This week, a masterclass from the Guardian, the BBC and the wider media establishment on the construction and propagation of an outright lie.
It started with a report on public health policies, published by the Institute of Public Policy Research, according to its own website the UK’s “leading progressive think tank”. Think tanks exist purely to shape and influence public policy and therefore research papers are the bread and butter of their existence.
This particular paper looked at the leading causes of “preventable death” in the UK (smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, drug use etc.). and noted that after a number of years of improvements in public health measures that had curbed the impact of preventable disease between 1990 and 2012, in recent years the trend had started to reverse. The researchers provided an estimate that, had the trend between 1990 and 2012 continued unchanged, up to 130,000 deaths could have been “averted” between 2012 and 2017.
Now, firstly, somebody needs to explain to the IPPR that there is no such thing as “preventable death”. Death and taxes, we are always told, are the only two things in life that are certain – and the IPPR’s sole aim is to influence how those taxes are spent. So it’s no surprise that they choose to extrapolate from “preventable disease” to “preventable death” via the use of a measure they call “Disability Adjusted Life Years” (defined in the report as “a measure of lost years due to poor health, either through the presence of a chronic condition or premature mortality…. the sum of years of life lost to poor health and years of life lost to disability“)
The report points out the ways in which the researchers believe that cuts to public health spending between 2012 and 2017 led to increases in “preventable deaths” over this period, and argues very convincingly for more money to be spent on various public health initiatives that will shift focus from “blame and punish” to “empathise and assist”. To drive this point home, the report is entitled “Ending the blame game: The case for a new approach to public health and prevention”
The Guardian, of course, seized on the above-mentioned “130,000 preventable deaths” figure and ran away with it, simultaneously concluding that the report’s entreaty to end the culture of blame with regards preventable disease, doesn’t extend to finding blame for “preventable deaths”. And so the headline read “Austerity to blame for 130,000 ‘preventable deaths’ – report”
Fast forward just over a week, and Francesca Martinez, a “comedian, author and political campaigner” delivered a powerful rant on the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time, in which she stated that “austerity has caused the death of over 130,000 human beings in Britain… that is 130,000 mums, dads, daughters, sons, uncles, aunts who have died because the Tories and the Lib Dems decided to make ordinary people pay for a crash caused by bankers who we bailed out”. She goes on to say that the Tories and Lib Dems have “blood on their hands” – conjuring a mental image of 130,000 people presumably having been lined up and shot, rather than simply being helped to live a few weeks or months longer due to various public health measures that may have slightly extended their lives.
Now this is where it gets tricky. Because her underlying point, about the way in which austerity policies have been implemented and the reasons they were implemented, is absolutely valid – though it does, of course, also let Labour completely off the hook for the fact that it was a Labour government that bailed out the banks in the first place, and that so massively overspent during its term in office that the Tories and Lib Dems, who followed them, were forced to implement austerity measures to counter the overspend.
But none of that changes the fact that to claim that austerity CAUSED 130,000 deaths is an outright lie. Whether Ms Martinez knows it is a lie, or whether she was genuinely taken in by the Guardian’s headline, is neither here nor there – the show is pre-recorded and even if Fiona Bruce herself was not aware of the origin of the figure quoted, the show’s researchers would have easily been able to check it. Fiona Bruce could easily have interjected to either ask Ms Martinez to explain where she got the figure from, or to point out the inaccuracy of her statement.
But not only did she not interject and instead allow Ms Martinez’s rant to continue unchallenged, but the BBC later chose to share a clip of the entire rant on Twitter, ensuring that those who hadn’t seen the show itself would also have an opportunity to be told that Tory austerity policies had killed 130,000 people.
The Mirror then published a story about how Ms Martinez has been praised for BBC Question Time’s “best ever moment”, in which it claimed that Ms Martinez had been “citing research which showed over 130,000 people died from austerity”. Except, of course, the research absolutely did NOT show that. Is it really possible that nobody at the Mirror even took the time to read the report itself? Or even the full Guardian article which, despite the misleading headline, did at least accurately reflect what the report contained? Other news sites, such as Huffington Post and iNews, similarly published gushing reports about the entire rant, making no mention of the falsehood about 130,000 deaths.
The worst thing about all this, is that I appear to be almost alone in my utter outrage and despair at the whole debacle. There is plenty of talk on Twitter about Ms Martinez’s rant, but nobody appears to be pointing out the fact that at the heart of it is an outright lie.
Whether it’s laziness, incompetence or the deliberate propagation of a falsehood for political means, it stinks. There is a reason why Donald Trump gets away with calling the media “fake news” and why trust in the media is at an all-time low – because the media keep showing, time and again, that they have no interest in reporting the truth and are instead prepared to write and publish just about anything they can get away with in order to grab the attention of the reader. The fact that such inflammatory lies only serve to deepen the divisions within our society, appears to be of little consequence to these so-called journalists.
When I first started writing this blog I had vague dreams of one day becoming a journalist. But having spent the past couple of years avidly following the news, and seeing the ways in which headlines and stories are twisted in pursuit of online views, subscriptions and ultimately advertising revenue, I find myself utterly repelled by this aspect of the industry. There are many journalists whose writing and reporting I greatly admire, but they are a diminishing number who find themselves badly let down by the growing majority who are either too lazy or too caught up in political activism to retain any credibility whatsoever.
The BBC, despite its constant claims of political neutrality, has let itself down badly over this incident and while I may be alone in wanting to shout from the rooftops about just how big a lie this was, I suspect the reason there is so little outrage on Twitter is because this is the level of deception that many of those who closely follow the news, are simply learning to expect from our national broadcaster. I can think of no more damning indictment than the fact that this failure to uphold standards of accuracy and impartiality, has been greeted not with outrage but with a collective shrug.