Just the facts

Three very different stories from today’s newspapers show the difficulties that journalists have negotiating “facts”.

To begin on a light note a German constitutional court has finally resolved the tiff over whether the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, dies his hair – he doesn’t. The court said the original suggestion, which came from a political consultant and was broadcast by a German news agency, was not the crux of the case. The news agency was given a slap over the wrists for what the court called the agency’s lack of “scrupulousness in checking the accuracy of opinions expressed by third parties in interviews.”

It seems to me it would have been far more appropriate if the court had told both the news agency and the chancellor to get a life! This is a fine example of journalism being measured against the wrong yardstick. The primary issue here is not facticity but relevance. The myths of objectivity and factiticy hold such sway that they have become the dominant framework for popular media criticism. The prior question of relevance is not even asked.

In a very different way the evidence under dispute at the Hutton inquiry is also being reduced to the wrong issues. From a big picture point of view yesterday’s Guardian leader argues that the focus should have not been limited to Dr Kelly’s death but should have included an inquiry into the whole case for, and conduct of, Britain’s war against Iraq. But even on a micro level the issues are being massaged and distorted.

For an enquiry which has given Gilligan such a hard time for distorting or embellishing facts it’s ironic but not surprising how partisan the closing arguments were.

The QC representing the government in the Hutton Inquiry suggested in his final evidence that the wrong lessons were being drawn from the evidence before the enquiry.

“We are, I suggest, in danger of trying to learn general lessons from appalling but wholly exceptional and unpredictable events,”said Jonathan Sumption QC referring to Dr Kelly’s apparent suicide.

“What is much worse than that is we are in danger of learning the wrong lessons.”

It was perfectly possible he argued to express genuine sympathy to his family, “without at once turning aside in order to hunt for other people to blame”.

Sumption’s point about blame is poignant but fails to recognise that this has been a blame game from the beginning – so much so that it is now almost impossible to unravel.

While Dr Kelly’s death may be an “appalling but wholly exceptional and unpredictable event,” the conduct of government, as revealed in the unprecedented evidence from politicians and civil servants, was shown to include thoroughly predictable “Yes Minister” style behavior.

When it comes to Gilligan’s version of the facts, he did prove a problematic witness and provided a paradigmatic lesson for all journalists about keeping your notes in order.

However the reality is that Kelly had similar conversations with three reporters. Gavin Hewitt’s notes show Kelly saying: “some spin came into play” over the dossier’s development. He expressed concern to Susan Watt’s over the 45 minute claim and identified Campbell and the No 10 press office as party to the controversial claim’s inclusion. Watts concluded that this was a “gossipy aside” and did not use it. She also notes that Kelly clarified his reference to Campbell by saying: Campbell was “synonymous with the press office because he was responsible for it.”

Here we see a number of interesting factors come into play.

There is a clear contrast between Gilligan’s style and Watt’s careful traditional journalism that doesn’t necessarily weight all parts of a source’s conversation equally and is careful to differentiate between solid argument and speculative asides. Gilligan took what he had and ran with it in order to try to ignite discussion. I think overall the inquiry backs up Gilligan’s facts but call’s into question some of his “tabloid style” journalistic practice.

The issue of personalisation is also highlighted, Kelly clearly sees Campbell and the No 10 office as “synonymous”. This is in fact a common journalistic ploy saying “Campbell” when we mean the press office or “Blair” when we mean the government.

But if any one has any doubt that Campbell both directly and by proxy “sexed-up” the dossier have a look at this article from today’s Guardian: “10 ways to sex up a dossier

Whether he made specific changes knowing them to be wrong, as Gilligan first reported, is open to interpretation. But it is clear that as a PR professional Campbell would be acutely aware of the different implications in the change to the dossier’s executive summary. It originally claimed that Iraq “could deploy” or “could be ready” to deploy weapons in 45 minutes, in the final version this became weapons that “are deployable” within 45 minutes.

BBC barrister Andrew Caldecott QC presented evidence in his closing argument that Jonathan Powell, the prime minister’s chief of staff and Alastair Campbell had intervened to change parts of the WMD dossier.

“This was not cosmetic. It was substance,” said Mr Caldecott. “Mr Powell realised that this wording advanced a powerful argument against war.”

All of this reminds us of the very direct and simple power of words, facticity is not the only determination of accuracy. Narrative frame and language shape fact.

Politics is not the only realm where facts are under dispute. Today’s Australian includes an interview with the Danish environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomborg. The campaigning statistician has been at odds with the world’s environmental scientists over such issues as pollution and global warming since the publication of his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist. He claims, amongst other things, that population is slowing, air pollution is falling in rich countries and the answer to third world environmental problems will come with economic growth. Scientific America presented an impressive array of evidence against his arguments last year and the Danish Research Agency earlier this year concluded its own investigation calling the book “scientifically dishonest”. Lomborg remains defiant and has answered his critics back.

Today’s article (unfortunately not online) does little justice to the complex arguments and focuses on the “global stoush”. The content of the article is conflict, not the environment. In an extraordinary dismissal of a conflict which is about the earth’s very survival the journalist Leigh Dayton concludes:

Regardless of Lomborg’s protestations, the Danish parliament has called for an investigation into eight environmental analyses conducted by his institute. One concluded that the country’s recycling scheme for cans and bottles cost far more than incineration and produced minimal environmental benefit.

It does all seem much of a muchness. Dispassionate observers may be excused for feeling they are witnessing a schoolyard brawl rather than a healthy scientific disagreement. Certainly, as the arrows fly back and forth, it’s hard for outsiders to follow developments.

It does all seem much of a muchness.

What an extraordinary, stupid and reductive statement.

Our intrepid reporter then goes on to completely misrepresent one of the only significant insights in the article.

Perhaps some insiders are also confused, suggests CSIRO atmospheric scientist Barrie Pittock. He points out that statisticians and economists and natural scientists speak different languages. One group speaks numbers, the other ambiguity.

“For instance, I think a lot of people [like Lomborg] tend to treat climate change research as a matter of dogmatic truth or falsity when in fact there are uncertainties about the observations and the interpretation,” says Pittock, a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of hundreds of international scientists whose findings link human activity to global warming.

Pittock’s point is critical: scientists in complex areas are prepared these days to admit to uncertainties and ambiguity, which are not well represented in Lomborg’s statistical model. Dayton dismisses such complex ambiguity as confusion rather than the nuanced insight that it is!

Here we have the ideology of facticity at its most blatant and most banal.

For my take on a 60 Minute’s segment on Lomborg as Hero and Heretic see my essay on news and myth.

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