David Shapton on the rather important distinction between facts and opinions and how the quest for balance can be an ongoing struggle.
Anyone who doesn't live under a rock in the UK will have noticed a certain controversy this weekend involving the BBC and Gary Lineker. We won't go into that here (for anyone not knowing what we’re talking about though, here’s a summary) but I want to explore the question of "balance" because it creeps into much of our work in content creation and media businesses.
Most will likely disagree with my conclusion, but I'll respond to that when I get there. First, let's look at the difficulties along the path to editorial balance.
To begin, let's discount organisations that make no claim to be balanced. They would include production facilities that represent or promote a particular view. It includes most advertising and all marketing. That's not to say that it's all bad; it's just that if you want a balanced view of the market for, say, electric bicycles, then you don't expect to find it on the website of a single bicycle manufacturer.
When it comes to news, it's far from simple. Except that it needn't be. But political expedience determines that it is a tightrope traversing a minefield.
The fallacy at the base of all of this is that there are two sides to everything. That's demonstrably not the case. If the news story is that it's snowing outside, you don't need to phone an expert in weather-related delusionality to offer their view that it isn't actually snowing outside. All you need to do is look out of the window, and there's your answer.
That's an exceptional example. Most of the time, surely, it's more nuanced.
Yes, it is. But the same principle applies: two things can't be true at the same time.
To be clear, I'm not talking about whether or not a new film is good or bad. There are ways you can measure success - box-office takings, aggregating the number of "stars" given by critics, or by interviewing people coming out of the cinema. You may well get contradictory "readings" from these methods. I may have misremembered this, but The Shawshank Redemption is widely lauded today as a great film, but at the time, it wasn't a massive hit. I wouldn't say I liked it the first time I saw it. I thought it was a decent film the second time.
But within this morass of conflicting evidence, you can resolve the apparent contradictions if you're comparing like with like. The amount of money a film makes in a given period is objective. You can't have a view about whether or not the first Avatar film was the biggest grossing of all time. Nor can you have a view about the percentage of cinema-goers who gave it a five-star rating in a given survey. But like me, in respect of The Shawshank Redemption, I didn't like it, and while I might give my reasons, someone similar to me might have watched it at the same time and given an entirely different reaction. There's no objectivity here, nor should it be expected, because this is definitively a matter of opinion.
Or is it? Someone might set out to make a deliberately bad film. That would mean reactions against it would not be entirely subjective. You can see why this is a nuanced subject.
You rarely find people expressing an opinion about triangles. You would not further your career if you insisted that your preference was for four-sided triangles. But that's a special category of "fact" that is true without having to experience it. It's true because that's the way it's defined. In this so-called "a priori" domain, opinions don't play a role.
So what other kinds of facts are there? Some facts are true by virtue of something having happened: a set of circumstances, like - and I know this sounds far-fetched - a train arriving on time. If the 17:34 from St Pancras arrives unexpectedly at 17:34, there would be no point looking for someone to dispute that fact. That's different from discussing whether trains should be given a greater state subsidy. At some point, you could run models that might show either that increasing subsidies would improve the railways or that they wouldn't, but then people would (rightly) ask questions about the model's provenance. You could look for other examples: France, Switzerland, etc., which would help to clarify.
Can facts be subjective?
Ultimately the question is: can a fact be subjective? To me, this is obvious. If it's something about which you can have diverse, well-researched opinions, then it's not a fact.
The controversy in the UK hinges around whether some things some politicians have said recently resemble some very bad things other politicians said several decades ago. A simple search would reveal whether or not that was true.
The quest for balance can lead to absurdity. Until a few years ago, the BBC treated climate change as a political opinion. Every time a climate emergency campaigner came on air, there would have to be someone to balance that view. Now, climate change is cannon. The BBC treats it like the scientific fact it is, and there's no need to find "balance".
The biggest danger in the quest for balance is that it gives a voice to extreme views because if the vast majority accept the scientific view, it gets increasingly hard to find anyone to defend the opposite. That's not to say there might, exceptionally, be a lone voice that happens to have found objective proof that the scientists got it wrong, but exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.
I don't think people should be banned or silenced unless their views are objectively harmful. I don't think suggesting that hateful behaviour shouldn't be given a platform is controversial. But let's not let objectivity lose its important grip on our media in the somewhat Quixotic quest for balance. Let's stick to facts, and where contributors express their beliefs as opposed to true, justified knowledge, then let's label them as what they are: mere opinions.