Friday 30 November 2018

Reality checking

Readers with long memories might recall various posts here about Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University, including the following:

To summarise: Professor Lewis has been involved in many reports about media bias over the years, including ones about the BBC. He 'found' (a) that the BBC was pro-Iraq War, (b) that the media exaggerates the threat from Islamic terrorism, (c) that the media gives Muslims a bad press...

...and (d) that the BBC is pro-Eurosceptic, and (e) pro-Conservative, and (f) pro-right wing think tanks.

Yes, really.

Despite this, he remains broadly supportive of the BBC. 

But he's anti-consumer capitalism, and believes that we must "change the way we organise media and communications" to get ourselves beyond consumer capitalism. 

Knowing all of this about Professor Lewis, you can probably imagine my surprise on hearing Roger Bolton, whilst discussing Peter Lilley & Chris Morris and the BBC's Reality Check, preface his interview by saying:  
Time for me to turn to an impartial journalistic expert. He's Justin Lewis, a Professor of Journalism. He spoke to me from his office at Cardiff University.

And guess what? Professor Lewis is a fan of the BBC's Reality Check and stuck up for Chris Morris. 

Moreover, he speaks the same language that leading Remain critics of the BBC speak when it comes to the question of BBC impartiality on issues like Brexit. 


Here's a transcript. 

Fair does to Roger Bolton for putting some reasonable points along the way, but Professor Lewis - the "impartial expert" - didn't surprise me in anything he said, and some of it struck me as being slightly sinister:


Roger Bolton: I asked him whether he thought the BBC's reality check was worthwhile.
Justin Lewis: I think it's a very valuable piece of public service broadcasting. I think that most listeners find it difficult, I think, in an age when they hear politicians on either side debating an issue, and you get that tit-for-tat argument, especially around issues like Brexit or the economy. What they want to know, I think, is: what does impartial expert opinion say on this? Is there a consensual view, and what it that? So I think actually Fact Check is an extremely useful thing to do.
Roger Bolton: If there is, indeed, anything impartial. This seems to be one of those issues where impartiality is almost impossible. Both sides believe they're right. Both sides immediately condemn anybody who questions what they do as being obviously of the other side.
Justin Lewis: Absolutely. And I think it's one of those issues where objectivity and impartiality push you in different directions. If you want to be objective you have to report what you think of as the most likely or plausible version of the truth is, but if you're being impartial you don't really pay as much regard to that. You just give both sides equal say, regardless of whether one side has more evidence on it than the other. I guess we saw that around climate change. For a long time climate change was reported as a controversy, and you would get roughly equal time for sides pointing out that there might be something called climate change and those that disagreed with that. Now the BBC, I know, has moved on from that, as many broadcasters have, and acknowledged that the scientific consensus is so overwhelming on one side that there's no longer really a controversy to be discussed.
Roger Bolton: This comes to be...the difficulty, it seems to me, it's called 'a reality check'. Some would call in a 'fact check'.
Justin Lewis: Yes.
Roger Bolton:  Actually, in some ways, if you're not careful, it can be a view of a judgment. When we're talking about what will happen in the future about negotiations, what is likely to happen, it's very difficult to have a reality check about a judgment - something that would rise in future negotiations.
Justin Lewis: That's true, but I think what people like Chris Morris, and other people who do fact checking, try to do is point out what the factual basis is for making a judgment one way or another, and I think he was quite careful actually, when he was challenged, to say what he was trying to do was establish what we know.
Roger Bolton But it was unfortunate, wasn't it, to have a situation in which a supposed reality checker gets involved in an argument with a politician? It's not ideal. But it was an accident waiting to happen. I've noticed on other occasions, for example, when a Today presenter would interview, let's say, the Prime Minister or someone else, and afterwards you'd come to Laura Kuenssberg who was asked, basically, 'What do you make of that? And do you think she's telling the truth? What's she not saying?'. If you do an interview with someone and then immediately afterwards you have a reality checker the impression is, well, 'actually you shouldn't really trust this politician but you should trust us'.
Justin LewisBrexit is an issue where this was inevitably going to happen, because this is an issue where there is quite a large body of evidence and some of that evidence clearly favours one side, some might favour the other side, but I don't think one can just say, well, you've got two equal bodies of evidence here. I think it's the responsibility of a broadcaster to basically say here's where the evidence appears to lie, now you can hold this view or this view but we're going to tell you what we think the evidence says. And I think listeners want to hear more of that.I think they're a little tired of getting the kind of claim and counterclaim around issues when it's very difficult to make any kind of judgment about what is true and what isn't. So I think a good faith attempt to try and establish what the factual parameters are around an issue is absolutely something the BBC should be doing.
Roger BoltonAnd do you think it's more important now in the age of what we call fake news that we need reality checks in a way almost more than ever before?
Justin Lewis: We really do. I mean, we have too much opinion now and not enough facts. And I think there is a real...a  real hunger, I think, for reporting that focuses more on a kind of sober analysis - or even not necessarily a sober analysis, any analysis - of where the factual evidence lies, and less claim and counterclaim, because we get an awful lot of tit-for-tat - this politician says that, this politician says the opposite - and it really doesn't leave us anywhere the wiser.
Roger Bolton: But the danger for broadcasters is that they get drawn into a situation where they're portrayed as the opposition. So a broadcaster in a situation of a highly contested area has got to be very careful that pointing out the reality of the facts doesn't lead them into providing the opposition to one of the sides, one or other of the sides.
Julian Lewis: I think that's true, but I think we have to ask ourselves: suppose you have two particular viewpoints and one side says something that is demonstrably untrue. Should an impartial broadcaster just sit back and make no comment, or should it say, actually, we know that is demonstrably untrue,  or here is an expert to say that it's demonstrably untrue. I think we do need to know that, If we don't do that then really anybody's view becomes as valid as anybody else's. And I think in this instance the BBC has to bite the bullet a little bit and be an adjudicator. And it's going to get really criticised for doing it, we know that, but I think it's the responsibility of a public service broadcaster .
Roger Bolton: Our thanks to Professor Justin Lewis. And if you go to the BBC's Reality Check website you can find lots more statistics to argue over.


Maybe next week's edition of Feedback will have Lord Lilley on to give his view of Professor Lewis!!


  1. If Justin thinks Reality Check is a very valuable piece of public service broadcasting then, since he is what the BBC calls an independent expert, logically it must be a crock of shite. QED.

  2. Seeing that Reality Check solicits for reality checks, I did once email them to reality check some shite the BBC had uttered (I forget what it was now). No reply. A fine public service indeed.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.