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13 June 2012

The story of the £80,000 man shows why factcheck services are bad for the BBC

By Stephen Bush

A member of the BBC Question Time audience has gone viral after he accused Labour of lying about its plans on tax, saying that they were not, in fact, going to confine their tax rises to people in the top five per cent of earners – because they were planning to tax him, a man earning £80,000. The problem, of course, is that earning £80,000 does put you in the top five per cent of earners. Anoosh writes well about the reasons why you may not “feel rich” here but that does not change the essential facts.

A lot of attention has been lavished on the man himself, but not enough on how the host, Fiona Bruce, approached the situation, in which she turned the question back on Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, on whether or not £80,000 is in the top five per cent of earners. But what income percentile you are in is not, like, say, whether prison should be primarily designed around rehabilitation or primarily focussed on punishment: it is a matter of fact not opinion. It is absolutely a situation where the host ought to be equipped by the behind-the-scenes team to point out the facts – both when a politician is wrong, or in this case a member of the public.

A still more serious example of that happened during this week’s head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn claimed that every case of anti-Semitism in the Labour party has now been dealt with – a claim that has since been comprehensively rebutted, by the national secretary of the Jewish Labour Movement and by BuzzFeed. But on air, the remark was left unchallenged by the moderator, Julie Etchingham, and Boris Johnson preferred to criticise Corbyn over Brexit.

In both cases, they reveal the problem with the new passion for “fact checking” on the part of the broadcasters: a process that hives off the dull work of assessing whether a claim is true or face to a “Fact Check” service, often one with far fewer viewers, readers or followers (the BBC’s RealityCheck service has a little more than 72,000 Twitter followers, while BBC Question Time has more than 530,000).

Fact-checking on air has the same problem that video assisted refereeing (VAR) does in football: it slows down the play, because moderators have to stop and start the event to check a claim if it falls outside their pre-debate or interview preparation. But politics isn’t like football – the premium on fast, free-flowing entertainment ought to be lower than the premium on informing the viewer.  

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