A huge amount has been written on the problems associated with news reporting in terms of what the ‘sides’ of a debate say. It can present false equivalence between know truths and known falsehoods, between strongly substantiated opinions and those made up on the spot, between sincere analysis and political propaganda. It allows dishonest participants to game the way in which news in reported and has inbuilt adverse selection mechanisms . A tweet last night by Nigel Farage drew my attention to another consequence: it allows participants to frame their own motives and beliefs, and allows them to avoid analysis and scrutiny of these.
In this tweet, Farage bemoaned yesterday’s migration statistics, specifically that they still showed net migration from outside the EU. A number of replies spotted the hypocrisy: wasn’t a large part of the case to leave the EU that membership implied preferential treatment for EU citizens over non EU citizens? Hadn’t Farage made this argument a number of times himself?
Ofcourse, on one level this event is entirely uninteresting and unsurprising. We all knew that that argument against EU membership was entirely disingenuous, not the least because Farage, and indeed many prominent Brexiteers, have spent most of their political careers stirring up hostility against migrants of any origin, and indeed have focused their hostility on non EU migrants for ethno nationalist reasons (think of Leave.eu’s ‘breaking point’ poster, or the real message behind Vote Leave’s claims about Turkey).
What is interesting is that on countless occasions, figures like Farage have been able to present the argument that free movement is unfair on non EU nationals as a sincere one. It is frequently reported as the ‘other side’ of a migration ‘debate’ on neutral outlets like the BBC.
This is more pernicious than it seems. Surely, what is most relevant about this argument is in fact not that it is a bad one that can be evaluated as such, but that it is made insincerely. This is while it is a pretty bad argument, it is not quite as bad an argument, at least a priori, as its critics often suggest, or at least not for the reasons typically given. One could indeed hypothetically envisage a situation in which practicalities imposed an upper limit, at least politically, on migration, and where free movement within the EU implied stricter controls on non EU nationals.
Of course, this limit is nowhere near the current reality, where increased migration is hugely economically beneficial. But the difference between hypothetical and actual often gets lost in debates. What’s more, the cruel aspect of the argument- its implication for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU- can be glossed over as something that can be dealt with humanely and seamlessly. Let’s forget that this may not be true, or that free movement is not just a migration policy but a right: what is really pernicious about this argument is that the people who will ultimately be deciding what a future regime looks like do not have the faux humanitarian concerns that the argument implies, and are instead interested in imposing gratuitously cruel and restrictive regimes, again for ethno nationalist reasons. And their ability to do so, and their political power, is determined at least in part buy how these debates play out. To some extent, then, the veracity of the argument is itself determined by the sincerity of those who are making it. Arguments about the political consequences of a policy depend in part on a view of what some aspect of fixed political reality is, when this is itself part of what is affected by the discussion. The style of reporting that simply reports the headlines of the ‘two sides’ as the arguments for and against allows dishonest political participants to misrepresent their motives, and in doing so, the ultimate effects, and indeed often truth, of their statements.