The media-academia complex

You may have seen a BBC News story that reported that half of Britons hold ‘authoritarian populist’ views, perhaps a prelude to the rise of a British Donald Trump. It was covered on the Today Programme and given a long, uncritical article on the BBC News website.

But the paper wasn't very good. Its definition of ‘authoritarian populism’ was this:

The study … measured the sentiment by assessing respondents' ideological sympathy for the market and rolling back the state; a "strong and tough" foreign policy; a negative emotional response to immigration; a critical attitude to human rights and disapproval of the European Union.

To quote Ed Miliband, that’s just totally wrong. Ideological sympathy for the market and rolling back the state, as readers of this blog presumably know along with almost anybody who has thought about it for more than two seconds, is not an authoritarian belief. Indeed given that the state can be reasonably described as an ‘authority’ it would not be inaccurate to call these beliefs ‘anti-authoritarian’.

Most of the other categories are hardly ‘authoritarian populism’ either. One can favour a ‘strong’ foreign policy that nevertheless does not kill innocent people needlessly. My grandmother sometimes has a ‘negative emotional response to immigration’, but does not actually want to restrict it. I guess our internationalist Liberal Case for Leave counts as ‘authoritarian populism’ by this study’s metrics, as would Jeremy Bentham for daring to take a critical attitude to human rights.

Obviously this is a crap bit of research and it should be ignored. But what’s frustrating is not just how unquestioningly the BBC reported it, but that the paper itself does not seem to be publicly available, even to other academics. I cannot find even a working paper online and it doesn’t seem to have been published yet. The BBC say it was ‘shared with BBC Radio 4's Today programme’ so I think it’s fair to presume that we can’t look at this unless we contact the authors directly and ask nicely.

This is irresponsible. It just doesn’t do to give airtime to an unpublished paper that describes centre-right and liberal views as quasi-Trumpist authoritarianism – not just because it’s unfair to people like me who don't really want to be thought of as authoritarian populists, but because it’s misleading and false. I guess the authors don’t realize how wrong they are, and think that the only reason you might be ‘right-wing’ is because you’re an angry authoritarian – not because you think markets make people better off, or the EU doesn’t work as well as we’d like.

The last decade or so has seen academia become increasingly open to scrutiny and criticism, and that’s a good thing. Open access journals and the use of ‘working papers’ to get round publishing restrictions in gated journals allow people from outside academia to use and challenge existing research. The more freely-available work like this is, the better.

But much of the media hasn’t caught up. It’s common to cover research papers from think tanks, consultancy firms and academics that haven’t been made publicly available – take this FT article, based on unpublished research, that claimed that building more houses didn’t drive down house prices (because it only looked at prices in small areas where houses were being built). At least a dozen times in the past twelve months alone the ASI has been asked to comment on some new study that hasn’t been made available yet – as if we can criticise something without seeing it first.

The practice of reporting on research that is not open to scrutiny by others has to stop. At best it holds back the progress the world is making towards more open access to academic research. At worst it leads to bad research being reported without being challenged properly, and people who trust the news they read being misled.