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Home > Media

Lies and the Lying Liars

A snail can see both sides of an issue because its eyes are on stalks. But how do the media, whose eyes are generally not on stalks, manage it?

14 November 2003

Balance is a tricky thing in the media. Journalists are expected to provide balanced pieces, to make sure that one loud voice doesn't prevail, and this is without doubt a good thing. (On the whole.) So that, for example, when the BBC reports that the police is an attractive career choice for racists, portraying this as a bad thing, it's important that Blunkett is given time to chastise the Beeb for talking about this in public.

There are times, though, when something looks like balance, but is in fact a mess of loons shouting. Anyone who's watched Nicky Campbell on ITV's Late And Live will have witnessed this. If that programme has a debate on whether it's wrong to leave AIDSy needles on cinema seats, you can be sure they'll find someone to argue that this is the price we pay for living in a free society.

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The same happens with politics. If the government gets caught with its pants round its ankles, frantically lying the living crap out of the electorate, the News At Ten report will still find the time to allow Tessa Jowell to do a link in front of a picture of the Houses Of Parliament explaining that the lie was so important it must be repeated, now, often, and as forcefully as possible.

The fakest form of balance, though, comes up in stories which involve Scientific Stuff. Harvard's Cornelia Dean writes this week about an experience familiar to many scientists: that of being interviewed and seeing a final piece where your research about renewable energy sources is 'balanced' against some spicy quotes from an advocate of Perpetual Motion machines using superstring technology discovered in crop circles at Roswell.

The reason these articles fail is that if you're interviewing a half-decent scientist, they'll already have considered the counterarguments, because that's what science *is*.

However, there are few broadcasters and newspapers who are especially interested in science. So if a science story has any popular appeal (guns, gays, kiddies, breast cancer, we're all going to die), it'll emerge from the science ghetto on page E19 and get written up by a good generalist hack. The hack will know approximately-squit about the increasingly-complex scientific stories that keep emerging. And so their confusion and ignorance structures the piece. The hack thinks 'but what if global warming *is* all a lie?', finds a hothead who'll argue this and gives them the same column inches as a meteorologist.

Also, of course, arguments are Sexy. And as it goes on Late And Live, so it goes in the broadsheets. Does Butter Cause Early Menopause? Now the piece is a fun slanging match, and counts as entertainment rather than journalism. Quids in!

This is why Larry King is able to get Putin, Carter, Clinton, Blair and Thatcher round the table for Part One of his show, and come back after these announcements to hear spiritualist Sylvia Browne explaining how she finds dead bodies for the police using her spooky powers, all with the journalistic value of Krusty The Klown. Both seem to the producers like responsible, balanced reporting, plus the crank will get in the millions of viewers who are terrified of crime.

'Balance'. All broadcasters should have it. Most know they should display it. But it takes a staff well-up on their general knowledge and critical thinking to sense when balance is fake, and when their panel consists of Mr. Punch and his good wife Judy. And until they stop watching each other's crappy programmes and learn how instead to read widely, keep up with facts and differentiate actual facts from Breaking News, it's going to get dumberererererererererer and dumbererererererererererer.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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