Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
It is often suitable for political commentators to claim the British electorate are under the spell of a malevolent media. The Guardian’s new prodigy Owen Jones, author of Chavs and The Establishment, has an infographic in the latter book. This infographic compares average survey estimates of statistics, such as the percentage of the British population that are Muslim, with the reality. This comparison idles beneath the booming title of ‘How the media controls Britain’.
The fourth claim is rather misleading, because it lies in a separate category. It says “29% of people think more taxpayers’ money goes on Jobseekers Allowance than on pensions”. The same research suggested 47% of respondents ordered these two expenditures correctly. The other three percentages are the surveyed guesses of the following statistics: the prevalence of Muslims in British society, the fraud rate in social security and what percentage of the Department of Work and Pensions budget goes to the unemployed.
Disparities between perceptions and reality do not imply the controlling influence of newspapers and broadcasters. The human mind and time are not infinite; we use heuristics to swiftly process information. In psychology, these systematic errors of judgement are called cognitive biases. The availability heuristic means the reliance on immediate examples, supplanting real prevalence. There may also be difficulty in interpreting small rates, mistaking trends for levels, as well as other forms of statistical illiteracy. Respondents may also wish to convey their emotional concern and political motivations, rather than factual accuracy.
Ipsos MORI’s research into public ignorance, entitled ‘Perceptions are not Reality’, also investigated what people considered benefit fraud. 45% of respondents considered at least one of “people claiming benefits who haven’t paid any taxes or national insurance” and “people having more children so that they are entitled to more benefits” as types of benefit fraudsters. These definitional differences will result in overestimates of social security scams and other rates.
The prominence and regularity given to specific genres of articles and programmes may be interpreted as reflective of heir wider prevalence. This is a misunderstanding, since newsworthy stories are often focussed upon the strange, the immoral and the peculiar.
It is simply false to use these disparities to suggest the media “control Britain”. The ‘media’ is not a monolith, and includes newspapers such as the one that employs Mr Jones. The phrase echoes an ancient conspiracy: the mass manipulation of thoughts and beliefs by malevolent elites.