Public Affairs

Policy-based evidence-making

Jim-Larkin-clippedThe Leveson inquiry shows how influential opinions rather than solid facts are often used to back up policy change, John O’Farrell writes.

The Department for Employment and Learning is presently engaged in a consultation on employment law, a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. DEL’s ‘discussion paper’ summarises the debate in GB and asks if the changes being introduced there should apply here. They summarise the common arguments made by the Tories and their funders (such as Adrian Beecroft) and ask for any evidence that (a) we want it here in Northern Ireland and (b) that slashing employment protection will result in more efficient firms and increased employment.

The thing is, there is no such evidence. The DEL paper is full of caveats such as “it is not possible to directly quantify the likely impact on business confidence and in turn on hiring behaviour”, or “there is a lack of robust evidence, other than anecdotally”, or, “the Department is unaware of any concrete evidence either for or against the proposal.”

Instead, the proponents of these changes point to rigged polls of tiny numbers of bosses, such as those concocted by the CBI and IoD with this agenda in mind. On BBC’s Newsnight, an exasperated Jeremy Paxman scornfully dismissed a Tory MP’s case thus: “Those are opinions. That is not the same thing as evidence.” But opinion is good enough for some; repeated surveys are showing that regular viewers of Murdoch’s Fox News know less about current affairs than people who watch no news at all.

Not that such shaky foundations prevented the Tory press turning the prejudices of an old asset-stripper like Adrian Beecroft into the pillars of job creation. The real question is how, and in whose interests?

We are depressingly used to the madness of US Republicans denying climate change or evolution or staggering inequality or the causes of the Great Recession. A subtler version has taken hold on this side of the Atlantic, the most egregious being what Paul Krugman calls ‘the confidence fairy’: the faith that fiscal contraction is actually expansionary because the moral goodness of austerity will lead to ‘confidence’.

All the evidence from recent experience has confirmed what the unions and a few others were saying from the start and the UK is now firmly back in recession alongside the parts of it which (like Northern Ireland) never left the slump. That this economic fiction is allowed to continue is a repudiation of those celebrated British qualities, such as empiricism, and evidence-based policy-making.

Why is this fiction allowed to continue? Ed Miliband may not say, but his father would have an opinion. Ralph Miliband expertly analysed the ‘power élites’ which ran Britain in the 1960s and 70s. Such a service is being carried out at present by Lord Leveson, whose amazing inquiry into press standards is unlocking the deep structure of élites in modern Britain, who they are and how they interact.

Leveson tells us about the intimate and regular contacts between top Tories and the Murdoch mafia, and that family’s subversion of the police and a host of regulators. It shows that this is not really about money. It is a deeper form of corruption: everyone thinks what they are doing is perfectly fine.

“We needed to get the Welfare Bill through,” Lord Leveson was told by Rebekah Brooks last month. What business of News International is the ‘reform’ of social security? We can surmise that the BSkyB takeover bid would be of interest when they met Cabinet ministers, but what else did they discuss with David Cameron on the 55 times they met (26 since he became Prime Minister)? Schools? It turns out that Murdoch or his minions have met the Education Secretary Michael Gove even more often than they have met George Osborne.

What Leveson is revealing is how a media élite can cover for the failings of a political élite, as long as their other commercial interests are satisfied. Unfortunately, we may become victims of the unexpected success of Leveson (regardless of his eventual findings). The chances of, say, a similar inquiry being held into the nexus between politicians and the financial services industry are very slim indeed.

One other outcome could just be a freer press which finds truth in the facts, not just a ‘balancing’ of views, and one which utilises the skills of journalism to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, rather than the opposite. We can Believe in BetterTM.

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