Posted by: aboutalbion | June 15, 2012

Fact and opinion

Is it possible to separate fact from opinion?

This has been one of the themes this week at the Leveson Inquiry.  [The public Inquiry in London is into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK media.  And it is anticipated that it will make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance.]  I have heard at least one person at the inquiry speculating about an ideal newspaper having facts on the front page and comment on the inside pages.

This question has come to the fore recently because it is agreed by all interested parties at the Inquiry that the current Press Complaints Commission [PCC] has not been an effective guardian of press standards.  And the first item on the PCC’s Code of Practice for Editors includes this sentence: “The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”  If it isn’t possible to separate fact from opinion, then this might begin to explain how the work of the PCC has been undermined.

At the moment, I take the view that fact and opinion cannot be clearly distinguished.  And, in this Jubilee year, an example of my train of thought can be drawn from the British Monarchy.

If journalist A wishes to write an article arguing that the Royal Family is a financial drain on UK taxpayers, then s/he would cite the current factual cost of the Civil List (and other expenses) of around £30 million [the amount that the Treasury pays out to maintain the public duties of the Royal Family – and soon to be called the Sovereign Grant] and infer her/his conclusion.

If journalist B wishes to write an article arguing that the Royal Family is a financial asset to UK taxpayers, then s/he would (a) cite the 1760 arrangement whereby the income from the Royal estates (but not the ownership of the estates) was surrender to the Treasury in exchange for Government support, and that this arrangement has not been revoked, (b) cite that the current income to the Treasury from the Crown Estate (as the Royal estates are now called) is around £200 million, (c) cite that the current Treasury expenditure to the Royal Family for their public duties is around £30 million, and (d) infer her/his conclusion that UK taxpayers receive a net surplus from the Monarchy.

There is a view that journalists write the first draft of history.  And interestingly, the first chapter of the history text that I have been working with (in previous posts) is entitled ‘The Historian and his Facts’.  Carr’s conclusion is that a historian needs to establish a reciprocal relationship between her/his facts and her/his interpretation, that is, between the past and the present.  Is it too much to ask that a journalist does the same?

[Carr, E H (2001) What is History? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.]

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