Contorting to balance

“Evan Harris, Lib Dem MP and Honorary Associate of National Secular Society and Dr Jasdev Rai, Director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, discuss whether the play ‘Behzti’ in Birmingham should continue.”
The Today Programme, BBC Radio Four, 20th December 2004

I quite often get contacted by researchers for radio or television programmes as a potential contributor to some kind of topical debate. It’s common for nothing to come of the initial discussion, but on more than one occasion the reason for my unsuitability has left me concerned. As one researcher explicitly said, and others have implied, I am not extreme enough in my views.

This woke me up to the fact that all too often, “balance” in a debate is interpreted to mean, first, giving both sides of the argument equal opportunity to present their views, and second, to represent both sides at their most trenchant. But does this really present a balanced picture?

In one sense, of course it does: there is balance because there are two equal and opposite opinions. But the point of striving for balance is surely to represent the debate fairly. And I’m not sure this approach achieves that goal.

For example, Today is BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme, and it is always presenting “balanced debates”. One example was the discussion between Evan Harris and Jasdev Rai about the decision by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to cancel performances of the play ‘Behzti’ because of violent protests by Sikhs, who found scenes of a rape in a temple to be offensive. In many ways they were obvious candidates: Dr Rai stood up for the Sikh protestors (though not for violence) while Harris insisted on the rights of free speech in a secular society.

But the problem with this is that the issue is only really clear cut for those who, like the two contributors, stand at the extreme polls of the disagreement. Many others would think that there is a real difficulty here and that there is neither an inalienable right to perform whatever you want nor to demand that something you find offensive be banned.

There is something to be said for presenting a debate in terms of the two strongest cases that can be made on either side. But this can also lead to important distortions. This is particularly important in issues of great sensitivity such as ‘Behzti’. For presenting the argument as a clash of fundamentals exacerbates the sense that there is a huge gulf between the Sikh community and the majority. In reality, however, most people in both camps probably agree about a great deal. Glossing over this could have the serious effect of increasing tensions between and within communities.

The problem is that the traditional way of balancing is not just one way that debates are presented, but the formula that is almost invariably followed. The cumulative effect of all these discussions is to present a picture of a society which is dominated by adversarial conflicts and huge gulfs. The moderate middle ground, occupied by the majority, is left unrepresented, and so the striving for balance actually fails to fulfil its primary purpose of reflecting the opinions that are out there.

What is perhaps even worse is that to give both sides equal weight can severely distort what are actually important imbalances in a debate. This is typical of many scientific issues, where one rogue researcher is pitted against an opponent who represents the opinion of the vast majority. This is probably one reason why the public thought the claims that autism was caused by the combined MMR vaccine were more credible than they were. The media gave equal time to both sides of the argument (or perhaps even more to the minority view), which inevitably gave the impression the issue was much more uncertain than it really was. This kind of balance tips the scales in favour of the maverick.

This is an issue not of the content of arguments themselves but how they are framed. The concern is that certain views are already granted more respect or importance than they are due simply by the way they are debated and discussed. We need to be on our guard and remember that a “balanced discussion” can nevertheless be a hugely distorted one.

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