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From the Budget to Sir Tim Hunt: Facts Must Prevail Over Narrative

13/07/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

In an age of social media, where stories can go viral in much shorter spaces of time than before, one would think that it would become ever more important from an ethical point of view for stories to be contextualised and reported accurately. However, two tales - those of Iain Duncan Smith and the Budget, and of Sir Tim Hunt - show that the marriage of social media to the offence politics of factions of the modern Left risks creating a situation where narrative is more important than fact.

To deal with the former, more recent, case first, namely that of the Conservatives' first Budget, which is already being misrepresented on multiple fronts, most notably on its effects on students. Clumsily, it has already been reported that maintenance grants are 'to be scrapped', a term which is surely intellectually dishonest as it implies that the money in question will no longer be available. In fact, the money will still be available in the form of loans. While the merits of using higher loans - as opposed to grants that are paid from the public purse - to ensure additional maintenance money is available to poorer students, are certainly debatable, the clear implication in stories arguing that the money has been 'scrapped' - namely, that the amount of money available will be substantially reduced - should be readily condemnable. Indeed, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that it is the misrepresentation that people will be worse off, as opposed to the actual effects of the policy, is far more likely to discourage poorer students from applying to University, and moreover the deliberate use of 'scrapped' (as opposed to a more accurate word such as 'replaced') in the headlines certainly appears to be a matter of creating a shocking headline) and fuelling the confirmation biases of anti-Tories) to boost traffic than accurate reporting.

On the latter point, what is perhaps most shameful is the blatant misrepresentation in the New Statesman of Iain Duncan Smith's cheer for the Living Wage policy, which is surely a central plank to ensuring that work pays. In an article which contains little more than the headline itself, he is instead accused of being excited at 'the prospect of hurting the poor'. Beyond the incredible assumption of bad faith, which should surely be backed up by evidence, that the now-familiar narrative of active malice towards poorer people that this represents, it represents a greater problem with modern post-social media journalism: namely, that pieces are produced making claims that are designed to reinforce a narrative regardless of the facts.

The latter is surely also evident in the case of Sir Tim Hunt, who made sexist comments about female scientists at a lunch celebrating women in science, at least according to the account of Connie St. Louis. What should be being reported more widely, and tellingly isn't, is the unfolding of her story (thanks in part to the efforts ofLouise Mensch to get to the bottom of it) as the context in which the remarks was made - seemingly as a bad joke at his own expense followed by an exhortation of the need for women in science - and photos contradicting the idea that the speech was met with a stony-faced reception, have come to light, and St Louis's account has looked increasingly like an outlier as other attendees (and even an EU report) recounted a very different version of events, a version in which the his overall speech was considered to be "very supportive" of women in science. However, the palpable effects of such revelations have been minimal compared to his hounding out of UCL on a wave of outrage that increasingly seems to be built on misleading foundations to say the least.

Moreover, in Sir Tim's case, the very reporting of the story, and the reaction it produced, is symptomatic of an even wider problem in the social media age: namely, the startling ability of platforms such as Twitter - whose low character limit per post seems to make it ideal for posting snappy expressions of offence - to whip up aggressive and short-sighted mobs to attack anything they find disagreeable with absolutely no sense of perspective. In the case of Sir Tim Hunt, the fact that he is one of the leading scientists in the field of cancer research and a Nobel Laureate - and the fact that the comments were later revealed as being a self-deprecating joke in a well-received speech - is subordinate to the offence taken by detractors at face value; the distinguished career which propelled him to his UCL and Biological Sciences Awards Committee positions is evidently seen by some as less important than a loud, knee-jerk reaction and vicious social media campaign based on an increasingly unreliable report when we consider his suitability for said positions This is, unfortunately, not a unique lack of perspective either; in Purdue University a student was investigated for openly reading a book on account of its dust jacket being that of a Klan meeting. The book was actually about how Notre Dame University resisted the rise of the Klan in Indiana, but in a climate of student politics obsessed with offence, none of this matters once a microaggression is judged to have occurred.

It must surely be submitted that such reactions are excessive at best and outright unreasonable at worst, and only shows how important it is that reports are thoroughly investigated and fact-checked in such a climate. Nor is it any defence for those who continue to stand by such reporting that they have started a debate; if one wanted to simply start a debate, they would write an opinion piece, not publish stories alleging impropriety without even allowing the subject to respond or, it would appear, trying to corroborate it. Moreover with the ability of social media to amplify the reaction of extreme voices, which shout the loudest and most often, surely being fairly common knowledge by now, it is all the more unforgivable that individuals are targeted in such a manner; the starting of a debate about women in science, the starting of which rests on increasingly dubious premises, is a poor substitute for the reputation of one of Britain's best scientists.

Although both cases are quite different on the face of it, the issues they raise are broadly similar, namely the sense in certain sectors of society - seemingly more prevalent in the modern (Far) Left - that narrative is more important than fact, and just how important it is that those reporting the news seek firstly to report accurately rather than to sacrifice truth, and the reputations of their subject-matter, on an altar of producing the 'correct' narrative for an audience. Sadly, the very fact that both these cases have arisen show that such values, which are surly part of the spirit of investigative journalism, are far from universal today.