Beer and BBC bias

This post is by Dustin Benton, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance 

Gas holders in Thurrock (cc-by-nc-nd Thurrock Phil) The BBC’s Panorama programme on 7 November made a serious factual error in claiming that renewables are the cause of energy bill rises over the past few years. Two excellent rebuttals appeared almost instantly: one from WWF and one from The Guardian. The BBC should correct its error, but arguably the damage is done. This is because a potentially reasonable debate about future energy bills is being framed by a lie about the cause of past energy price rises.

Facts vs frames

First, let’s deal with the facts. Gas prices for electricity have jumped 84 per cent since 2004; gas prices for domestic use have more than doubled over the same period. During this time, total domestic bills rose by 90 per cent. We get most of our heating and half our electricity from gas, with 56 per cent of our bills being the wholesale cost of gas. In contrast, around one to two per cent is driven by subsidy for renewables. [1]

Now, the framing. There is a rich psychological literature which demonstrates that the time of information disclosure affects preferences. A recent, peer reviewed study of beer preferences demonstrates this. The subject matter might be flippant, but the conclusions are stark.

What beer can tell us about bias

Behavioural economics researchers at MIT offered free samples of beer to (understandably keen) students: ‘regular’ beer (Budweiser or Samuel Adams) and the MIT brew, which included several drops of balsamic vinegar. The participants were then asked to rate the quality of the beers.

Researchers separated the participants into three groups. In the first, no one said anything about the balsamic vinegar. In the second, participants were told that vinegar had been added before they were given a drink and asked to rate the beers. In the third, participants were told about the vinegar once they’d had a drink but before they gave their ratings.

So what happened? In the first, blind test, the majority preferred the beer and vinegar concoction. In the second, where the information was given beforehand, most preferred their beer without vinegar. And in the third, in which people tasted first, were told about the vinegar, and then rated, people preferred beer plus vinegar.

The conclusion? Presenting unpleasant information about the ‘MIT brew’ (most participants found vinegar a ‘conceptually offensive’ addition to beer) prior to tasting caused people to experience it as worse than when they tasted first, regardless of whether they then found out about the vinegar or not. Timing matters.

Investigative journalism?

By presenting wind turbines (falsely) as the cause of past price rises, and then inviting viewers to judge what might drive future costs (renewable prices, as Panorama suggested), viewers (like the beer drinkers above) will be more likely to believe that wind turbines will cause greater price rises than other factors in the future, even if they then find out otherwise. Getting the facts wrong is bad. Using these untruths to bias your audience is the worst sort of polemic, not investigative journalism.

Gas will remain an important part of our energy mix to 2030. It’s flexible and can help balance intermittent renewables. But it is undeniable that gas has become more expensive. We can’t have a reasoned debate about the role of gas in the future if the context of the debate is framed by a lie about past price rises which distorts public perceptions and political action.

[1] These figures are all based on last year’s tables 1.7 and 2.6.1 on http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/statistics/energy_stats/prices/prices.aspx. But don’t believe my analysis. Ofgem broadly agrees: http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2011/10/green-policies-not-to-blame-for-rising-energy-bills,-says-ofgem and so does DECC: http://blog.decc.gov.uk/2011/07/28/the-true-cost-of-energy-and-climate-change-policies-on-bills/. In fact, there isn’t a serious analysis that disagrees significantly with these figures.

About Green Alliance blog

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.
This entry was posted in Behaviour change, Energy demand, Psychology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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