home Opinion The curse of ‘balanced debate’

The curse of ‘balanced debate’

Graham Linehan, if you haven’t heard by now, appeared on RTE’s Primetime, being interviewed on the topic of a new bill proposed, discussing lowering the age one can get a certificate of gender recognition. Linehan was a script writer for Father Ted. He has since taken to twitter as a hobby, making a name for himself for his vocal anti-transgender rhetoric, having received a police warning for verbal harassment in one case against a trans activist. He is 50 years old, not trans, has no trans children (although claims to have trans friends), and has no medical or political experience whatsoever. His inclusion generated a huge public backlash. His name is in the media right now because a popular twitch streamer, HBomberguy, raised almost 400,000 USD for the LGBT Children support organisation Mermaids, which Linehan tried to protest against the funding of (via mumsnet, no less). A petition calling for him to be removed from the program gained around 6000 signatures, a protest attended by a few dozen activists was staged outside of RTE on the day of broadcast, and RTE received so much backlash, they gave the exact same statement in response to every angry email, which ended resolutely with the line; “We are confident that viewers will find the programme to be a fair and responsible examination of an issue of considerable public importance”.

RTE’s reasons for broadcasting Graham Linehan, of course, is balance. It’s the state broadcaster. It was discussing the proposal of a new bill. Regardless of how contentious Linehan’s views are, he holds them; so do many others; it is the network’s job to broadcast him, not judge whether or not he is correct. Right?

In contrast, UCC’s own philsoc faced a rather opposite problem during the 8th Amendment referendum. They scheduled 4 pro-life and 6 pro-choice speakers to talk at a balanced-debate event. Their reasoning, when challenged, was that representing equal numbers of both groups would not be fair; a minority of medical and social experts advocated against abortion, the statistics indicated most people were pro-choice, so it would be disproportionate to have half. The pro-life speakers pulled out in protest, and the subsequent referendum passed overwhelmingly against them.

The ‘balanced debate’ is contentious. The role of the media is to depict both sides of a debate fairly; not to be biased, not to be bribed, and to let the people see both viewpoints with equal merit and screen-time, and have them make up their own mind. This is sensible, in many cases; the media should not favour one political party, choose sides in criminal cases, or push certain agendas. (This is, of course, not true. We’re being idealistic.) In some cases, you have to wonder when something stops being a balanced debate. You can’t debate the abundance of scientific evidence that vaccination saves many lives and reduces the occurrence of many diseases. You can’t debate the mathematical proofs that the world is round. (Unless you’re studying philosophy, I guess, but I don’t think anyone would be entirely happy with RTE’s Primetime covering, ‘Is God real’ or ‘Do we exist’.)

There’s a recurring theme in the media, of experts v.s. ‘the ordinary people’. When the Brexit referendum was about to take place, every business owner and economist was pointing out the disastrous consequences. There is no climate scientist in the world denying global warming. No credible doctors are warning against vaccines. More contentiously; few food scientists or geneticists warn against GMO foods, and few medical experts and psychologists warn against recognising transgender issues. Perhaps there is little intellectual backing to these viewpoints; there are few real doctors or scientists warning against them.

But that doesn’t stop vast numbers of people caring about and debating and believing this viewpoints anyway. Scientists can’t tell you how to feel about life. Economists are not working class, they don’t see the problems from the ground. Doctors make money from vaccines; of course they want them uptaken. The experts are the establishment; they look after themselves and the rich, and the government. The ordinary people must look after themselves. People trust people they can relate to, who talk like them, think like them; have the same knowledge base and life experiences as them. Why do people gravitate towards Trump, UKIP, extremists– or uneducated but vocal people, like Graham Linehan? “They say what we’re all thinking. Nobody else is brave enough to say it. They have nothing to gain, but they’re telling the truth anyway; look at all the criticism they’re getting!”

In honesty, who can blame them? I’m not going to write here that there is no corruption in the sciences; that governments have their people’s best interests at heart at all times; that experts are never wrong and can’t be bought. As much as I detest to acknowledge Trump in any way, the world is full of fake news– largely in the form of social media, tabloids, bad journalism and populism. In a world full of contrasting and confusing viewpoints, who do you believe? Certainly not the people at the top, who are causing you suffering; who have caused so much suffering historically. (Some would argue that it takes only a small amount of common sense to tell fake news from real news. It’s not that simple, for a start. Also, common sense is, frankly, not abundant. I’m not optimistic about it.)

I don’t think it’s fair to blame people too much for believing populist viewpoints like anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers. (Well, I think it’s fair to blame them a little.) The fact is, lots of people do believe these things. They have real, if silly, reasons for believing them. The mantle is now passed to the media. If lots of people believe something, is it not only balanced to see it debated? If the beliefs have no merit, do they not deserve screen-time anyway– that their stupidity will be proven for the world to see once they’re scrutinised enough? I think in a perfect world, you could run an RTE Primetime debate on “Is the world flat”, with 5 flat-earthers and 5 normal people, and the viewers would walk away going, ‘That was obvious and pointless.’ I think in the real world all you end up doing is lending a great deal of credibility and importance to a bunch of yobs who think the earth might be flat, and the flat-earthers would walk away thinking how brave and clever the other flat-earthers were in the face of opposition. If the world were easily swayed by fact-checking and the informed words of experts and studies, then we wouldn’t be here in the first place, would we?

But if you run a talk on ‘Why the world is round’ with 10 scientists, do you end up suppressing the 5% that believe in the flat earth? Do they not deserve to be listened to, acknowledged, and their concerns addressed– just by existing, talking, and paying their TV licenses? If a viewpoint is popular, concerning, and confusing many people, is it not the role of the media and the ‘elite’ to address it?

The problem with that, though, is the immense ease of making something popular without good cause. Especially these days, with the influences of social media. Popularity, without basis in real statistics or studies, is probably a bigger influence than anything else. The Russians figured it out. Bot accounts promoting political extremism had an unknown, but probably notable effect on the results of the 2016 US election. Twitter alone had to purge around 500,000 Russian bot accounts for that reason. How sacred is popularity and public outcry? Who mediates the delicate balance between people having the right to speak out and be listened to, and managing the distinct possibility that they are wrong?

The WHO has said that anti-vaxxers are now one of the top 10 health threats facing the globe. Measles and other preventable diseases are on the rise. Could that have been prevented, if we’d stamped down harder on anti-vaccination documentaries and talks? And would it have been worth it? I’m of the viewpoint that nobody is truly stupid, that everyone has valid reasons for believing what they believe. But also: I don’t think stupid people should deserve a platform just because other, equally stupid people believe them.

Back to the issue of debate, if lots of people don’t believe in vaccines, do they need to be addressed? If we give them more platforms to speak, will people realise they’re wrong? The evidence suggests not. The evidence suggests that the debate does not ‘balance’ in favour of whoever was right. It suggests that debates simply lend credibility to whoever they broadcast, and ensure that they are listened to. Going back to our friend Graham Linehan, who has been making statements about surgery and hormone therapy that are easily disproved, should he have gotten a platform just for saying angry things on Twitter that other angry people liked?