Nudging the news
Has the partnership between Sky and the Behavioural Insights Team breached Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code?
Can the news be impartial when broadcasters are encouraged — by the UK government’s behavioural scientists — to “nudge” viewers to support a contentious policy?
During COP26, Sky released a video with the opening lines: “We cannot understate the urgency. But faced with issues of such enormity, what role can we play?”
That was a rhetorical question, obviously, since the issue wasn’t really up for discussion. Sky announced that it was collaborating with the “independent Behavioural Insights Team” to nudge viewers into supporting Net Zero. The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) — colloquially known as the “Nudge Unit” — was one–third owned by the Cabinet Office until the shares were sold to NESTA earlier this month. A company which was part owned by the government could not fairly be described as “independent” at that juncture.
Sky’s chief executive from her home in Philadelphia by private jet
The collaboration between a major UK broadcaster and the Nudge Unit to promote one of the most controversial policies today is deeply alarming. The report, , jointly published by BIT and Sky, shows little regard for the obligation imposed on broadcasters by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code to maintain “due impartiality” across all their output, particularly when it comes to news and current affairs. It also neglects the requirement that broadcasters expose viewers to a wide range of different views when it comes to “matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy”.
Instead, BIT and Sky recommend that all UK broadcasters adopt a hard editorial bias when it comes to the promotion of the Government’s controversial Net Zero policy — and goes on to say that Sky itself is complying with the policy, which is an odd boast given that its chief executive, Dana Strong, from her home in Philadelphia by private jet for the first part of this year.
The report is underpinned by a survey conducted by BIT which found that 70 per cent of people across Europe are willing to change their behaviour to address the climate crisis, and 80 per cent support TV broadcasters’ “nudging” viewers to embrace the global warming agenda — whether through documentaries, advertising or increasing the coverage of environmental issues in the news.
This survey purports to give some democratic legitimacy to the use of sophisticated psychological techniques to persuade viewers to change their behaviour. But a survey is not a mandate, and BIT refused to release the polling data when we asked to see it — was it based on a Twitter poll or some other equally dubious self-selected sample? How much priming of the respondents took place? The wording of survey questions is also important, as any polling expert knows. In another paper, the question “Do Europeans like nudges?” found that 88 per cent supported a “public education campaign”, whereas only 49 per centsupported “subliminal advertising” for a similar cause.
So, what does BIT/Sky have in mind when it suggests other broadcasters also “nudge” viewers to embrace the “climate emergency” agenda? To give just one example, it recommends the use of product placement to try and influence viewers’ attitudes and behaviour — such as having the leading man in a drama programme drive an electric car to persuade viewers that supporting Net Zero is cool.
This is a clear breach of Section Two of the Broadcasting Code, which explicitly prohibits the use of “techniques which exploit the possibility of conveying a message to viewers or listeners, or of otherwise influencing their minds, without their being aware, or fully aware, of what has occurred”.
Far from being concerned that the use of subliminal techniques may persuade viewers to subconsciously endorse a controversial and politicised policy, thereby bypassing their critical faculties, BIT and Sky appear to recommend such tactics for precisely that reason. The report suggests that such techniques are deployed to change the behaviour and attitudes of children on the grounds that they are particularly susceptible to being manipulated in this way and, with any luck, will go on to browbeat their parents into supporting the Net Zero policy.
We have written to Ofcom as well as Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to complain about this report. We hope the regulator will investigate our complaint with urgency.
Laura Dodsworth is the author of A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic and Toby Young is the editor-in-chief of the
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