Freedom of speech is not freedom to spin

To whom does one complain about the PCC? Yui Mok/PA

Free speech does not imply the freedom to mislead. We want our media to be free, but also honest and reliable.

Balancing those sometimes competing demands is a subtle and difficult task. In many countries including the UK and Australia, this balancing act is performed by voluntary “self-regulation”. Bodies such as the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) are supposed to enforce a voluntary code that requires newspapers to avoid publishing material that is inaccurate or misleading.

When a complaint is upheld and newspapers are found to be in violation of the code, they can voluntarily accept punishment. This range from a vigorous beating with a feather duster to the publication of a correction at the bottom of page 29 - usually many months after the inaccurate story first appeared on the front page.

It is unclear whether this process has successfully balanced the right of free speech with the public’s right to be protected against misinformation and mendacity. In the case of science reporting, the limitations of the PCC process are clearly problematic.

The crux of this problem is that the PCC refuses to rule on the science itself. A complaint is instead evaluated only within the narrow confines of the issue being reported. To put it another way, this means that if a newspaper truthfully reports the views of some Professor Stuerzelbaumer of Transylvania Technical University, who has since he retired decades ago vociferously claimed that gravity is a leftwing conspiracy, then the paper will not be in breach of the code no matter how absurd and scientifically misleading the article is.

On one hand, it is entirely reasonable that a body with no scientific expertise should refrain from adjudicating scientific matters misreported by others who themselves had no scientific expertise. On the other hand, by side-stepping the science altogether, the PCC opens the door to systematic misrepresentation of controversial issues.

Under the current regime it is perfectly acceptable for a news outlet to report only the views of Professor Stuerzelbaumer or of other emeritus academics who refuse to accept the facts that HIV causes AIDS, that vaccinations are the greatest public health measure ever devised, or that sea levels are rising from climate change. A newspaper can focus on those wannabe Google Galileos to the exclusion of all the world’s science academies, learned bodies, and scientific organisations with impunity.

Alas, this scenario is far from hypothetical in the case of climate change. There is abundant evidence that the media in Anglophone countries — Australia, the UK, and the US in particular — are systematically misrepresenting the pervasive scientific consensus on climate change.

An overwhelming number of scientific experts agree that humans are altering the climate. Out of 12,000 peer-reviewed papers on climate change analysed in a recent study, 97% of those who took a position were found to endorse this consensus. Instead of reflecting this, Anglophone media — more so than in other countries — tend to disproportionately report the views of the Stuerzelbaumers of this world. This attempt at “balance” is nothing but an expression of bias, and is highly misleading.

If anything positive can be drawn from such misleading coverage, it is the involuntary humour. For example when someone who has variously claimed to be able to discover water and metal by dowsing, or to have discovered the Ancient Greeks’ Hong Kong in Sweden is trotted out as an expert on sea level rise.

On the far greater, negative side, such false balance contributes to the public’s failure to appreciate the full strength of the scientific consensus on climate change. This in turn has kept the public from clamouring for more concerted mitigation efforts. The recognition of a scientific consensus is a necessary condition for the public to demand action. And telling people about the consensus increases their level of acceptance of the science.

There are no quick and easy solutions to this “consensus gap” resulting from misleading media coverage. There is, alas, solid evidence that some media organs are engaged in nothing short of a systematic campaign to distort the findings of climate science. Their reporting attitude is unlikely to be changed by a slight tickle with a feather duster by some voluntary regulatory body with no enforcement powers.

Changing the regulatory environment is theoretically an option but it instantly evokes fears of censorship — often voiced most loudly by the same media bodies that confuse freedom of speech with freedom to spin and mislead. Nonetheless, those fears are not unfounded and must be taken seriously.

A final option that is pragmatically difficult, but appears free of adverse side effects, is to better educate the public about the prevalence of distortion and misinformation in (some of) the media.

We know from studies in cognitive science that people are more likely to discount information that later turns out to be false if they are warned ahead that they may be misled. Perhaps tabloids should be wrapped in warning labels, akin to those on tobacco products: “We frequently mislead — disbelief of content is advisable.”

This is unlikely to happen. But we know that raising suspicion about potential misinformation helps alleviate its effects. My colleagues and I showed that people who were suspicious about the official reasons for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — namely the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) — were better at distinguishing between truthful news reports concerning war events on one hand, and false and later retracted reports of events on the other.

In a nutshell, people who accepted WMDs as a cause for war also continued to believe other war-related information which they knew had been retracted. People who thought Iraq was invaded for reasons other than WMDs appropriately disbelieved information they knew had been retracted.

So a general suspicion can become an means to accurately discount false information which would otherwise linger in people’s memories. By extension, learning that some of the various nebulous “think tanks” who now produce reports critical of climate science also denied the toxicity of tobacco smoke, for example, may make people justifiably more suspicious of their claims on other scientific issues.

Likewise, entertaining the possibility that some parts of the media are pushing an agenda should induce healthy suspicion about what they print or broadcast.