When "Balance" Goes Wrong in the Media

Got up. Turned on Radio 4. As usual. Within two minutes my blood was boiling and I was forced to hastily flick over to Radio 3, the classical music station. Why?
Because, in the interests of ‘balance’ in a discussion about NHS safety they had a doc from somewhere in the system and a woman whom I shan’t name from an organisation called ‘Cure the NHS.’ In the two minutes she delivered one howler of a false analogy and one outright falsehood. CtNHS is a small group of people (its own description) who campaigned to expose the disaster at MidStafford Health. Well done.
But here’s the problem: all that group had on its side was a) persistence and b) a genuine disaster which had been deliberately but clumsily hidden by the perpetrators. Note the absence of qualifications, expertise, objectivity or anything else which I would like to imagine plays a part in the selection of spokespeople on issues of national interest.
The spokeswoman’s tone of voice was one we all recognise in many amateur campaigners on an issue which has caused them harm: sustained, monotonous sadness. This person, in my opinion, needs a long rest and some counselling to get over the trauma she experienced in losing a relative unnecessarily. Not being elevated to a status for which she is not qualified and in which she is now doing serious harm.
The false analogy was that the airline industry gets it right, now the NHS needs to do as well.
Whoa! Stop the bus. Everything that can be known about an aeroplane is known and can be measured with high accuracy. The human body is literally the most complex system in the known universe. But, and here’s the problem, it sounds perfectly reasonable, and many listeners will be saying ‘Yes. Absolutely.’
The falsehood was another catchy statement: ‘The NHS spends a fortune on harming people.’ Sorry – it doesn’t. ‘On’ in that sentence is a synonym for ‘for the purpose of’ or ‘in order to’, in other words, intentionally. Not true, but again, sounds good.
And the harm she does? Blinding the citizenry to the fact that they still have one of the very best free health systems in the world. The only countries with better ones tend to have far higher rates of taxation than the British would tolerate, so value for money, it’s the best there is. They need to be defending it, not badmouthing it.

What galls me is that Radio 4 is paid for out of the license fee. It has no need to sensationalise, to grab listeners by any means possible. Its license is to inform, so the criteria they should be applying to producing balanced stories are to ensure the representatives of competing points of view are qualified, well-informed and articulate.
If they took that approach, that woman would not be allowed anywhere near a microphone and the world would be a better place for it.

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