Regaining trust in political campaigns

On Thursday the UK voted to pull out of the European Union. Usually, we would anticipate a country making a collective decision, whatever the majority, to be celebrating. But the main focus in the media has been widespread confusion and a sense of questioning what exactly we’ve done. There is a sense that people have only understand the implications of leaving the EU now that it has happened.

One thing I’ve noticed over the weekend is the media have been much more informative of the implications now that we have voted to leave. Many people are wondering why they weren’t made aware of the implications prior to voting. I’d suggest there are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there are no incentives for politicians to tell the trust as there are no penalties when they intentionally mislead. For instance, the Vote Leave Battle Bus contained a claim about membership fees which an independent factchecking organisation have shown to be false. Despite this, the claim was repeated as the campaign wished to get that (inaccurate) figure etched into people’s memories. This was a tactic used by both sides, as it has been in previous elections, and reduces the public’s ability to trust any claims. Indeed, a lecture by Professor Michael Dougan explaining why the UK-EU relationship was important was viewed more than two million times, yet made little apparent difference to the result, presumably due to people not trusting experts to be neutral. Hence, when warnings are given to the public they are often dismissed as political scaremongering rather than informing people’s decisions.

And, secondly, broadcasting regulations means that certain media companies much be impartial in their coverage. This means they are required to transmit messages, irrespective of their accuracy and have to give equal coverage to both viewpoints on subjects. An example of this is a BBC story which reports 13 Nobel Prize winning scientists talking of the negative impact of Brexit on UK science funding which then, for balance, contains a Vote Leave comment about it being a myth that we receive funding. Although the full article enables readers with critical skills to assess the scale of each assertion, the digested read is essentially that experts say something but politicians dismiss it as false.

Hence, now the referendum is over, the public believe the experts again and the news channels can present their interprets of the implications. Given the levels of distrust over how both campaigns were conducted, I’d like to see cross-party talks to ensure what public trust in political campaigns is improved. This would be a positive change which would not benefit one party over another.

Full Fact is an independent, neutral factchecking charity, which examines statements from political figures for transparency. It examines comments from across the political spectrum impartially and without accusations of bias. An independent organisation of this nature (whether Full Fact or a new entity) could conceivably gain trust from the political world to uphold standards.

Broadcasting regulations determine how much coverage different sides within a campaign are entitled to. If politicians or campaigns were shown to be making incorrect claims, they could have this time lowered. Alternatively, in local campaigns spending limits could decrease if misinformed comments are being made. This would require politicians to uphold standards, but without making any undue punishments which limit the process of democracy. Campaigns would continue to be able to make any claims they like, but limited in terms of how those measures would be communicated. If parties or campaigns want to be represented on Question Time, they should demonstrate they do not intentionally mislead.

This would need to relate to facts rather than opinions, to avoid discriminating against political viewpoints. Different people can interpret the same information the same way, and the important thing is we understand the evidence underpinning claims. Similarly, only intentional use of incorrect evidence should be penalised. Often, there can be contrasting claims made, legitimately, about the same point – for instance, if a region was responsible for collecting high business taxes than the rest of the UK, it could be simultaneously claimed that the region claims more public spending per head than the rest of the UK, and also that it receives a smaller portion of public spending than it places into the public purse. In such scenarios, selecting one viewpoint is not about misleading but presenting favourable evidence – a website which provides a transparent overview of such claims would be beneficial for allowing people to make reasonable decisions.

One of the many, many things we should learn from the EU Referendum is how dangerous, and disenfranchising, it can be for the public to be misinformed on important areas. We should be looking for ways to uphold democratic principles but also regulate fairly and neutrally how campaigns conduct themselves to ensure that people are making decisions based on evidence, not emotion.

Dave Griffiths, 27 June 2016

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About Dave Griffiths

I am a lecturer in Quantitative Methods in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling.
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