Comment: The impossibility of balanced journalism

Ian Dunt: 'The idea, which is central to the editorial judgement of the BBC, that the truth lies between two competing viewpoints, is inaccurate and childish.'
Ian Dunt: 'The idea, which is central to the editorial judgement of the BBC, that the truth lies between two competing viewpoints, is inaccurate and childish.'

Not all viewpoints are equal. It's about time we stopped pretending they were.

By Ian Dunt

Nearly every day someone shouts the word 'balanced' at me. If I write a comment piece people agree with I'm told it's balanced, which it plainly isn't. If people disagree, they tell me it's not balanced, which is accurate and also uninteresting. In the comment section of a newspaper or website, these assessments are simply misguided. But in the news pages they are proving increasingly harmful to political debate. The search for 'balance' is misguided, confused, unhelpful and ultimately impossible.

Its prevalence in our discourse is partly a legacy of our parliamentary system, where balance is actually very easy to achieve. In parliament there are a set number of parties with set views on whatever topic is being discussed. It is easy to achieve balance because it is a closed system. Political debate outside of parliament, on the other hand, includes thousands of views, an endless complexity of opinion in which balance is impossible. After such a long period of parliamentary democracy, many readers have translated the journalism of parliamentary coverage into that of general political debate, where it is unhelpful and reductionist.


The desire for balance, for supposed objectivity, is also a result of the loss of respect for old authority structures. The public questions the information it receives more than before. It is more alert to the idea that a news provider might have their own (usually pro-establishment) prejudices colouring their coverage.

Among the intellectual classes that process took the form of post-modernism, which made moral and intellectual relativity the dominant ideology among the university-educated. The idea that all opinions are equally value-laden - and therefore say more about the person expressing them than the world - is stale, simplistic and anaemic. Nevertheless, it had a profound (and not entirely negative) effect on the western intellectual tradition. This is why it leads to the demand for balance. If all viewpoints are equal, they must all be presented.

Ironically, this decline in trust of authority has translated into a culture which actually affords the establishment more freedom. The demand for balance protects the powerful.

Balance is readily manipulated by powerful public relations departments. If negative coverage is directed towards a corporation's product all the PR department has to do is find one academic to question the findings. They don't need to win the argument. They just need to turn negative coverage into a 'controversy'. This requires one countervailing voice which, because of the need for balance, must be included in the news broadcasts. Does this process assist in public understanding? Not at all - but it is 'balanced' and that's all that matters.

When you strip a news provider of judgements and values they are unable to properly evaluate evidence. The fact that one set of research is peer-reviewed suddenly becomes meaningless. The fact one argument is more thorough or applicable is ignored. Both sides must be given equal say.

But political opinions, like scientific trials, are not equal. Some trials are randomised, double-blinded, controlled and peer-reviewed. Some aren't. Some political reports draw conclusions from the data. Some pick the data to fit the viewpoint.

Take the Migration Watch report from earlier this month. It took two dates – 2004 and 2011 – and notes that more Eastern European immigrants arrived during that period and that youth unemployment rose. Immigration therefore causes youth unemployment. One might as well argue that the British deficit is a result of the decline in quality of Guy Ritchie films. Just because two things happen at the same time doesn't mean one caused the other. The report was the intellectual equivalent of a bloke in the pub shouting 'stands to reason'.

The next day, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), made up of economists who advise government, published a report suggesting that there was an impact on unemployment from immigration, with 100 non-EU migrants leading to 23 fewer domestic workers in employment.

It is quite insane that both reports, although having similar conclusions, were given equal prominence. If anything, the Migration Watch report actually received more coverage. Only a media that is afraid of making clear points about the validity of research, which treats political disputes like the scales of justice regardless of the methodology and veracity of the opponents, could allow coverage to be so fundamentally unrevealing.

There is nothing impartial about this. It is not fair. Only rich organisations can afford the communications work to get this kind of status with media outlets, to conduct the meet-and-greet operations around Westminster which are a necessary requirement of political weight. The journalist's need to 'balance' out coverage forces them to find other voices in a debate – be it abortion, cigarettes, or anything inbetween. The groups they find have the financing to compile and publish reports, hand out press officer business cards and launch visible campaigns. They specialise in creating a relationship with a journalist where they will be 'top of mind' when the writer looks for balance.

Money and influence rely on the need for balance. They are not hindered by it. Groups with less funding, less contacts, less Westminster presence, will always lose out, regardless of the quality of their research or the veracity of their arguments.

What's true for smaller lobby groups is also true for minority political viewpoints. Even at the most theatrical level, balance is just a byword for the status quo. If we really cared about balance we would find out the views of the Socialist Workers party or the anarchist black bloc or the British National party, and we would do it on every political news story the media covers. These groups may have fewer supporters than the mainstream Westminster parties – even the Lib Dems – but they certainly have proportionately more support than they have coverage in the mainstream press. However much balance you try to create you always define the parameters in which balance takes place.

It is a false choice, an impossible ideology. The reason it doesn't work is because it is based on the mistaken assumption that objectivity exists. This pretence merely drives us towards the most mainstream, centrist position. The idea, which is central to the editorial judgement of the BBC, that the truth lies between two competing viewpoints, is inaccurate and childish. It would be false even if we could somehow magically find the two viewpoints which are appropriate to balance.

We would be far better served by giving up on objectivity and providing honest journalism. Honest journalism would not try to pretend it has no values. Instead, it would offer a clear examination of available evidence, with information about the validity of that evidence. It would be transparent about its aims and the story it has to tell. It would be subjective, because it is impossible for it not to be. Informed readers could assess whether they accept that, as a package, rather than try to work their way through the smoke-and-mirrors that is supposed 'impartiality'.

Whatever you were told in school, not all views are equal. Some are based on logic, evidence and compassion. Some aren't. Until we get over this fact, we won't get the journalism we deserve. We need a journalism of integrity, not one chasing a dream it can never catch.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 


 

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