How do you get trustworthy information about the EU Referendum?
UPDATE: This piece was written before the June 2016 referendum. However, all the sources are still good ones and we will review and revise this as matters progress.
One of the biggest challenges facing the average British voter is that of finding sources of information about the issues in the EU referendum. If you believe the media, everyone seems to be lying, or at least distorting what they present to us. This page is an effort to remedy that, by providing you with some strategies for handling this and some suggestions of where you can find more reliable sources to help you make a decision.
Won’t get fooled again
Everyone has an agenda, whether they realise it or not. That’s our starting point, and one which conveniently reveals my own agenda. As an academic, a core part of my professional values is to question all the things that I see and to make an informed judgment about their merit. As a social scientist, I also take the view that there are many different valid interpretations of how to understand what’s happening in the world. And as someone who’s worked on euroscepticism for almost two decades, I have internalised the message that we need to separate our feelings about individuals and groups from the things they say and do.
In short, I’m going to encourage you to take the Ronald Reagan approach to the referendum: trust, but verify.
There are three simple tests that you can use to help you achieve a higher level of confidence in what you are told, or in what you read.
Firstly, is there clear, appropriate and proportionate support for a claim?
As we often tell our students when they’re producing work for us: you can argue anything you like, but you need to support it. This is the cornerstone of all academic work, and for good reason. Without evidence, claims and arguments are nothing more than random ideas. That’s a problem, because typically we then build on what we feel confident about, to make further advances.
This isn’t only about academic understanding though, it’s also about how we live our lives. If someone tells you the world is going to end a week on Tuesday, and you believe them unquestioningly, then it’ll obviously affect what you do in the coming days (unless you demonstrate considerable sang froid).
So we need evidence. But not just any evidence. It needs to be evidence that clearly relates to the claim being made. A good rule of thumb on this is that you should be able to go the source of the evidence given and check that it says what someone says it says: look for references to official documents or to groups and organisations that have no direct interest in the matter.
At this point, someone will observe that ‘you can’t trust the government on this’ and, to some extent, you’d be right. However, we need to separate out different bits of ‘the government’: while the political element – ministers and the like – are obviously involved in campaigning on the referendum, the bureaucratic bit – civil servants – are bound to keep an impartial position. That might make their reports and data a bit dull, but it also allows us to have more confidence in the quality of what they produce. To take a relevant example, the official data not only sets what is known about the volume and nature of immigration into the UK, but also clarifies what isn’t known and what can’t be deduced from the data. As any academic you’ve tried to have a chat over a drink with will have bored you, knowing what you don’t know is a great help in such matters, if only because it forces you to acknowledge that sometimes we just can’t say what’s what.
Evidence also needs to be proportionate. Big claims need big evidence. One of the reasons I started studying Eurosceptics was the discovery in my university library of a journal that had decided the European Union was both evil (literally) and the incarnation of the Fourth Reich: but to support this, they could only show this by pointing out a couple of occult symbols on official EU posters and quoting people who also thought the same as they did. You’ll understand if I was not convinced.
It’s a similar situation now. As was usefully pointing in a recent piece by Hugo Dixon, to call the EU ‘anti-democratic’ is not only not supported by the evidence, but actually obscures the modest claim – which is generally accepted by all sides – that it suffers from democratic failings. In an age of hype, we get a lot of very extreme messages, but unless they are backed up be similarly extreme evidence, then we have to challenge them.
And this leads us to the second test: is anyone else saying the same thing?
This is what we might term a triangulation test, checking claims and evidence from different angles, to see if it holds up. So if David Cameron says we’ll be able to have free pony rides whenever we go on holiday elsewhere in the EU as a result of his deal, then I want to hear whether the President of the European Council or the Greek minister for tourism say the same thing (Cameron’s not claiming, just to be clear).
It’s a bit like the first test, in that part of this is about going to the evidence. But it’s also about who supports whose arguments and claims. Here the rule of thumb is that the less two people have to do with each other, any point of agreement is likely to hold more weight. For example, if both Will Straw and Nigel Farage agree on a point about the EU, then we can generally assume it’s uncontroversial, although we might also want someone who isn’t campaigning to confirm it too.
The challenge with this test comes from the very different approaches that different activists take towards explaining the EU. In practice, this sometimes means that they do agree, but without it being immediately obvious. The most recent example of this was the challenge from Michael Gove about whether Cameron’s deal was ‘legally binding’ or not. As Steve Peers pointed out, he was both right and wrong, depending on what way you looked at it. Gove himself knew this, but you’d not have known that from most of the media coverage.
All of which brings us nicely to the last test: are you judging the argument or the person giving it?
It’s a very natural thing to do, judge people. We are constantly making judgments of people we meet, based on how they look, how they talk, how they treat us. It’s a sensible strategy and most of the time it works, and if it doesn’t then we can change our minds. But just Elizabeth Bennet took a lot of convincing that Mr Darcy wasn’t just another stuffed shirt, so too do we need to recognise that our first impressions can take a lot to budge. It’s something my psychologist colleagues call anchoring.
Anchoring matters because it colours our impression of the messages we receive. If you generally feel that Boris Johnson is a loveable bumbler, then you’re more likely to be receptive to his arguments than if you feel he’s a cunning Machiavel. Unfortunately, the people we like don’t always talk sense, just as those we dislike don’t always talk rot. The trick is to be able to step beyond the person and focus on the argument.
If you’ve been applying the first two tests, then this is a lot easier. One of the joys of my professional work is reading print and social media from a huge array of political and personal positions, out of which I pick valuable nuggets and try to fit them into my understanding of the world: I’m just as happy reading the Express as the Guardian, because both provide me with insight into different worldviews. And I’ll encourage you do the same.
And the slogans are replaced
So where does this leave us? I’ve suggest that you trust no-one unquestioningly and you check what you’re told. If you do that, then you’ll be most of the way on this. It requires a bit of effort, but no more than the effort you’ve taken to get this far into this piece: since I’ll assume this demonstrates a good level of interest in the issues around the referendum, then I’m pretty confident you’ll act on this.
However, it’s also worth recognising that sometimes you just want it straight and not have to worry so much about all of these kinds of questions. So here’s a quick run-down of where you can get solid, reliable information and opinion. It might seem odd to recommend opinion, but at a time when the world and her husband are producing opinion pieces, you might as well go to those who know of what they speak or write.
As I mentioned at the start of this, everyone’s got an agenda, so let’s get mine dealt with first. The UK in a Changing Europe programme is funded by the Economic & Social Research Council, which is the main funder of social science research in the UK. Both the Council and the programme are very determinedly non-political, and aim solely to bring the insights of social science research to help inform the public debate. On the website, you can find explainers like this, plus blog posts on more specific issues and a roster of events that allow more opportunity for you to get something out of us.
For other scholarly work, that has typically gone through some kind of review process, you can also find much good discussion and explanation on The Conversation, which is very responsive and broad in its scope. Aside from the blogging that occurs there and on the UK in a Changing Europe site, you would also do well to read Steve Peers for legal matters, UKPollingReport for reflections on opinion polls, while LSE’s BrexitVote, Surrey’s Politics blog and Edinburgh’s European Futures all provide insight on a variety of aspects.
Another approach is that taken by fact-checking sites. Typically, these pursue a more focused approach of reactively unpacking key claims. Sometimes these are run by media sites (for example, from Channel 4 or the Times), sometimes by think tanks (like this from Open Europe, which closely follows David Cameron’s line on the referendum), even the European Commission (their London representation has a very good de-bunking of Euro-myths) sometimes as more stand-alone venture (as with FullFact). In this last group is InFacts, which is the only free-standing referendum site I’m aware of. Run by Hugo Dixon (who I mentioned earlier in this piece), it has more depth than most of the other sites mentioned, but you need to keep in mind that it does have an explicit agenda of keeping the UK in the EU, which means you’ll want to apply all your critical faculties just as much as ever. This aside, the fact-checking sites do make it much easier to see what’s coming from where and are certainly worth your time.
For more official sources of information, the series of briefing papers that the Cabinet Office is producing is worth following, as are the reports commissioned a couple of years ago on the Review on the Balance of Competences. These latter are big documents, but do unpick the impact of EU membership on the full range of policy areas and give a good sense of what’s what. In addition, you might read the reports of the House of Lords EU Select Committee. As discussed already, these might read as rather worthy contributors at times, but the Committee is very happy to challenge everyone who comes before it and makes many good summaries of particular situations, in addition to recommendations on how to proceed.
For more opinion-based sources, but with a high degree of reflection and understanding, I’m going to offer up some sites that span the range of the debate. As with my comments above on newspapers, it’s good to read people you don’t instinctively agree with, just to see whether your prejudices actually stand up. Richard North has been blogging on European integration for longer than most and is a fount of detail and close argument in his determined opposition to the EU; Lost Leonardo is a more recent arrival, but also produces some good reflections on current events. On the more pro-EU side, Richard Corbett draws on his considerable experience as an MEP, while Jon Worth writes very insightful pieces as a critical friend of the Union. Indeed, what all these blogs have in common is a willingness to challenge conventional thinking on both sides of the argument.
Smile and grin at the change all around
Ultimately, getting good information on the referendum relies on you. You’re the only one who can apply the critical approach to what you read, see and hear in the coming months. And if you doubt what I tell you – as you should – then you should go and check. On this issue, no one should be telling you what to think or how to vote, but instead should be inviting you to consider how what they have to say might shape your views.