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Objectivity and values: a brief comment on the Gary Lineker ‘controversy’.


Objectivity and values: a brief comment on the Gary Lineker ‘controversy’.

On 7th March, the former England football Captain and BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker made the following remark about the Conservative Government’s ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign:

There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s…’

As a response, Lineker found himself in deep political water.  Conservative critics claimed that he had broken BBC impartiality rules. ‘Lineker must go’ they cried.

This whole controversy presents us with some interesting philosophical questions.

First,  what do we mean by impartiality?  The Oxford English Dictionary defines impartiality as ‘A democratic ethical principle that official judgements and reports should be based on objective and relevant criteria, without bias or prejudice…’ But this presents a philosophical problem.  For,  given the complex asymmetries of power  characteristic of our social world,  it may be impossible not to take a side. Indeed, Paulo Freire (1985) summed this point up neatly when he wrote: 

‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ‘

Second, what do we mean be ‘objective and relevant criteria’? The BBC Impartiality Guidelines state that ‘Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact’ (Section 4.3.6)

This is based on a type of common-sense assumption that a clear demarcation can be made between fact and value. But such a demarcation is at best philosophically problematic. It is the case that such a common-sense view can find some collaboration in the history of philosophy – particularly in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. In his A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), Hume warned against a tendency to move from statements of ‘is’ to statements of ‘ought’, that is factual statements about how the world is to value-based statements about how it ought (or ought not) to be.

And I do think Hume’s words can be a useful corrective to a form of lazy thinking in which we jump to make pronouncements of value as though these are simple remarks about states of affairs.

But this is not what Lineker is doing. To begin with, taken simply as statements of fact, it seems that Lineker’s tweet is persuasive. Relative to other European countries, it simply is false to suggest that the UK is experiencing a ‘huge influx’ of asylum seekers. Figures from the House of Common’s library make this clear.

On the other hand, we have a Government and Home Office which is at best cavalier with the truth – concerned more with whipping up public anxiety through fighting the culture wars than finding evidence based solutions to complex geopolitical issues.

Indeed, the BBC distinction between opinion and fact seems to consider opinion as merely subjective.  But values can be more analytically robust than such an account suggests. It can at least be argued that the incorporation of certain forms of value judgement into our analysis provides us with a greater sense of objective understanding. The philosopher Roy Bhaskar (1994) cites an example from the work of the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Consider the following four statements of events in Germany under the rule of the Nazis:

  1. The country was de-populated.
  2. Millions of people died.
  3. Millions of people were killed.
  4. Millions of people were murdered.

Not only is the fourth statement more evaluative, it is also more complete at a descriptive level. And we would be rightly concerned about the ‘objectivity’ of the person referring to this as a case of ‘de-population’.

To return to our example.  Is it not the case that Lineker’s use of evaluative language and historical comparison is more objective than the partial words of the Home Secretary?

And does not the Holocaust survivor Joan Salter’s view that the Home Secretary’s language on refugees is similar to the language used to justify the murder of her family, at least provide support to the accuracy of Lineker’s words?

David Bates is Professor of Contemporary Political Thought & Director of Research and Enterprise in the School of Law, Policing and Social Sciences.

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