The News is being Nudged
A joint report from Sky and the UK government’s Nudge Unit reveals a startling collaboration.
The systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view.
- Oxford English Dictionary
Is the news still news when it is being nudged by the UK government’s behavioural scientists?
Sky announced this week that behaviour change on climate can be driven by TV. It released a video which opened with the lines, “We cannot understate the urgency. But faced with issues of such enormity, what role can we play?”
It’s not actually a question, they have already decided their role. Sky announced that it was collaborating with the “independent Behavioural Insights Team”. That sounds more palatable than collaborating with the government doesn’t it? But the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is one third owned by the Cabinet Office and appears to be on permanent tenure at Downing Street. Can a company which is one third owned by the government be fairly described as “independent”?
BIT’s report The Power of TV: Nudging Viewers to Decarbonise their Lifestyles makes a number of startling admissions.
“Behaviour change via broadcasting and traditional media has historically been aimed at improving public health, boosting gender equality, and reducing violence. Imagine the potential for emissions reductions if the same methods were used to encourage sustainable behaviours!”
The key word is “historical”. If you have ever suspected that social and political issues were being confected somewhat artificially in TV programming, you were right. This is an admission of social engineering.
According to a joint survey by Sky and BIT, 70% of people across Europe are willing to change their behaviour to address the climate crisis and 80% support TV broadcasters ‘nudging’ viewers to think about the environment, whether that’s through documentaries, advertising or increasing the coverage of environmental issues in the news.
Climate policy is a tricky nut to crack - persuading us to have under-performing and expensive boilers, asking us to switch insects for meat, stop taking foreign holidays and drive our cars less is going to be a hard sell. So the nudgers are going to use the telly box to persuade the recalcitrant masses.
The survey itself uses ‘social conformity’. Ah, you are supposed to think, if 80% of people think TV programming should be used to ‘nudge’ us, then that’s what I think too. Notoriously, however, there is a gap between what people say they want in surveys and what they actually want. The ultimate proof will be in behaviour and ratings.
The report states that broadcasters and content creators have a "unique opportunity to make a difference for the planet”. (I wonder what difference it would make if Sky’s CEO stopped commuting transatlantically by private jet?)
According to the report, the British public are unwilling to take supposedly "high impact” actions, such as eating less meat and dairy, switching to electric vehicles, using public transport, and switching to green pensions.
The report is audaciously bossy about how broadcasters and content creators should change the British public’s behaviour.
Advice such as “Frequency of exposure to green themes could be enhanced by building ecological beliefs and traits into core characters within a show so that green issues can fluently be raised time and time again,” sounds potentially tedious.
You will see fewer characters “carelessly drinking from a plastic bottle”. But you will see more kids programming centre on green issues to influence you as well as the kids to promote “intergenerational spillover”.
Suggestions continue with “a family could discuss reducing their waste” in a comedy show. Making that funny is quite the gauntlet throw. News segments could “explore barriers to acting green and share stories for overcoming them,” which doesn’t sound particularly newsworthy. An episode of a drama could include references to buying an electric vehicle and, of course, characters should order vegetarian options in restaurants.
Plump the cushions, grab a cuppa and get ready for the green themes in your favourite psyopera, I mean soap opera. During COP26, storylines are converging on the environment. Soap ratings have diminished over the years and is it any wonder? People don’t want to be preached to. Creativity cannot be programmed and storytelling is an art. It is naïve arrogance to believe this sort of technocratic tinkering will engage viewers. We gravitate to good stories.
Mercifully, BIT suggests that broadcasters “avoid a negative tone” and warns that “fear-mongering, guilt-tripping, blaming, or preaching can be counter-productive.” (I wonder if a certain book had an impact?)
In addition to Sky, another eleven major UK media brands, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, RTE, Britbox and Discovery, have pledged to increase the amount and “quality” of their climate coverage. So expect the airwaves to be flooded with the techniques suggested in the BIT report. At the same time, expect very little media scrutiny of this astonishing collaboration between nudgers and newscasters. And in print and online, the BBC, The Guardian, The Times and the Financial Times have added specific climate sections to their news.
A few months after the publication of A State of Fear, a government advisor told me that the behavioural scientists are “very pleased with themselves” and “Britain is seen as leading the way in how to manipulate people. There is skipping in Whitehall corridors. The public have been proved to be incredibly sheepish, so there’s more nudge coming.” And so there is.
My book concluded that the UK government’s use of behavioural science during the Covid epidemic lacked transparency and was anti-democratic. BIT’s report might appear to rebut both accusations. Don’t be fooled. It rests upon a survey which says people want to be nudged through the media. But research conducted by biased and vested parties is not a substitute for a democratic mandate. The British public never voted for or consented to the creation of a Nudge Unit to subliminally influence them and then set the news agenda. Furthermore, when behavioural scientists - and by extension the government - influence the news, it risks the inquiry, debate and balance that the media owes the public.
Whatever you believe about climate, or Covid-19, or any other agenda, can any mental contortions justify the news being nudged? We would criticise such blatant propaganda if it happened in any other country and we should not tolerate here. We should switch it off.
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