What is ‘false equivalence’ and why is the phrase suddenly on the lips of politicians, journalists and broadcasters? False equivalence is a phrase that is being uttered as we attempt to get a grip on the new reality of war in Europe. It’s driven by the wake-up call of Russia’s acts of naked aggression, and Putin’s attempt to destroy an independent Ukraine. So why is the idea and possibility of ‘false equivalence’ now being discussed?
The phrase has been used for some time, but it was recently used in the context of the foreboding dread of war in Ukraine. Keir Starmer, the leader of the UK Labour Party, instructed Labour Party MPs to be mindful that their opposition to a war should not draw a ‘false equivalence’ between the actions of Russia and those of NATO. Those MPs who would traditionally voice scepticism of the role of NATO, based on their support for the Stop the War Coalition, have been insisting, according to Starmer, that their scepticism of the role of NATO as an imperialist aggressor would be wrong.
As Starmer put it, they would be committing the error of ‘false equivalence.’ In other words, they would be guilty of drawing an equivalent link between NATO’s actions and Russia’s actions, which Starmer insisted would be incompatible with maintaining the party whip, and their continuing to sit as a Labour MPs in the House of Commons.
It was a short, sharp and effective political rebuke by Starmer, aimed at those whose political views put them on the far left of centre. Many who have often expressed the view that NATO is an agent of Western imperialism, rather than a mutual defence mechanism that protects an alliance of Western democracies. The NATO alliance is designed, as Starmer reminded his MPs, to protect Western nations from the threat of aggression by those opposed to the values of Western liberal social democracy.
But rather than just being an internal Labour Party matter, the phrase has now also become a wake-up call to those in the West who value open and free discussion, and who see independent media as an essential part of modern liberal social democracy. We live in a form of democracy that has been developed over seventy years, and is a riposte to the horror of the Second World War, and the oppression of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
The use of the phrase ‘false equivalence’, however, has now reminded many of us of something else – a renewed confidence in the process of independent news reporting and journalism. The tangled web of misinformation that is part of the modus operandi of leaders like Putin and Trump, is now being thrown into sharp relief. It’s now possible to call into question Putin and Trump’s (and to a lesser extent Johnson’s), ability to create a fog around their actions and motivations, consisting of alternative facts, unfounded but well-rehearsed spin lines, combined with a suppression of empirical evidence.
Putin has long demonstrated a satisfaction that comes from knowing that wrong-footing the news media by playing games with them, is an effective cover for autocratic and dictatorial behaviour. Moreover, this approach to misinformation has been highly effective in allowing doubt to enter the public mind about the benefit and value of liberal and socially democratic societies.
Putin, Trump and Johnson have each, to varying degrees, spun a tangled web of half-truths, lies and disinformation. We are lucky that in the UK and USA we still have elections that challenge incumbent powers, but in Russia, Putin is all powerful and has persuaded both his army and policy to suppress any dissent that may arise from the actions of his cronies and enablers.
This means Putin is obsessed about stamping down on the free media. It means taking away the ability of reporters to act independently of the state, and it means threatening to lock people up because they share information that may undermine the actions of Putin in waging a war against civilians, without clear military targets and justification.
Here in the United Kingdom, moreover, we’ve been obsessed with the role of our media in undertaking fair and independent reporting for some time. The BBC for example, is scrutinised for its impartiality, and the media regulator Ofcom places a duty on broadcasters to present news and matters of public controversy in an impartial manner. The problem, however, has been that our news media is embroiled in an endless process of managing equivalence – false or otherwise.
For example, the BBC was eventually forced to change its editorial policy on climate crisis because the standard practice of bringing into a discussion a climate change denier with a scientist, was no longer tenable. It was a clear example of the model of impartiality being ineffective. The science is certain, verifiable and well understood, while the climate change scepticism was grounded in wishful or magical thinking. The BBC was rightly criticised for drawing a ‘false equivalence’ between the two.
Let’s take a more pressing example of the moment. If Russia says the war in Ukraine is going well for them, and the Ukrainians say it is going well for them, is the truth somewhere in the middle? Is there an equivalence to their claims? The impartiality model would suggest that the role of news organisations rests on their ability to weigh-up the competing claims, and present them equally and together. This is the absurdity of the impartiality model. It draws false equivalence to claims that cannot be verified.
The role and function of the reporter and journalist, we have to remind ourselves, is not to weigh competing claims in an ongoing public relations battle, but to find empirical evidence that can be verified, tested and discussed with other evidence-based reporters, who can then offer to the public a range of evidence-based reports that they can compare and test the veracity of the situation and claims. In other words, to be objective.
The problem, however, is that we’ve hollowed out our news reporting institutions, so that they are largely at the mercy of the public relations industry, who value ‘plausibility’ above objectivity. The diminished ability of news organisations to hold knowledge and expertise that challenges the views of competing political actors, parties or even combatants, is a major concern for us.
For example, if the UK government makes claims that the visa process for Ukrainian refugees is working effectively, but the evidence is that only a small number of people have gained sanctuary in the UK, then the job of news organisations is not to repeat the claims of the government as if they are truth, but to hold them to account for their actions, based on the evidence that they are able to pull from different sources. News media organisations should not be concerned with impartiality as a mode of fairness, but with objectivity as the driver of fairness in reporting.
As the Ukrainian war develops and unfolds, we are going to see a lot of people ‘truth-washing’ their former practices and sympathies. The tacit support many have given to Putin and Trump will be miraculously washed away. Those who have not be direct supporters of Putin or Trump, but have harboured admiration of their playbooks of misinformation, may be looking for a way out.
Putin and Trump and other malign actors have promoted misinformation on an industrial scale, so anything that now smacks as being Putinesque will no longer be tolerated by the public, and hopefully our news media and reporters. We will therefore have to protect and support our journalists and reporters from malign attacks that are proffered by ‘false equivalence’ perpetrators.
We’ve lived through a long period in which our values of integrity and objectivity in news reporting have been shaken. It’s time to renew our faith in our collective ability to be objective, and to consign the impartiality news model to the dustbin, because it has itself been corrupted by the corrupting influence of a false equivalence that tell us truth is no longer possible to ascertain. It is, and it remains our highest public virtue, despite what we’ve been led to believe.