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Press: Facts are no refuge — context is everything 

05 October 2018


PARTLY as a consequence of the rather disconcerting experience of being interviewed by Francis Spufford on how to be good, although a journalist, I am still thinking about the curious business of journalistic ethics, and how they overlap or run counter to what one might call real ethics. In an event that was part of the “How to be Good” series put on by Ely Cathedral, Francis, with an innocence startling in an old friend of mine, wanted to talk about the difficulties of being ethically rather than professionally good, and even attempting both at the same time.

Being a good journalist is orthogonal to being a good human being: good journalists can be bad human beings, and good human beings can make rotten journalists. It is also, interestingly, fairly independent of politics. I really admire Brute of the Beast, a journalist both skilled and ethical whose employers have worked tirelessly over the years to make England a nastier place. Then again, by some measures of journalistic skill and success, Boris Johnson is a skilled and successful journalist. The skill lies in working out which are the lies his readers want to hear.

One difficulty about journalistic ethics is that readers don’t by and large want them. This is partly because they want to feel knowledgeable and superior to the people they read about; and partly because they want to feel superior to the writer as well. Believing that “it’s all made up” is also pretty reassuring in the face of bad news.

Nor can one take refuge in facts. Facts on their own cannot actually be seen at all. They are always seen from a particular viewpoint, and so always appear to the viewer in a partic­ular context. The central act of journalism, I found myself telling Francis, is that of taking things out of context. Of course, we try to set them down into a new and more relevant context. But, unlike the artist, we can’t control that process at all. A work of literature creates its own context. To read a poem properly is to become unconscious of anything outside the frame of the words. This is not true of journalism, even when it deserves the attention.

One should not write things that are factu­ally untrue, of course. But, without being set in the right context, facts can be far more misleading than outright lies. An honourable mention here to the National Secular Society for not even trying every time they compare Britain with Iran as the only two countries that have clerics sitting as of right in their parli­a­ments.

This point has just been made with mathematical force by James Owen Weatherall, a philosopher of science in California, who has modelled the spread of false beliefs in a paper for The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Using as his example the tactics de­ployed by the tobacco industry in the last half of the 20th century to delay and distract from the knowledge that cigarettes kill, he shows that the way to confuse decision-makers is to present them with large amounts of en­­tirely correct research findings, which are none the less carefully selected to produce a misleading impression. This is much more effective than putting up anything demonstrably false.

There is more. Professor Weatherall shows that, under some conditions, the situation can reach a stable equilibrium in which all the experts believe a true hypothesis, and all the decision-makers actively disbelieve it — and that if you add into his model a third category, of journalists, this outcome actually becomes more likely. That effect depends on the spurious use of “balance”: in a situation in which 90 per cent of the experts believe one thing, the journalists who insist on giving “both sides of the story” contribute to the entirely misleading impression that informed opinion is split 50/50.

Andrea Minichiello Williams and Gavin Ashenden are available for comment on this finding.


THERE has been some interesting live demonstration of these techniques in the American conservative campaign against Pope Francis this week. Crux magazine reported the launch of a group which seeks to rate all the Cardinals of the Church: “An e-mail obtained by Crux . . . outlined how each cardinal will be investigated. . . Each dossier will have a rating at the top for the cardinal’s connection to scandal and abuse, such as ‘severe guilt, credible accusations of guilt, clean’. This final verdict on each will be based on our best evidence and the recommendations of best experts.”

“For example, Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, the very corrupt Vatican Secretary of State’s Wikipedia page is currently very benign, with no links to scandal included. . . We can change that. . . By the next conclave, he needs to be known, worldwide, as a disgrace to the Church. Our plan would be to make sure that his Wikipedia page shows ‘Church Watchdog The Better Governance Group, names Parolin’, ‘Extremely Guilty of Abuse’ etc. with a link to the report. At the same time, we would add all the pull-quotes from other sources that connect him to all the financial corruption, etc.”

This ought to be a glorious waste of money, since the electorate that they are trying to influence is the Cardinals themselves.

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