The British Perception Problem

A new survey by Ipsos MORI has revealed there is an unsettling gap between what the British public perceives to be true, and the actual state of affairs on a number of key political issues.

When asked about divisive issues such as crime, welfare, government spending and immigration, the public paint a caricature of Britain that is devoid of any resemblance to reality. Britons think crime is rising when it has actually fallen considerably in the past decade. We believe benefits are being claimed fraudulently en-masse when in reality less than 1% of welfare money is done so. On average we believe that foreign-born immigrants account for nearly a third of the population when the actual estimated figure is a more reasonable only 13%.

Equally as worrying as this widespread ignorance is people’s reluctance to accept fact. When those who were seriously off the mark had their claims challenged, their response was to dispute and question the data presented to them. Of those who thought the percentage of immigrants in the UK was 26% or higher, over half said they stated a higher figure as they believe ‘people come into the country illegally so aren’t counted’ by official stats.

These misconceptions are what you’d expect to overhear from the sorts in your local pub that lament the current state of affairs before concluding how that Nigel Farage bloke has got the right idea.

What causes the people of one of the most advanced, liberal democracies to hold views that are so out of touch with reality? Economic uncertainty can be attributed to fuelling these fears but also the sensationalist media should also shoulder some of the blame for creating this caricature of British life.

The top 3 most circulated daily national newspapers in the UK are The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Mirror and all are guilty for their frequent casual snippets of scaremongering and sensationalism. Better still, if you happen to have the pleasure of reading the online versions of these papers on any given article, you’d be forgiven for thinking Britain was a brewing cesspit on the brink of social meltdown with only a few gallant keyboard warriors willing to tell it how it is. The comments section from a Daily Express article regarding the survey is a particularly depressing read.

Sensationalism sells and our print and broadcast media is saturated with tales of the extraordinary so that it has become the ordinary. The results of this survey poses a significant question, how can voters effectively participate in a democracy when they are so misinformed on what they are voting on?

Hetan Stah executive director of the Royal Statistical Society believes the solution comes at three levels. Firstly, politicians need to talk in facts and stats not spin. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues rather than sensationalising them. And finally schools should teach statistical literacy more.

His suggestions can’t be argued with, we would all like politicians to stop lying, the media to stop sensationalising and people to be more educated and aware, but are they realistic or really helpful suggestions? The most obvious way to enact the first two solutions would be through some form of regulatory legislation. Even the strongest advocate of government intervention should feel uncomfortable about the idea of the state deciding what is or isn’t news. Considering the authoritarian tendencies of governments it is irrational to assume this course of action will be corruption free.

Considering the final suggestion, I am sure it’s true that if people were more educated about statistics, they would probably think twice after reading a headline such as “Mick Philpott, a vile product of Welfare UK.”

But this is all a bit ‘state the obvious’. It isn’t just ‘uneducated masses’ reading tabloid headlines, watching channel 4 documentaries on obscure societal issues or asking the reactionary questions on Question Time. All sections of society fall victim of sensationalism and spin, and the left and the right can be equally as guilty. This is a fundamental flaw in democracy; it is impossible to have an electorate that act rationally with all information available to them.

As Sam Bowman identifies referring to the findings of a political psychology study, “the more information you have about something, the more resistant to new contradictory information you are – or, in other words, the more dogmatically ideological you are.” Just because an individual is highly educated about a subject it does not mean they will use this information in the ‘right’ way.

So if the answer is not more regulation and if more education isn’t going to cause much positive change, how can you solve a problem like the perception gap in British politics? By taking away power from central government that responds to the perception of the electorate is one way. By pursuing greater localism we can have a better politics insofar that people are more aware of issues concerning their local area. Through localism voters can be more educated about issues in their immediate area, and the sensationalism peddled in national newspapers will be marginalised. Local governments would be more responsive and accountable than a central one in Westminster and consequently policy would be tailored to benefit local needs. Instead of pandering to the public mood based on sensationalist headlines, politicians would be responsive to actual facts and stats.

Despite all of this doom and gloom about British perceptions there is a silver lining about the current state of affairs. Even though the survey appears to reveal the average Brit to be a frothing at the mouth bigot, in reality our democracy does function first rate in keeping out the views of the more extreme and reactionary wings of the political spectrum. It’s just that it could do a better job of not rising to it for cheap political gains.

 

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