Theresa May's former comms chief says it cannot; an ex-head of BBC Television News says it canby Robbie Gibb and Roger Mosey / January 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
Yes: Roger Mosey
Why on earth wouldn’t you want to fact-check what our politicians are saying? We live in an age when the president of the United States has a relationship to the truth that is as distant as Saturn; and across the world there are politicians of all political shades who think they can say anything they like as long as they get elected. Stir into that the power of social media, where lies can flourish without any editorial challenge whatsoever, and the threat to democracy is clear.
It is therefore right that the broadcasters who seek to provide a public service, in the UK, US and elsewhere, are fact-checking and campaign-checking. They still retain mass audiences, and can shine a beam of light into the fog of campaign promises. As a voter, I want to know whether there will be 40 new hospitals in Britain or not—and I’m grateful to the likes of the BBC, Sky and Channel 4 for unpicking the prime minister’s arguments. I am pleased they’re doing the same to Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon.
Indeed, I’d say they aren’t making enough of it. The reality checks tend to sit on their own little bit of the broadcaster’s website, or towards the end of the Today programme, whereas they should be right up there at the top of News at Ten. Yes, let’s hear what the politicians have to say; but do not let them get away with churning out “facts” which turn out not to be true.
I am not going to jump into the trap that says the lying is all on one side, and generated by an alliance of Trump, Johnson and Vladimir Putin. Examining the facts would mean that Labour’s tax and spend policies would unravel as quickly as the Conservatives’ over-spun pledges on the NHS. What’s vital is impartial analysis, calmly delivered—at a time when it risks going out of fashion.
No: Robbie Gibb
I could not agree more about the importance of impartial reporting and robust, well-referenced facts being fundamental to good quality debate. The rise of social media and the increasing role of the journalist as political pundit means these days everyone has an opinion but facts are far harder to come by.
To counter this trend, the BBC launched Reality Check. Unfortunately, Reality Check’s aim in recent years has apparently not been to tackle online falsehoods but to become another journalistic tool to criticise politicians. Other fact-checking providers like Channel 4 FactCheck or Full Fact often succumb to the same trap.
It may not be a popular view but politicians do not generally lie to the media, to parliament or to the voters—their reputations, their very careers are built on trust. Whether it is a statement at the despatch box, a speech to a think tank or key messages to the media, facts uttered by our politicians have been checked and re-checked by the civil service or parliamentary teams in opposition. This is not done by communications people trying to get the best shine on a line but by serious and studious policy experts, some of the brightest young men and women in the country, whose idea of an “error” is being 0.01 per cent out on a GDP deflator or confusion over whether the statistics refer to England and Wales or England only.
Often when there is a dispute about what a politician says it is around interpretation of facts, rather than the facts themselves. This difference of interpretation has always been at the heart of political argument—journalists and fact-checkers should not be too quick to pronounce someone guilty of falsehood if they disagree with the interpretation.
Constant cynicism is not increasing the sum total of facts presented to the world, but simply undermining trust in our democracy.
My eyes welled up at your notion of trust-seeking politicians bravely speaking the truth. But your vision bears little relationship to the politics of our time.
The herd of elephants in the room is, of course, the memory of the Brexit referendum and the bus with the claim that “we send the EU £350m a week—let’s fund our NHS instead.” It was a brilliant piece of campaigning, and the sense of priorities may have been valid. But the £350m figure wasn’t correct, as the UK Statistics Authority made clear. There were sporadic attempts by the broadcasters to challenge the Leave campaign’s arithmetic, but nothing like enough. This is a good case of where we needed more –persistent and prominent checking of facts rather than letting politicians run riot.
I accept that there is particular suspicion of fact-checking from people like you who are on the right. This may be because there is data from the last election campaign, by the First Draft organisation, which showed that almost 90 per cent of the Conservatives’ Facebook posts contained misleading claims. We certainly witnessed dodgy practices including the misleading editing of a Keir Starmer interview and the rebranding of the Party’s Twitter feed. But as someone who is not in the political battle, I am equally bothered about Labour’s sums on public spending where it blithely added £58bn to support women caught in a pensions trap. I want fact-checkers to put that, too, in the proper context, just as I would have liked Nick Clegg’s tortuous journey on student tuition fees to be subjected to greater scrutiny.
So yes: when politicians are at the despatch box and civil servants are watching them, we can rest more easily. But to characterise that as the general state of politics is, sadly, delusional. It falls to the media to seek honesty and accuracy across the rest of the battlefield, and their fact-checking is an indispensable aid to democracy.
I would prioritise impartiality and accuracy, particularly in broadcast journalism. However, when the broadcasters put their own fact-checkers on a pedestal, beyond reproach, it often turns out that they too are flawed. Figures and supposed “facts” are very often not some unarguable truth, but constructions partly built out of interpretation. And they are always capable of being used for a variety of ends.
Who determines, for example, whether “cash terms” or “real terms” is the fairest way of saying how much investment is going into a public service? Neither is false. If taxes go up year after year and are then cut in one financial year, is it fair for a chancellor—as Gordon Brown once did—to say tax is falling?
If you want to show things are improving or standards are falling, what baseline year do you start from? Is it fair to judge improvements only from the 2019 election or any of the other three elections this country had in the last decade? Or is the right benchmark something more fixed than merely when one party came to office?
And I must point out that you have not addressed my issue about the original purpose of Reality Check. It should be to deal with unverified—though professional looking—statistics that float around on the internet, designed to mislead the public. These are truly pernicious. However, all too often what we see is not true fact-checking, but scrutiny deployed against one side of the political argument rather than the other.
It is very rare that a fact is made up and mistakes are equally rare. So in general what is in dispute is whether the “fact”—usually a figure—is being used in an appropriate way.
I am also surprised, Roger, that in this of all contexts you have chosen to cite one of the dodgiest statistics from the 2019 election—about the veracity of Conservative Facebook posts. Can I draw your attention to excellent analysis by journalist Christopher Snowdon that totally debunks the report by First Draft News on which this claim is based. To take just one flaw, the methodology arbitrarily penalised the Conservatives for using hyperlinks in a way that Labour did not. If ever there was a dubious statistic that needed rebutting, this is it. When you get fact-checking wrong it just creates more misinformation. That is the last thing we need.
I am pleased that you support fact-checking of my arguments, at least; and Snowdon, whose piece I hadn’t previously seen, makes some valid points—and some I’d disagree with. I still have no doubt that the Conservatives made misleading claims during the election campaign, including the promise about funding for 40 new hospitals to be built over the next decade.
But you are missing the big picture here—and where I started with Trump and his abandonment of anything like commitment to truth. The Washington Post estimates that Trump has made more than 15,000 false or misleading claims during his first three years in office. The traditional media outlets have a stark choice: should they continue to amplify these lies, which in my view they’ve done too much, or should they challenge them?
You also ignore the EU referendum, which was not about “unverified—though professional-looking—statistics that float around on the internet” but was instead about the central proposition of the entire Leave campaign. So I don’t buy the argument that facts aren’t made up and mistakes are rare; and I do want public service broadcasters to act on behalf of the electorate and make sure there is vigorous challenge. That can still be impartial: the often improbable Cameron/Osborne “Project Fear” statements should have been dissected too.
The risks we face are that many politicians think that these days they can say anything because social media allows them their own route to the electorate. That is why it’s essential that established television and radio services take their responsibility ever more seriously to assess supposed facts and claims. It’s not about taking sides or telling the public what to think. It is attempting to give them the best shot at knowing what the truth is; and, without that, I would worry a lot about the way democracy is heading.
I noticed that you have rather casually brushed over the complete debunking of claims that 88 per cent of Conservative Facebook adverts during a period of the election campaign were lies.
The fact that someone like yourself was taken in by this fake statistic makes my point. Here was a completely false fact on the internet that got real cut through. It was used as “evidence” to support your argument. And the false claim was actually made by so-called fact-checkers, who were trying to “expose” misinformation. What use is fact-checking if it just makes the problem worse?
Turning to your points about the conduct of politicians, you say you don’t “buy” the argument that facts are not made up by politicians and that mistakes are rare. This is simply an assertion. Where are your examples, where is your evidence?
You seem more concerned about areas of political dispute, such as the 40 hospitals, which many take issue with but really does depend on how you interpret the figures. It should be left to reasoned political debate rather than “objective” fact-checking, which is the wrong tool for the job. Fact-checkers should be focusing on outright falsehoods. As for the £350m figure, judgment could be passed because we all saw they were using gross, rather than net, payments to Brussels. Whether you agree with the figure or not, you do know how it was reached.
The real big picture here is the conduct of our political debate, and while I have more faith in our politicians than you do, I do not dispute that simplistic assertions are sometimes made and left unchallenged. Broadcast journalism is far too influenced by the tone set by newspapers. We need to return to the foundations of good quality journalism—impartial coverage and reasoned debate. The problem is that in its current form, fact-checking is not getting us there. It is instead being used to score cheap “gotcha” points.
Broadcast journalists should worry less about whether they are trending on Twitter and more about the quality of their questioning and coverage. To do that they need to delineate between factual accuracy and political interpretation. Sometimes fact-checking actually undermines impartiality, rather than safeguarding it.