What have the Swiss ever done for us?

Curious Hamster asks an interesting question: can there ever be objectivity in political debate?

My brief answer would be possibly yes, but currently no. But that’s probably not very helpful so I’ll try and expand.

At the last general election Channel 4 had this wonderful little fact checker tool on their website where they’d evaluate the truth behind any claims made by a political party. What came out of that was fact and probably as objective as you’re going to get.

But fact isn’t the same as truth, I’d say [1]. Take a story I covered recently. At a recent set of school league tables, School X was at the very bottom of the pile. But School X had also shown the biggest improvement of any school in its area. Thus from 2 different tables it could be categorised as both failing and improving, which is one for the linguists to argue over [2].

The next part is purely fictional. Supposing the two main political parties in the area wanted to make capital out of this statistics. The school, I believe, had been lingering around the bottom of league tables for some time and I think part of its catchment area was a particularly bad area of the city.

Political Party Y, the opposition, used the figures to argue that Political Party Z’s policies on education weren’t working. Z counters by saying that, on the contrary, the figures show that the education policy IS working.

At this point, just to complicate matter,s the third party, N, pops up to say the figures aren’t reflective of Z’s education policies but show their general policies towards deprived members of society aren’t working.

They can’t all be right, can they? Yet each argument could probably be reasonably built up using the same or similar data. It’s almost like a more detailed argument around the tree falling in the woods, which the Hamster mentions. We can prove a tree has fallen in the woods, but the data surrounding the fall could be interpreted as the tree making a noise, the tree not making a noise, or the tree exhibiting Schrodinger’s Cat-like tendencies [3].

All this makes life very hard for a journalist when they come to write their stories. If we take the starting point that each journalist considers it their duty to, and at all times attempts to be, objective [4] then, given the facts can be massaged to suit most political viewpoints, political reportage is very difficult.

Because there comes this thing called balance. Balance IS important in journalism, there’s no doubt about it. Without it, broadcasting especially would probably turn into a myriad of Independents and Daily Expresses. But is it objective?

Take this situation: you get a story in which you’ve got a claim from Side A against Side B. You’ve held it up to scrutiny, gone through their claim with a fine tooth comb and are as sure as you can be that what they’re saying is correct. You contact Side B for their response. It is, without doubt, utter bobbins. But, importantly, they don’t lie and their response is so simple and well crafted that it would be easily for a large number of people to accept.

You could write that Side B are talking rubbish in an opinion or editorial piece, but you know the story will be read by more people than the opinion article. You could run the story without any quote or response from Side B, but that would hardly make your news operation look fair and accurate, may lose you respect from your audience and leave you open to accusations of bias. So you could run the story, complete with response from Side B. It would be a fair and balanced report and, in terms of ‘he said, she said’ entirely accurate. But would it be objective?

In more practical terms, if I can avoid political squabbling, I do. My general rule of thumb is to ask how any such story will impact on my audience, the listeners. If my conclusion is the most likely impact it will have on Joanne Listener is to create a burning desire to grab these two diametrically-opposed politicians and bang their two heads together then I won’t cover it, or give it as much coverage as I could.

Of course, it is only a rule of thumb and can be changed, if I feel its important enough for the listener to know about.  So we’re pretty much back where we started.

See also: Brooker, Charlie, today’s column.

[1] And I’m not even going to attempt to answer the question what is truth. At least not yet, at any rate. 

[2] For the record, I reported first that the school had the most improved results, but league tables placed it at the bottom. I think that’s about as objective as I could have got, and hopefully the audience drew their own conclusions from that, whatever they might be. 

[3] Which, for me, is a good an argument as any for classifying politics as a science. Through enough rocks at most political theories and you’ll get some form of paradigm shift. 

[4] Which is a daft idea in itself. Every journalist is a person and they’ll bring their own idiosyncrasies, beliefs, prejudices, all manner of whatever hodge-podge is inside their head at that given time to the table, no matter how hard they strive to leave it behind. 


2 Responses to “What have the Swiss ever done for us?”

  1. 1 dizzy March 27, 2007 at 5:30 am

    Objectivity does not imply truth either. At the end of the day day though if you want to know if objectvity is achievable when discussing politics you have to ask the question, what is, in practical terms, politics? Politics, in practical terms is about values and their authoritative allocation, and values are rarely pure and objective things once they become wraps within some sort of belief system. Given this, politics is, in it’s very nature, about opposing value sets, each side often convinced of its own objective correctness.

  2. 2 garyandrews March 27, 2007 at 10:13 pm


    Which means I’m right :p

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March 2007

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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