Sunday 15 December 2019

Chris Morris wails and gnashes his teeth (fact)

Today's The World This Weekend featured a verbal jeremiad from BBC Reality Check's chief reporter, Chris Morris. A transcript follows:

Having spent most of my career as a foreign correspondent I've covered some pretty dodgy elections in some pretty difficult places, so that helps keep a sense of perspective. But I never thought I'd cover an election here at home and reach the end of the campaign wondering whether the truth really matters any more. But here we are. Even after victory was assured on Friday morning Boris Johnson was doubling down on his claim that the Conservatives are building 40 new hospitals, even though the funding has only been provided for six of them, they're not actually new hospitals, and building hasn't yet started anywhere. At the same event Michael Gove couldn't resist having another pop at the defeated opposition:
Michael Gove: Under Boris's leadership we are truly a party for the whole nation. Just think about it: next year both the Durham Miners Gala and the Notting Hill Carnival will take place in seats represented by Conservative MPs.
It was a great line which captured this seismic nature of the election result and it was picked up and rebroadcast. But the detail wasn't actually true. The Miners Gala is held in the City of Durham, a seat Labour retained. Maybe it was an honest mistake after a long night - we've all made those - but this has been an election characterised by bluster and distortion where the end always seemed to justify the means. And that begs the question: do facts not really matter much any more? The evidence from the campaign suggests that quite often they don't, and trying to fact check them up the agenda simply doesn't work if false claims and misrepresentation can be pumped out to hundreds of thousands of people unfiltered via social media. There's always been spin of course and politicians should be trying to persuade us that we should vote for them. That's what it's all about. But in this new era - you can call it post-truth politics, if you like - the narrative is far more important than the detail, and if the facts don't quite add up the story can be embellished by half truths and smokescreens. If it works for Donald Trump across the pond then why not here? It's not so much about politicians always lying as about politicians not really caring whether something is true or not. That's where we've got to. And no party came out of the election with entirely clean hands on any of this. There were Lib Dem bar charts which displayed numbers sufficiently out of context to make an honest statistician blush. There was Labour's insistence that the NHS is for sale and that medicines will become more expensive after Brexit, based more on fear factor than on fact.
Jeremy Corbyn: He stood in front of a bus in 2016 and promised £350 million a week for the NHS. Now we find out that £500 million a week could be taken out of the NHS and handed to big drugs companies under his plans for a sell-out trade deal with Donald Trump and the USA.
But the party and the leader that was called out on the facts most often was also the party and the leader that won an unexpectedly large majority. And the Conservatives did that, as we know, primarily by providing a simple answer to an incredibly complex problem. 'Get Brexit done' was a comfort blanket. It was what people wanted to hear, and it appears that many voters either didn't know or didn't care that reality will be a lot more complicated. And now, well we've already moved on to new slogans - 'a one nation government', 'a people's government'. What does that really mean in practice? Whatever you want it to mean really, as long as you don't have to deal with any of those pesky facts.


Thankfully, this woe-filled editorial by the BBC's High Priest of Unquestionable Reality didn't go unanswered today. The three studio guests responded, and two of them took aim at his piece - and the BBC - and fired. Here's a transcript of that too:

Mark Mardell: Sheila Lawlor, does the truth matter any more?
Sheila Lawlor: Yes, I think truth matters a great deal, and I would take issue with that view and, indeed, the view which has become, I hate to say it, but very standard in much of the state broadcaster. Say you take what you've said - it's the shorthand of 40 new hospitals, the suggestions that this is a lie  -the question is: in the manifesto it says "40 new hospitals...We will begin the work on 40 new hospitals to be built over the next 10 years". Now, it's a question of whether shorthand in a speech or a manifesto pledge...and so on. One could go through these things time and again...
Mark Mardell: (interrupting) Do you see that as shorthand? You're shaking your head.
Maya Goodfellow: No. I mean if you look at...
Sheila Lawlor(interrupting) Could I finish please? But the whole Brexit debate was couched in terms of 'Brexit, formally we leave the European Union on the 31st of January'. Yes, the next stage will be negotiating a future trade deal. But I'm afraid many programmes on the BBC couched the whole thing as one compete lie. The truth is in international law we leave, we get Brexit done, on the 31st of January. We then move on to discuss trade. That trade deal will not take seven years...
Mark Mardell(interrupting) I am going to interrupt now because we are running out of time. But Maya, what do you think?
Maya GoodfellowYeah, I mean, I don't, I don't agree. I think...I mentioned the Australian style points based system lying before. That is not what's going to be introduced under the Conservatives, so it is misleading. But I think there's a bigger problem here, which is not only about telling the truth or not. There has long been spin in politics. It's about the evasion of scrutiny. If we think about the fact they're talking about re-examining the Civil Service, we think about the fact that the Conservatives are saying they won't now appear on the Today programme, we think about the fact that Boris Johnson refused to do that Andrew Neil interview. This is why we had the election, was because Boris Johnson didn't want his deal to be scrutinised by Parliament, and so I think that this is something we have to be concerned about going forward now the Conservatives have a majority - not only that they've claimed things that are false during the general election campaign, but the way that they have dealt with interacting with large parts of the media is to try and avoid scrutiny. That's bad for the public.
Mark Mardell: Just very quickly, Alex. Post-truth?
Alex Massie:  Well, no. I mean, what is truth? There are often things that are subject to interpretation, and there's a certain current running through this discussion and so on which is that, you know, the voters are stupid and they must have been lied to to believe things that can't be true and to vote against their own long-term interests. Well, I mean, I 'm afraid I don't actually think voters are stupid in any part of the United Kingdom, I think they're capable of discerning bigger truths that are more important than whether a minister appears on the Today programme or about whether a particular shorthand version of what was in a manifesto commitment is 100% accurate or likely to happen. You know, the voters are not dumb. And I'm not sure that we would be having this discussion if the Labour Party had won this election incidentally, even though it doesn't strike me that the Labour Party's manifesto promises were any more plausible or honest than those made by the Conservatives. 
Mark Mardell: Alex Massie, Maya Goodfellow and Sheila Lawlor, thank you very much indeed.


  1. And with this rant Chris Morris reveals everything that's wrong with the BBC's widely discredited "reality check."

    To channel St Greta, how dare he think it's appropriate to "fact check" the Conservative Party's election slogan "Get Brexit Done."

    It is quite clearly a broad emotional appeal to voters frustrated with seeing the referendum decision of 2016 persistently ignored and undermined by the EU fanatics in the establishment.

    Does Morris really think voters hear that slogan and are too stupid to understand that there will be hurdles to come?

    No, they hear it and think "this is a party that will make sure we leave under international law in short order." The fact that there will be negotiations after that is fine - at least we will be negotiating as a NON-member of the EU.

    And where was Morris's "reality check" of the Labour slogan "For the Many not the Few"? Given that Labour's policies would have immiserated the entire country, surely that slogan could not stand up to scrutiny.

    Go away Morris. We see you and your "reality check" and we know exactly what you're up to.

  2. Also, (ironically, given Morris's comments about narratives over facts) I think we can see the way the Beeb is shaping its own narrative to explain away the result: "It was Tory fake news inspired by the example of the Orange Bad Man that led to their victory."

    I expect to see that trotted out a lot in the coming weeks and months.

  3. What a disgusting piece of self-justification from Reality Tweaker in Chief, Chris Morris.

    "narrative is far more important than the detail"

    Well if that really is the new politics (I don't think there's the slighest new thing in it) then the politicians have learnt from the BBC. For the BBC, the narrative is supreme!

    Morris claims to be interested in detail. Do the BBC care whether you can be outside the EU and in the Single Market? You can't legally, but in his Reality Check opinion pieces Morris has often stated you can. Did the BBC care whether or not refugee "children" let in by May were aged under 18 or 25 or even 35...because they don't seem to care?

    More detail. Do the BBC care whether, in addition to being accused of not tackling anti-semitism in the Labour Party, Corbyn was accused of personal anti-semitism and consorting with a host of notorious haters of Jews? It seems not because the BBC studiously avoids mention of the latter two charges.

    It is Chris Morris who has devalued the currency of truth in politics by using a purported objective fact checking service to publish opinion pieces biased against "the Tories" (to use their favourite phrase) and to fail to investigate properly the lies and prevarications of the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and Labour.

  4. I agree with all the comments made earlier. I heard this and even though I assume a soggy left wing ‘liberal’ bias on the part of the BBC was stunned and, perhaps naively, shocked before Morris had even finished speaking. It really was disgraceful. It is of course an absurd conceit for the BBC to run what it calls a fact checking service in the first place but I wouldn’t trust Morris to fact check the time of day let alone anything more nuanced.


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