BBC Talkback host William Crawley is very keen to make the distinction between ‘false news’ on one hand, and outright misinformation on the other. There should perhaps be a third category – ‘false analysis’.
This category would belong to the type of ‘analysis’ presented by politicians or pundits (sadly, quite often the latter in fact) which is in fact nothing of the sort. What it is, in fact, is a regurgitation of an already pre-determined viewpoint by trying to fit some selective ‘facts’ to a pre-existing opinion and then presenting it as ‘analysis’. The media (and indeed, the citizenry at large) need to be careful about this.
One example occurred last week when it was suggested that the Northern Ireland Health Service would be as bad as the Republic of Ireland’s within ten years because of ‘Tory austerity’. There is so much wrong with that ‘analysis’ that it is hard to know where to begin – some of it is highly questionable and some of it is simple error (all of it designed to fit pre-existing bias).
Let us start with the simple errors, of which incredibly there are three categories in that simple statement alone. Firstly, since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, we have not experienced ‘austerity’ with regard to Health spending (‘austerity’ is defined as a closing of the gap between revenue raised and public spending, and that has not happened with regards to spending on Health or, in most cases, at all). Secondly, again since 2010, Health spending in Northern Ireland has risen significantly more slowly than in England despite every rise in England being passed on to the Northern Ireland Executive in equivalent per-head terms – this is because the Northern Ireland Executive has elected not to spend all of the additional spending meant for Health on Health (indeed on some occasions it has allocated none of the uplift at all to Health); so any comparative decline in Health spending is entirely the fault of the Northern Ireland Executive led by the DUP and Sinn Fein throughout that period. Thirdly, the Northern Ireland Health Service’s problems do not derive fundamentally from a lack of spending – it has been noted constantly that just leaving things as they are would see Northern Ireland’s entire devolved budget spent on Health within a couple of decades; in other words, the issue is not the failure to allocate money to keep the current system running, but rather the failure to reform the current system in line with multiple expert reviews. So three errors – there has not been ‘austerity’ as defined (particularly not with regard to Health); the comparative reduction in spending versus the rest of the UK is the fault of the DUP and Sinn Fein not the ‘Tories’; and in any case the fundamental issue is the need for reform, not spending.
On top of that is the assumption made that Northern Ireland’s Health Service is superior to the Republic’s. This is, at least, arguable, but it is by no means certain. Life expectancy in the Republic has drawn level with Northern Ireland in recent years, which would at least suggest that its service is not notably poorer. The Republic’s system of having the better off pay for Health services while covering the poorest is arguably considerably more progressive than Northern Ireland’s; indeed, it could be argued that Northern Ireland is heading this way in any case because, as waiting lists become so long, the better off are choosing to pay to go private anyway. The notion that the Northern Ireland service is superior is perhaps defensible on the evidence, but that evidence should at least be tested and it must be recognised that there is also a counter-argument.
There is just one of many cases where what is passed off as ‘analysis’ is in fact not just ‘opinion’, but opinion based on fiction. As the old maxim goes, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts; free speech is one thing, but if the media are presenting something as ‘analysis’ they must ensure it is soundly reasoned for fair and rational debate to take place. Otherwise they are just building on the ‘fake news’ problem.