An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward




Bias is when a source, deliberately or not, shows an inclination towards a particular group or person.

Every source does this.

All sources are created by people, or, at the very least, interpreted by people. And all people are biased. We all have things we believe; things we know; things we cannot know. To dismiss a source because it is “biased” is therefore rather pointless. As George Gosling writes:

[I]n my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. [I]t’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which they see events or from which a source is written. That really can tell us something.

Take for example a news story in The Times from the 1960s. If an event is reported there, we can broadly assumed “it happened”. The Times prided itself as the paper of record and had a reputation to uphold. However, a paper like The Times had biases about what it would report on and how it reported. What constituted “news” for a (typically) centre-right news paper based in England? How did it choose to report on it? What had it chosen not to report on? To help us find out we will – of course – look at other evidence, other newspapers and begin to construct an idea of “what actually happened” from multiple points of view. Why did the Daily Mirror spend more time on this event? Why did The Telegraph not cover it at all? What about Le Monde? Or Pravda? Or The Des Moines Register?

The term “bias” seems to have gained currency online in recent years, particularly in debates about sport and politics. The “main stream media” is, apparently biased. Of course it is – but how? Little further analysis appears to be needed other than to state this fact.

This is damaging not because “the MSM” aren’t biased – they are, and sometimes in very dangerous ways to proper and healthy public discourse – but because this can be used as an excuse for nihilism. Everything is biased. Nothing can be trusted. There is no such thing as fact. So let’s make it all up.

Except, there is something even more dangerous than nihilism – gullibility. Believing everything that agrees with one’s predetermined position, or because it comes from a “trusted” source.

Very often, the accusation of bias is not levelled at sources that agree us. Or rather, it seems that our biases are seen as acceptable, natural or even morally good. To dismiss, for example, everything BBC News says because of “bias” but to be willing to swallow everything posted by The Canary makes absolutely no sense on a rational level given that one of these has much more rigorous fact checking and professionalism.

(You can choose which.)

“Bias” is also different to “lying”. It is possible to genuinely and sincerely believe in something and to be – from a different perspective – wrong. There is a massive difference between portraying the world in a particular way to influence people and intentionally setting out to deceive. The historian has to be able to make judgements about which is which. And they have to do it within the context of the times in which the source was written – not just by “reading back” based on presentist morality.

As historians, we may well look first at more “objective” sources. If, for example, we wanted to find out what people thought about a political leader we might turn to opinion polling. We know that questions and questioners have particular biases. We know that polling in itself is not a flawless process. But we also know that there is a method and validation procedures that all polls have to go through. When we take a poll and triangulate that information with other sources (such as diaries, interviews, press cuttings, official documents, etc.), we can begin to reconstruct a picture of the past based on evidence. It may well be that the polling data were “wrong” in this greater context – but without proper debate and rigour we cannot make that claim.

But we don’t dismiss the biased ones either. Like George said – it’s how sources are biased that can be useful to historians in itself. If we want to tell the history of the EU referendum, the diaries and utterances of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage will be incredibly fruitful. What they choose to say and why they choose to say it will be fantastic material for historians to get their teeth into.

There is an apocryphal and oft-repeated quote I see online (apparently attributable to George Orwell) that “just because it’s printed in the Daily Mail doesn’t mean it isn’t true”. Perhaps that should be our starting point. To find the truth in the evidence we find – not to simply dismiss that which does not fit our preconceived ideas.

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