Here in Britain we claim to have a representative democracy. However, it cannot be truly representative unless the voters have access to reliable and balanced information.
For a long time this requirement was barely discussed at all. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) used to be held up as the best news broadcaster in the world – the most factually accurate, giving both sides of an argument without telling us what to think about it.
The reason for that reputation was that the Government obliged it to provide balance. It worked as well as it did as long as British governments monitored the obligation and did not themselves interfere to promote their own interests.
Today that reputation is in tatters. Critics point to leading BBC figures like Nick Robinson and Laura Kuenssberg who are strongly biased towards the Conservative Party, and complain that it has become a mouthpiece for the Government.
Balance and bias
Less obvious than direct government interference is the tendency for political balance to shift. The BBC is one of many sources of information. Since most of the others are owned by a small number of extremely rich people, public discourse is constantly being pressurised in the direction of policies that suit the ultra-rich. As public opinion shifts in this direction, the BBC will appear left-wing if it does not keep in step.
The idea of balance has problems anyway. A news programme on evolution may, for balance, include an evolution denier. A programme on climate change may include a climate change denier. We do not have a system for distinguishing clearly between disputed and undisputed ‘facts’. The overall effect is to give the impression that we can choose our own ‘alternative facts’.
Parents would be horrified if the curricula at their children’s schools were organised on this basis. Similarly, scientists often express horror at the way their research is misinterpreted in the public domain.
This then impacts on political debate. Only very few people have the means and time to check the truth of public statements made by politicians. Usually we choose to believe the statements that reinforce the values we already have, and ignore the others. Misinformation then gets treated as just one more alternative truth – which we believe if we want it to be true.
Since the Brexit vote and the election of Trump there has been much agonising about ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.
Why the deterioration? One reason is the continuing myth of a ‘free’ press. By ‘free press’ we usually mean it is not controlled by the Government. In some countries this is an important distinction: where all the news outlets are state-controlled, governments can suppress unfavourable information.
In our system, however, bias in favour of the Government is established equally effectively in other ways.
We now have access to huge amounts of information from newspapers, television and social media. Most of us have no satisfactory way to distinguish between truth and falsehood.
Nearly all the newspapers, including all the most popular ones, are owned by a tiny number of extremely rich people. Much the same is true of television channels and the social media. Owen Jones’ book The Establishment describes how media owners use their power to influence public debate. Any government supporting the interests of the rich does not need to interfere with them; they are willingly doing its work anyway.
Social media, as the latecomers, are a little different as they are designed to allow anyone to say anything and choose what to read. However many people want to see some things blocked: dangerous misinformation, incitement to hatred, sexual grooming. Blocking happens. The owners of social media can then be accused of political bias, and often are.
Over and above these sources we know about –behind them, providing deliberately misleading information through them – are the data sources we don’t know about. Carole Cadwalladr describes how wealthy behind-the-scenes organisations systematically suppress and invent information in order to influence public opinion.
Effects of news management
Two effects of this situation are worth stressing. First, the news gets trivialised. Serious news is mixed up with celebrity gossip and other irrelevancies. The BBC fills out Important information with street interviews asking the views of passers-by who know little or nothing about it – and even these interviews are edited to present what the programmers think we should see.
Secondly, news reporting does not restrict itself to stating facts. It goes to great lengths to tell us how to feel about them – what values to adopt. It is right and proper, of course, that we make moral responses and judgements about the news; but apart from a few specialist programmes like The Moral Maze we are rarely helped to do our moral reflecting in an informed way. Instead, the presenter expresses feelings and invites us to share them.
The treatment of Jeremy Corbyn is the most extreme example I know of media bias. For two years Corbyn has been almost universally demonised by the mainstream media. Only now, since the election has been announced, does he get a chance to speak for himself – and opinions about him have changed dramatically.
This is an exceptional case, but the trend is widespread. Behind it lies a philosophical weakness. Our secular society, fantasising that ‘we create our own values’, is wide open to manipulation by those who know which values they want us to hold.
It is not surprising that the Press Freedom Index shows Britain slipping down the chart. Our democracy is a sham unless voters can do two things. Firstly they need to know where they can get reliable and balanced information. Secondly they need a fair understanding of how individuals and societies develop their values – so that they may then judge what to make of the information.
Ruling élites often prefer to keep their populations uneducated, as it is then easier to persuade them to obey. A situation like the present one, where people are increasingly sceptical, encourages people to feel there is no point in voting.
How to re-establish a truth-loving mass media is another question. Quite clearly, leaving it to a handful of billionaires is not the answer. Nor will it do to have a state-run news service subject to government pressure. I suspect that the best answer would be an independent body, a sort of parallel to the judiciary, with power to uphold essential principles of truth and balance while forbidding government interference. But this is not my expertise.
Maybe the main change needed is to re-establish a culture that positively cares about truth. We have done better in the past and could do so again.
Access to truth is essential. We need a government that ensures everyone has ways to distinguish reliable information from misinformation. We can vote for something better than what we have now.