Saturday, 3 February 2018

Issues with The Conversation

This morning I was reading a piece on the website The Conversation. As I got to the bottom, I noticed a bar asking for donations to fund “fact-based journalism”. I was a little taken aback by this, as I’ll explain why, so I tweeted about it.

I was struck that it really hit a nerve with a lot of my fellow academics.

For those of you who don’t know, The Conversation is a website, funded by a large number of universities and higher education organisations, to publicise academic research. When you write for it, you work with an editor to get the angle right. When you input your text into the website it has an “intelligibility” gizmo that has to be “amber” so your piece is readable. The also commission pieces; and if your institution is a partner then they come around to do communications training.

I have written for The Conversation in the past – Bulldoze Belgravia and another piece on urban design. This was in the early days of the site when what it seemed to be aiming for was academic input into current affairs issues (what do we actually know about this issue?) and also for academic takes on other societal issues – what I produced.

What I wrote was ideological – it comes from my belief that state action should maximise equality between people. From that belief I then set out a fairly straightforward, logical critique of mixed communities policies that seek to diversify tenure in deprived neighbourhoods – that they’ll never work because we need to consider tenure diversification in all neighbourhoods. It’s a fairly simple argument in urban studies you could work out yourself with some coloured tiles. The ideological tinge of the argument got me vilified below the line when The Guardian reblogged the piece and a reader referred to me as an “envy-driven” and “masquerading as an academic”. I was quite proud.

However, I now wouldn’t write for The Conversation, and I’ll explain why.


This is what got me about the “fact-checking” ask. Far too often I have read things in The Conversation that are factually wrong. This is a wider ethical issue for me, which academics need to be more reflexive on. As a social scientist, I know “objectivity” is a problematic concept, and I can give you a cracking post-structuralist denunciation of “the truth” if I want to, but in my opinion, in the public domain, academics have a duty to be absolutely clear on whether what they say is their ideological opinion, or is based on their research.

To give an example. Prior to my doctoral research, I thought that the state was generally a Good Thing, and if not necessarily Good, it was at least democratic and reasonably neutral. It should be criticised when it gets things wrong; but with this ideological position I would have said I was in favour of nationalising a lot of services that were previously own by the state, such as the railways. During my research career, I’ve realised that the state can actually be really bloody awful at delivering services, can be grossly undemocratic, and other ownership models, such as community ownership and cooperatives, can deliver the aims of social justice and a pluralistic democracy that I believe is right. When I discuss this in public forums, I try to ensure that I am clear on what is my opinion, and what is based on my research. 

Now, why am I describing this? Because, a while back I read this piece in The Conversation: Nationalising Britain’s Railways is the Only Way to Fix Chronic Problems. I’m a bit train nerd, so much so that I know a lot of the way British Rail was run was bloody awful – I’d love to do a PhD on The Modernisation Plan of 1955 which lumbered the network with brand new infrastructure designed for the 1930s and a range of new diesel locomotives of variable quality. So I clicked on the link thinking I’d get a thoughtful piece on the pros and cons of private ownership versus state ownership. What I actually read was pretty poor editorialising with factual inaccuracies. The third paragraph I thought was particularly awful. It reels off a list of the ways the private railways companies are worse than British Rail, with an impressive set of links to back it up. I bothered to click on the links. What they actually point to is a load of analysis and statistics that start in 1995, when the railways were privatised, and then show how on these indicators performance has deteriorated. None of them compare their performance to that of British Rail. The entire paragraph was making a false statement. One example of this inaccuracy – a book I got last Christmas on British Rail design had a load of old train tickets printed on the inside. Quite a few of these were “regulated fares” – season tickets and peak-time returns. I popped a few of the post-decimal prices into an RPI inflator to find out what the price would be today. When I then checked the same ticket today, the price was virtually the same.

This is just one example of the sort of editorial writing that The Conversation seems to increasingly publish, where respect for the truth is subsumed to the ideological opinion of the author. Quite a few of the replies to my tweet had similar experiences.

To get all Habermasian on you – Habermas argues we assess truth claims on three bases: their accuracy; whether we trust the speaker; and whether they fit into existing norms. Academia is, arguably, the domain of third criteria, where we debate the existing norms and paradigms of knowledge. But in wider society, the second criteria is where we, as academics are privileged and we should be much more reflexive of that, and be absolutely clear when what we are describing is based on a disputed norm. In this case, there is a broad range of scholarship on privatisation. Some of this is very right wing and says all state intervention is distorting markets; some is very left wing and asserts that capitalism as a system of ownership is wrong. There is also a chunk of empirical work in the middle that uses a range of indicators and outcomes to make judgements as to whether specific cases of privatisation were good or bad. I would expect something like The Conversation to reflect this diversity and complexity in the scholarship in its published material. If you want this sort of academic reflection on railway privatisation, I personally thought this was a better much better piece.

The crisis in journalism

My other issue with The Conversation is I think it’s a problematic intervention in a market – that for news journalism – that is in dire straits. The fact that newspapers like The Daily Hate Mail and The Scum are now seeing falling sales, falling revenues and falling profits really shows what a state the market is in. You might hate their content, but for decades these two newspapers were journalistic powerhouses, selling thousands of copies and earning millions through advertising revenue. One only has to look at MailOnline – BuzzFeed before BuzzFeed existing – and see how different it is to its paper version to understand the way things are going.

With falling revenues, and readership driven through clickbait headlines to get someone to hover on your website long enough to kick-in an advertising fee, news is in crisis. News organisations can no longer afford to pay a lot of staff to cover the sort of things that an academic might input into – social and policy commentary for example; or science stories.

You might argue that The Conversation is therefore filling a gap that needs filled – it’s allowing academics to input into news debates with “facts”. But I don’t think it does do that because it falls into the same editorial traps of clickbait and sensationalism that mainstream news organisations use which distorts the news. And, as discussed, problematically they do this with authors who are trusted in society.

In an industry that is now driven by journalists maintaining their jobs through getting clicks, I would actually suggest that by providing free content, The Conversation is putting journalists out of work and is actually distorting the market. It is making the crisis in news journalism worse. Because of its reliance on income from partner institutions that are higher education bodies, The Conversation is state-funded news. Directly, it gets its funding from organisations that are funded directly (through grants) and indirectly (through student loans) by the government. It is also funded indirectly by the government as its writers (us academics) write for free for it and have our overheads covered by our state-funded organisations. Because of this, I believe it should be far more closely scrutinised than it is. When The Conversation gets things wrong, it should be more of a scandal than when the BBC gets things wrong. And, I’m sorry, but in a lot of the material it publishes, I do not see The Conversation meeting a high bar of accuracy and impartiality that we should expect.

The real risk for this is that, in the context we live in of “fake news”, distortions of the truth, and news organisations financially unable to do their job, that The Conversation could make discourse in society worse, not better. If it continues to publish editorialising statements by non-reflexive academics, then the public have every right to not “trust the experts”. 

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