Of technocrats, journalistic balance and telling EU stories (Brexit update)

This is a post-Brexit update of my January 2012 post on BlogActiv. It’s not a copy/paste repost, because Before you Repost it, ReThink It.

This update was triggered by:

The key quote being:

“If that is what the BBC thinks of as balance then it requires a reassessment of what that terms means… the BBC felt it necessary to ‘balance’ well-informed and representative views from the scientific/academic communities with views which, to put it politely, are marginal and atypical…”

That brings me straight to my 2012 post. It will be followed by some more thoughts about rationality — or the lack of it — in the Brexit campaign, and what that means for communicating Europe.

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Of technocrats, journalistic balance and telling EU stories (Jan, 2012)

A recent edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage, BBC Radio4′s brilliant chat show combining science and comedy, got me thinking again about the parallels between science communications and EU communications.

The episode (“A Balanced Programme on Balance“) covered the often tortured relationship between:

  • the media, for whom ‘balance’ means getting two opposing views onto a programme and treating them equally;
  • and scientists, for whom ‘balance’ means respecting the data: if 5000 scientists conclude that 2+2 = 4 then on balance it probably is, until evidence comes along to convince enough scientists to re-open the question, as all scientific knowledge is provisional (cue: Godel and his incompleteness theorems).

As guest Prof Steve Jones (author, among other things, of Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science) pointed out, scientists venturing into the realms of media and politics remain scientists. If they depart from the science rulebook, they will lose their reputation for scientific credibility.

But then the media rolls out someone to provide a ‘balancing’ view, because that’s part of the media’s rulebook: it makes for better programmes.

So every time a radio producer invites a climate scientist to represent the considered view of thousands of scientists who have exhaustively studied and modelled the data and checked each other’s work through peer review, the producer will also invite a climate sceptic who represents a political party and/or economic interests (they’re usually the same) and who wants to convince you that 2+2=5.

But this invitee doesn’t play by the rules of science — he plays by the rules of media & politics … and our radio producer … wants an entertaining programme.

But this invitee doesn’t play by the rules of science — he plays by the rules of media & politics (again, two things difficult to disentangle).

Unfortunately for our scientist, our radio producer understands the rules of media better than those of science, and above all wants an entertaining programme. As a result, the listeners come away with the impression that:

“2+2 may equal 4, or it may equal 5. On balance it’s probably closer to 4, but the debate goes on.”

The last thing the media want is for any debate to end.

Technocratic communications

So what’s this got to do with EU communications?

Well, as pointed out earlier, there are many parallels between science communications and EU communications

“Science writing is about explaining a field which is important, very complex and full of jargon, to people without the specialised training.”
Scienceblogs: an inspirationally cautionary tale for EU social media?

The problems our scientist, above, faces when entering the worlds of media and politics are akin to the problems EU communicators face as well. And this is because the EU is pretty much a technocratic construction these days. Its roots may be in the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, but today the EU is about Adding Value in areas where neighbouring countries are better off cooperating rather than competing … as long as everyone plays by the rules (cue: Nash and his game theories, applied to international relations).

So while the scientist in the radio studio defends the scientific community’s findings, derived through exhaustive experimentation, verification and peer review, our EU communicator represents technocrats who have spent years analysing EU-wide cooperation in technical areas as diverse as research, agriculture and employment regulation.

And across the table from both sits the person brought in to provide ‘balance’, who knows more about soundbites than anything else (cue: Nigel Farage).

And such communicators certainly have the wind in their sails — technocrats are not exactly popular these days. Decrying the EU as an undemocratic technocracy used to be the rallying cry of the loony end of the Eurosceptic movement … until credit agencies and EU Councils started removing democratically elected leaders and installing never-elected technocrats as Prime Ministers to implement austerity programmes devised in Brussels, France and Berlin.

The perception, however, is indisputable: unelected technocrats… now provide absolutely no wriggle room for democratic choice

I actually don’t have an opinion on whether they have any choice — I’m no economist. The perception, however, is indisputable: unelected technocrats, primarily in the financial world, now provide absolutely no wriggle room for democratic choice.

So while most of the EU Institutions spend most of their time adding value in technocratic, bread-and-butter fields (managing natural resources, pooling R&D resources), only those specialised in the bread or the butter care enough to even look. To everyone else, everything the EU does is tarred with the same, very negative brush.

Enter the storytellers?

The advantage of drawing parallels between EU and science communications is that one can then go hunting for solutions from science communicators. Those unfamiliar with science communications may be surprised how developed this world is (cue: Richard Dawkins, leading scientist and bestselling author).

Anyway, in The case for narrative: why scientists need to tell a better story, Laura Shields points out:

“Scientists and journalists are often at loggerheads because their respective professions emphasise completely different skill sets. Scientists stress the importance of facts by amassing large amounts of evidence with which to support (or not) theories via painstaking experiment and replication. This is an anathema to the journalist who prefers the big picture, generalisations, snappy quotes, one or two facts, anecdotes and emotion.”

Just substitute ‘EU’ for science, and ‘EU technocrats’ for ‘scientists’, and you see my point. Shields points to research suggesting that:

“storytelling is a powerful tool not only for making core messages memorable but also for persuading people to do things that scientific data alone can’t. And by storytelling, I really do mean a narrative sequence of events with a clear beginning, middle and end.”
- The case for narrative: why scientists need to tell a better story

So why do we not see such techniques in EU communications? I’ve certainly tried this with some of my clients, but I hit a brick wall every time. It’s simply not in scientists’ or technocrats’ nature to “tell stories”, which sounds (to them) an insultingly fluffy way to communicate their scientifically-derived facts, and their carefully-weighed analyses.

Both suffer, of course, from groupthink. After all, everyone they know understands them. So why, oh why, can’t everybody else?

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The Technocrats’ Blind Spot (June, 2016)

Four years later, this Tweet probably best illustrates, in a single image, the mistaken assumption underlying the failed UK Remain campaign:

Not convinced that rational, economic arguments were irrelevant during the Brexit campaign? Then try something a little less data-driven:

It turns out that showering people with cash — their own, or even from elsewhere — doesn’t work when it comes to affairs of the heart.

showering people with cash doesn’t work when it comes to affairs of the heart

Of course, the Remain argument was not only financial-economic. There are many other good reasons to remain, and the Remain campaign used them.

But they were all rational arguments, and rationality is a bit passé these days — as I pointed out in my first “update/repost” to Medium, rational argumentation is disappearing on both sides of the Atlantic.

Economic Rationalism

It wasn’t always the case — Britain, after all, entered the EU in the 1970s for the eminently rational reason that their economy was in tatters.

perhaps that is what sets Britain apart from other EU countries

But perhaps that is what sets Britain apart from other EU countries, where memories of invasion, bloodshed and dictatorship forged an emotional attachment to the EU as a peace and democracy project.

It wasn’t like that for the UK — it was a rational decision, based on economics.

Today, of course, Britain’s economy is no longer in tatters. With low unemployment and a high minimum wage, it was no surprise that so many Europeans moved in, creating the false ‘immigration crisis’ exploited so cynically by the Leave campaign.

Without a countervailing emotional argument, all the Remain campaign had were logical arguments and facts

In response, Remain wheeled out their rational, economic arguments again. Sound fact-based arguments, however, are clearly no longer enough:

What’s left?

You can’t really blame EU communicators, in London or Brussels. They are technocrats, working with rational arguments. And those arguments just happen to be, for the most part, good — anyone who’s worked in EU affairs can point to how the EU brings Added Value in their policy area.

They are technocrats, working with rational arguments. And those arguments are, for the most part, good

Moreover, any attempt to use emotion a la Brexit will be instantly decried — I’ve always thought rightly — as propaganda.

So where does that leave EU communications? In summary:

  • EU policies and programmes are conceived by technocrats based on rational arguments
  • today’s Europeans prefer emotional Flat Earthers
  • our media industry, which used to analyse arguments rationally, is financially crippled; publicly owned media, meanwhile, will soon be forced to give equal weight to astronomers and flat earthers

So, are we screwed? Not necessarily.

EU communications still needs to make its rational arguments — they must remain the bedrock of everything else.

Propaganda must still be avoided: if you don’t agree with this in principle, let me point out the last time technocrats, buying in services via public procurement, tried doing propaganda:

We do need stories… but about people, empowered by the EU, not ‘success stories’ about projects. And we just need to tell 10 good stories well, rather than pretending that every EC-funded project must automatically be hailed as a success story.

Rather than broadcasting from Brussels and indulging in democracy-washing, we need to build crossborder, participative communities around EU policies and programmes, simultaneously:

  • empowering Europeans and
  • delivering Europe better and
  • making the EU more democratic.

And we need to reinforce the EU’s media industry. Without one, democracy itself is over.

Further reading

Plus more posts on community, eparticipation, media and propaganda on my blog, and useful resources tagged community, eparticipation, media and propaganda on my Hub.

I’m processing my past 8 years of blogging about EU communications into a series of updated and new blog posts, so if you got this far, please Recommend this post, and if you have any views I’d love your comments.