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Tuesday 18 October 2016, Andrea Seaman

‘Post-factual’ politics and the future of journalism

A former senior BBC journalist is wrong to think we need more ‘facts’ – we need to recognise the moral questions underpinning political debate.

A recent talk at the London School of Economics (LSE), titled Fairness, balance and the assault on reason, provided some interesting insights into the relationship between ‘post-factual’ politics and journalism. But its conclusions were depressingly familiar and counterproductive.

The speaker was Richard Sambrook, former head of global news at the BBC and now professor of journalism and director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University.  Sambrook’s central focus was the way journalists, politicians and society in general handle facts. According to Sambrook, journalism is too caught up in politics to be impartial, politicians pay no heed to facts that do not suit them and the public is confined to lapping this mess up and forced to make up its mind with false information. In addition, the public is often not concerned about the truth of facts presented to them because, said Sambrook, they are politically sympathetic to those politicians who provide them with such falsehoods. 

The Brexit referendum showed that politicians are not particularly concerned with the facts, argued Sambrook. He illustrated this with the famous ‘£350million per week’ some proponents of Brexit claimed was being sent to the EU. But Sambrook did not spare the Remain campaigners, noting their fearmongering predictions about the UK economy in the event of Brexit. He also explained how he objects to certain currents among the Remainers that want a second referendum, in effect calling them bad losers.

The Trump phenomenon was particularly touched upon. Trump, emphasised Sambrook, is very difficult to handle for the media, especially TV. His propensity to make stuff up and lie on live TV confuses reporters. More importantly, Trump introduces doubt where none previously existed. This confuses everyone, both media and public, making it difficult to make one’s mind up as a citizen.

The talk also explored what the duty of a journalist should be. Should every journalist be duty bound to report impartially or is the diversity of biased media of all sorts an adequate substitute? Sambrook rejected the idea that the media should polarise politically. Instead, he thought that the proper job of a journalist is to be balanced and fair. After all, if voters stick to their regular sources of news, suiting their individual outlooks on the world, then there is no diversity of media for most individuals. If you tend to get your news from only one source, it’s important for every source to try to be impartial.

In short, Sambrook said that we should pay far more attention to the facts than we do now. To achieve this, he suggested various possibilities. One could, for instance, increase the cost of lying for politicians by ruthlessly exposing them. On live TV, he said, one should introduce instant fact-checking so that if any politician, such as Trump, should dare to lie, he would immediately be corrected. Sambrook even raised the idea of sanctioning those newspapers which spread falsehoods by introducing some kind of official fact-checking charter. Social solutions, for him, would include improving media literacy and tackling the ‘echo chamber’ effect.

Another important step in Sambrook’s view would be to make the media independent of politics. The media, he said, should recognise that its original purpose, when it first arose, was precisely to stand above politics, to separate itself from such affiliations in order to tell things as they were. This renewed shift toward its original mission would increase the power of the media to challenge the lies of politicians and hold them to account more authoritatively by making an accusation of not being impartial more improbable. Media outlets should also strive to widen or deepen their source base.

Sambrook made fun of those TV channels that interview their own employees on certain matters, such as the way the BBC regularly interviews its own political editor for analysis. TV (and other media) should ‘stop interviewing themselves’, he declared. ‘Mainstream fact checking’ should become a major way of keeping in check the liars and all the falsehoods that exist and are regularly created. This could be done by newspapers regularly exposing untruths in a formal manner or by having a specific online site dedicated to such matters.

The Brexit referendum showed, said Sambrook, that the more remote parts of the country were mired in their own local newspapers and media because the more popular mass-media of Britain was having trouble selling itself in remote areas. The economics of the media should therefore be improved in order to engage more with such rural areas. It would also not hurt to gather the opinions of those outside the big cities. Otherwise, he argued, there would be more occasions like the Brexit vote, where many city dwellers were completely astounded by what the inhabitants of small towns and rural areas were thinking, and vice versa.

Sambrook also suggested the ‘separation of news and comment’. An article that reports the facts and adds the author’s own comments would thus have to be avoided. Evidence should be sought and presented to the public, diversity of evidence should exist in order to avoid one-sidedness and the media should be transparent about their sources. Journalism must therefore become much more facts-centred than it is at present.

Basically, Sambrook thinks that we should reject the relatively new insouciance we have towards facts and return to respecting and staying faithful to them. The ‘post-factual’ era in which we are falling should be avoided. A rightly informed public, he suggests, will be able to counter populists much more effectively.

But Sambrook is missing something important here. The desire of certain politicians to return to a time of factual politics, so that we can escape from the new post-factual politics, is really a consequence of our post-moral politics. Morality is purposefully avoided these days on all the big issues, let alone the minor ones.

The populists and proponents of Brexit are often reduced to unthinking beasts in the thinking and writing of many commentators and politicians in order to avoid their moral arguments about democracy and sovereignty. This naturally frustrates populist sympathisers because their central grievance, which is moral, is evaded. By dismissing their views as ‘post-factual’, politicians only reinforce the idea of those attracted to populist movements that the political class does not understand them.

The emotions populists often have because of their moral convictions and their dismissal by ‘evidence-based’ opponents is countered with cold and icy facts. Those facts are then used as a substitute for moral or political argument. Once morality is combined with, or hidden from view by, scientific facts provided by experts, argument becomes impossible. After all, the facts are the facts; disputing them is unscientific. Therefore, there can be no debate when a fact, which is presented as scientific, tells us how to act. To suggest acting otherwise is then not presented as a differing moral view inviting debate, but as an unscientific one that should be ignored.

The reason why people are so careless with the facts these days, why Donald Trump can get away with lying and crude invention, why his supporters and large sections of the public don’t care, is twofold.

Firstly, populists and their supporters find it hard to to talk about morality because the current climate around them is obsessed with facts. Thus, their attempts to talk about morality are thwarted by a reluctance of their political opponents to talk about morality. Each time Brexiteers address democracy, their opponents scream about economics. This forces them into a corner, only allowing them to discuss the facts.

Secondly, in a general framework where facts are interwoven with a particular morality, any discussion of the facts morphs into a desperate attempt to morally distinguish oneself from one’s opponents. If Trump supporters or Brexiteers respected ‘the facts’ and agreed with their opponents, then the discussion would be over; their already-compromised moral authority would be destroyed. That is why in an age where facts disguise morality, a different morality produces different facts. This invention of different, often ludicrous, facts is a desperate attempt by morally concerned individuals to articulate their morality in a framework obsessed with facts that are already morally biased. Thus, one can easily explain why populists are so ‘careless’ with facts.

Sambrook’s aim to make journalism more obsessed with facts, or fact-centred, is therefore a self-destructive course. It will actually increase the carelessness of both politicians and society with facts. Add to this, such a fact-heavy approach would invite further cynicism from the public, because they instinctively understand that moral conflicts are being avoided. We want to see those moral debates had out properly, in public, not slapped down by killer ‘facts’. Sambrook’s wish for fact-centred journalism is utterly counterproductive.

This lamentation about the post-factual era we are supposedly entering is, on the one hand, a continuation of the hollowing out of politics by killing its moral core and, on the other hand, it is a hostile reaction to the return of morality in politics, as exemplified by Brexit. As this emphasis on the facts became stronger, the more that morality and democracy came to the fore. With Brexit, the return to morality has truly begun. Let’s hope it continues.

Andrea Seaman is an intern at the Institute of Ideas. The Battle of Ideas keynote debate, What is the truth about ‘post-factual’ politics?, takes place on Sunday 23 October, 12.00-1.15pm.

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