect’

Journalists often report that ‘so-and-so says that …’. The story being that someone said something, not whether what they said had any basis is reality. This has the effect of promoting ideas that have no basis in reality. It is actually just laziness but it propagates false facts from dubious sources.

Deadly Sin No 4: The ‘the confident posh man problem’

Westminster journalists come from a very narrow range of backgrounds. They all have the same outlook and the same blind spots. When they make mistakes, which is most of the time, they all make the same mistake.

Deadly Sin No 5: There is no punishment for failure.

In some branches of journalism, such as finance and investment, you can get fired for getting your facts wrong. This never happens in political journalism. Some journalists treat politics as entertainment and have the same attitude to accuracy as entertainment journalists have.

Deadly Sin No 6: The 99-1 problem.

In the EU referendum campaign one economist, Patrick Minford, said that leaving the EU would be good for the economy while the rest of the economics profession said it would be bad. In order to be ‘impartial’ the BBC and other media outlets gave both sides of this argument equal weight. The same thing used to happen with climate change until, or rather long after, such a position became untenable.

Deadly Sin No 7: Treating everything as a clash of personalities.

Discussion of politics in UK media often resembles office gossip about who's on the way up, who's on the way down, who's conspiring with who, who's stabbed who in the back and so on rather than about the things that actually affect people's lives. Journalists build up particular characters, be they MPs or ‘The People’, as emblems of different viewpoints. The EU referendum was often reduced to ‘Dave v Boris’. Ms Lewis suggested that journalists are interested in the issues but see personalities as a way of getting the public interested. I’m not too sure about that. I suspect that in reality it is the journalists themselves who are fascinated by personalities and merely use the public as an excuse for indulging this fascination. This point was reinforced by Dominic Cummings in a talk at an event at the 2017 Tory Party conference where he said:

It was very hard for us to get our message across … Until February we didn’t have any cabinet ministers, the media is totally obsessed with names not arguments and issues, doesn’t care about arguments or issues it cares about names and inside baseball and we didn’t have any big names at that point …

Ms Lewis particularly criticised the media's tendency to portray working class people in de-industrialised northern towns as ‘True Britons’ and satirised this idea as ‘das Volk’.

Discussion

I initially got the impression that the talk's main message was that the job of political journalists is to predict the outcomes of elections and that getting these predictions wrong is a ‘failure’. On further consideration, what I think she meant is that by focussing attention on what they assumed was going to happen journalists didn't give adequate scrutiny to factors relevant to other possible outcomes and so left voters under-informed about the real consequences of some of the options on offer. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect anybody to predict the future as part of their job. As Neils Bohr said: ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. The problem is not that journalists get their predictions wrong, it's that they make them in the first place and in so doing close their minds to important aspects of what is going on. The message is not: ‘improve the accuracy of your predictions’, it's: ‘assume all outcomes are possible and give them the attention they deserve’.

A further underlying assumption behind these ‘deadly sins’ is that the media were trying to be impartial but just weren't competent enough to get it right. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact most of the UK’s media (with the possible exception of the BBC) are overtly partisan. Almost all of them actively batted for the leave side in the referendum and for the Tories in the general elections. It wasn't a failed attempt at impartiality. It wasn't any kind of attempt at impartiality.

An interesting observation is that most of these sins involve underestimating something, whether it be the leave campaign or Jeremy Corbyn. It seems that being underestimated is a good strategy in politics, though obviously not one that can be sustained indefinitely.

I would like to add some more sins to this list. Mine are:

8 They're obsessed with America

Why do most Britons know who Nancy Pelosi is, but don't know the name of the speaker of our own House of Lords? Why do people who have never heard of (say) Tom Watson know all about (say) Alexandria Ocasio Cortez?

Someone should submit a freedom of information request to find out how many journalists the BBC (and other British media organisations) have based in the USA. It must be quite a lot judging by the volume of copy they put out, much of which looks, to me at least, like it would really be of interest only to a domestic American audience. And yet our journalists seem to think that people in Britain are as fascinated by American minutiae as they are.

I imagine that being posted to America is a career ambition for many journalists and it looks like the BBC does its best to help as many of them achieve it as possible (certainly more than their solitary North of England Correspondent!). Of course, some of the BBC's US employees actually make money for the corporation by flogging content to Americans. I'm not complaining about them, but I suspect they are a small minority.

This obsession has the effect of introducing American concerns into British politics, such as their ridiculous culture wars, as well as reducing the time available for home news and completely crowding out anything from continental Europe.

When presented with a news story sent in by a journalist based in America, editors should ask themselves whether the story would have got on American news if it had happened in the UK. If not, then it shouldn't be on British news.

9 They almost completely ignore continental Europe

Although the average British consumer of news probably knows more about what's going on in America than the average American does, they know almost nothing about what's going on in continental Europe. This is because our media completely ignore that part of the world unless something really bad happens there. I guess there’s less demand for postings to Europe as there is for postings to America, probably because language skills are required.

This has the effect of ‘othering’ the continentals. If you don't know anything about a group of people it's easier to believe all sorts of rubbish about them, such as that they are all the same, or that they all hate us or that their world-view is so different from ours as to be incompatible. Lack of media coverage makes it difficult for British people to have an emotional connection with Europe like the one they have, due to the media's the obsessive focus, with America, which, by the way, is not reciprocated.

If, over the last several decades, the media had devoted the same amount of attention to the land across the channel as they have to the land across the Atlantic then maybe Brexit wouldn't have happened?

10 They're constantly in search of the 'gotcha'

By the time I've finished listening to the Today Programme in the morning I want to understand more about the issues affecting me and my fellow citizens than I did before I started listening. Instead, I'm treated to gladiatorial entertainment in which interviewers try to score points off politician interviewees. But the point of interviewing a politician is not to notch up a scalp, it is to help enlighten the listeners by finding out what’s going on. This doesn't mean they shouldn't ask difficult questions, but they should ask them in pursuit of enlightenment not victory.

I guess they do this because they have massive egos and think that it's all about them. In fact, it may have been better to have called this deadly sin ‘Big Egos’, but such are common in all walks of life and this is more specific.

Another annoying Today Programme habit is that of trying to get an interviewed politician to say something critical of their party leader, or someone else on their own side, with a view to generating a headline of the form ‘X criticises Y’ which, if they are successful, will appear at the top of the next news bulletin. It is usually so obvious that even the stupidest politicians are able to see it a mile off and take evasive action, which makes the whole exercise pointless as well as extremely tedious for the listener when it goes on too long as it usually does. This is really infantile and the sort of thing you expect to find on student radio.

11 They take at face value the things they are told by people promoting the agendas of vested interests.

This is similar to the ‘neutral amplifier’ effect mentioned in the talk. It is particularly insidious when the ideas being amplified come from trade associations and so-called ‘think tanks’. These people use all the tools of the PR trade and unwitting journalists don't even know they've been had.

For example, in a recent episode of Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ I was surprised to hear RenewableUK described as ‘a not-for-profit renewable energy trade association’. While it is technically true that it is not-for-profit, as are all trade associations, its member companies are very much for profit and could even be described as ‘big business’. ‘Not-for-profit renewable energy trade association’ confers an aura of trustworthiness not conveyed by the more accurate: ‘lobbyist for commercial wind farm developers’. I guess the presenter simply parroted uncritically the description given to him by the representative he interviewed.

Even worse are so-called ‘think tanks’. Why do broadcasters invite representatives of the absurd ‘Adam Smith Institute’ or the sinister ‘Institute of Economic Affairs’ onto their shows? Can’t they get proper guests? Despite the fact that most ‘think tanks’ have pseudo-official or pseudo-academic names like ‘institute of this’, or ‘centre for that’, in fact they have no academic or official credibility and are merely mouthpieces for vested interests. There is no reason to attach greater weight to the contributions of a ‘think tank’ than to the opinions of any member of the public plucked at random from the street. In fact less, because a random member of the public may weigh up the pros and cons of an argument in a disinterested way and come to a valid conclusion rather than just spew tendentious crap. Such organisations should have no role in the public discourse and the media should simply ignore them. This is probably a forlorn hope.

This and the obsession with America are well illustrated by an edition of Start the Week broadcast on 19 November last year. In this programme American business-school professor Jonathan Haidt plugged his controversial book The Coddling of the American Mind, a somewhat less than academically rigorous attempt to promote the fake ‘free speech’ agenda of the American Right. Although some of the other guests on the programme seemed uneasy about the book, presenter Andrew Marr took its conclusions at face value and uncritically questioned Haidt about the causes of this ‘problem’ and what could be done about it.

Even in the age of the internet, traditional media are still to a certain extent gatekeepers to the public's attention, especially that of older people. This means they attract those who are trying to influence public behaviour in their own interests. Journalists therefore need to be expert in recognising and countering PR tricks. A typical failure is when they report some manufactured controversy surrounding, for example, a newly released film or book, in a current affairs programme alongside genuine news stories. Such exposure could be worth serious money to the film or book's producers. If the programme-makers don't get paid to cover it they've been had. If they do they're corrupt. It would be best, therefore, not to cover it at all.

© Copyright 2019 Howard J. Rudd all rights reserved.