On rigour

Interesting problem, one’s response to the report of The Hutton Inquiry. Personally, I have much to thank it for, since there’s a situation in the office with a rather similar root problem. No, I’m not talking about the death of a senior civil servant, nor the (evident lack of) WMD and their use as a pretext to war. I refer to the problem of terminology. Specifically, the word ‘proof.’

It strikes me that Hutton’s problem is that he’s a law lord: his entire career has been immersed in very strict definitions of ‘truth’ – specifically, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and ‘in the balance of probability,’ and their legal use. But investigative reporting does not share the same definitions; the nature of ‘truth’ is indeed malleable, insofar as the precise interpretation of the phrase changes. In law, truth is established through evidence, and in the absence of evidence speculation holds no sway. But to a journalist the world need not be so black and white. Faced with a huge story and the same evidence Gilligan had, I think most journalists would publish. Gilligan was sloppy about it, which is where it gets gnarly – though how Hutton’s remit covered interpretations of journalistic practice, I’ve no idea – but the decision to publish itself seems to me perfectly reasonable and respectable.

Hutton appears to be suggesting that Gilligan should not have published without far more significant evidence. That’s a lawyer’s interpretation of Gilligan’s role, and it’s simply not correct. Gilligan reported (badly…) rumours, atmosphere, a general air of lacking support. These are the sorts of things with which a judge should not have to deal. Was it in the public interest to run the story? Hell, yes. Even – and here’s the nub that Hutton is not equipped to understand – even if the story subsequently turned out to be untrue. Surely you have to allow for that sort of error if you believe in a free press? And if you don’t, what the hell are you doing as a law lord?

Now, my own definition of ‘proof’ is different again, since I was trained as a hard scientist. Actually, ‘proof’ is a somewhat alien concept for me, as is ‘truth.’ I’m happy to evaluate the validity of an hypothesis, based on available evidence – but that shouldn’t lead me to take a view on ‘the truth.’ And ‘proved’ is right out: I can demonstrate that a proposition is incorrect, but proving that it’s right is, usually, not possible. A little philosophy is a dangerous thing. As is a little statistics: I’m equally happy with numerical evidence, but that’s still different to a civil court’s ‘balance of probabilities.’

At work, we’ve been involved with a new children’s series being made by another company, and I’ve been struggling to work out why it rings so many alarm bells. Thanks to Hutton, I’ve realised that it’s down to the surprisingly ill-defined notions of ‘proof’ and ‘the truth’.

The new show sets out to prove or disprove postulates. The worry is that most of the time it may do no such thing – it might demonstrate their plausibility/validity or lack thereof, but will there be hard proof by any scientific or legal interpretation? Colloquially, however, there quite likely will be ‘proof’. Is that enough?

The series could well be an absolute hoot, and kids might love it. That may be enough to classify it as a raging success, but I worry I might be cringing. One of our stated aims is ‘to touch children’s lives, for the rest of their lives.’ OK, so another of our stated aims is to get as many of the blighters watching as possible so we can sell advertising space and recoup the cost of the show, but the former still stands: we do have a public service remit (yes, ITV does – yes, we pay a fortune in broadcasting license fees for this honour – no, that’s ITV paying, not you, we don’t get a penny of the TV license fee). We’re not here to educate per se, but we are charged with doing the right thing by our viewers.

In my book, that means being positively Victorian about setting a good example. We can be subtle about it, we needn’t draw attention to it, but we still have to be rigorous. I think the makers of this new series do understand that, on some level, and I’m hopeful that the series will be both a heap of fun and adequately thorough. But it’s worth reminding ourselves of the consequences of our being wrong. Overdramatic as it may sound, we risk missing the opportunity of exposing a generation of children to a higher standard of thinking. As a result, some will end up as sloppy as the rest of us.

Hutton’s sloppy thinking seriously threatens the BBC, and investigative journalism in general. I wonder what he watched as a kid?

1 thought on “On rigour”

  1. I think Hutton’s remit rather cornered him on what he was going to say. Rather clever of the government, when you consider it: they didn’t have Kelly assasinated, actually tell any deliberate untruths, or hang him (very far) out to dry.
    What they clearly did do wrong (also in retrospect) was pick and choose intelligence information to convince the public that something that was more-or-less believed by the spies to be a moderately serious impending threat was in fact a very serious and immediate thread worthy of being “pre-empted”.
    So they gave Hutton a remit to look into the “events surrounding the death of David Kelly”, which didn’t require him to look into the question of whether they were actually providing a fair and balanced view to the public. So he didn’t, and the got off scott free, and the BBC got a hammering.
    I’m inclined to agree that Gilligan was right to say something. But he was very foolish to say precisely what he did, and personally, anyone who works for the Daily Mail is going to have a hard time eliciting my sympathies when they step that far out of line. Several other jounalists had essentially the same story, stuck to saying what was actually clearly true (that the spies were very unhappy), and did not arouse the ire of Alasdair Campbell to any more than the normal extent.

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