Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 11 September 2015

Media myths

At first sight the research reported here is something that only political science researchers should worry about. In trying to explain election results, it is better to use ‘real time’ data rather than ‘revised, final or vintage’ data. But as the authors point out, it has wider implications. Voters do not seem to respond to how the economy actually is (which is best measured by the final revised data), but how it is reported to be. (This does not just matter for elections: here is a discussion of some other research which suggests how the way recessions are reported can influence economic decisions.)

Just one more indication that the media really matters. I would not bother to report such things, if this point was generally accepted as an obvious truth. That it is not, in the UK at least, reflects various different tendencies. Those on the right know that the print media is heavily biased their way, and that this has a big impact on television, so they have an interest in denying that this matters (while funding think tanks whose job is in part to harass the BBC about its alleged left wing bias). Those on the centre left often react negatively to a few of those further left who discount all awkward facts by blaming the media. And the media itself is very reluctant to concede its own power.

As an example, here is Rafael Behr in the Guardian talking disapprovingly about Labour supporters:
“I heard constant complaints about failure to “challenge myths” about the economy, benefits, immigration and other areas where Labour is deemed unfit to govern by the people who choose governments. The voters are wrong, and what is required is a louder exposition of their wrongness.”

What is really revealing about this paragraph is what is not there. We go straight from myths to voters, as if no one else is involved. I doubt very much that many who voice the ‘constant complaints’ Behr is talking about think that voters created and sustained these myths all by themselves.

The discussion of issues involving the economy, the welfare system and immigration among most of the ‘political class’ is often so removed from reality that it deserves the label myth. In the case of the economy, I provided chapter and verse in my ‘mediamacro myth’ series before the election. It was not just the myth that Labour profligacy was responsible for austerity, but also the myth about the ‘strong recovery’ when the recovery was the weakest for at least a century, and that this recovery had 'vindicated' austerity. Given the importance that voters attach to economic credibility, I do not believe I was exaggerating in suggesting that the mediamacro myth was in good part responsible for the Conservatives winning the election.

The media is vital in allowing myths to be sustained or dispelled. That does not mean that the media itself creates myths out of thin air. These myths on the economy were created by the Conservative party and their supporters, and sustained by the media’s reliance on City economists. They get support from half truths: pre-crisis deficits were a little too large, GDP growth rates for the UK did sometimes exceed all other major economies.

Myths on welfare do come from real concerns: there is benefit fraud, and it is deeply resented by most voters. But who can deny that much of the media (including the makers of certain television programmes) have stoked that resentment? When the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100, that means that the public is wrong, and we have a myth. (An excellent source for an objective view of the UK’s welfare system is John Hills’ book, which has myth in its subtitle) As I noted in that post, when people are asked questions where they have much more direct experience, they tend to give (on average of course) much more accurate answers. Its when they source the media that things can go wrong. It is well known that fears about immigration tend to be greatest where there is least immigration.

Of course reluctance to acknowledge myths may not be denial but fatalism. Fatalism in believing that voters will always believe that migrants want to come to the UK because of our generous benefit system because it suits their prejudices. Encouraging those beliefs will be in the interests of what will always be a right wing dominated press. Some argue that myths can only be changed from a position of power. But myths are not the preserve of governments to initiate. According to this, over 60% of Trump supporters think their president is a Muslim who was born overseas. [1]

Myths need to be confronted, not tolerated. The initial UK media coverage of the European migrant crisis played to a mythical narrative that migrants were a threat to our standard of living and social infrastructure (to quote the UK’s Foreign Secretary!). This reporting was not grounded in facts, as Patrick Kingsley shows. That changed when reporters saw who migrants really were and why they had made the perilous journey north. It changed when Germany started welcoming them rather than trying to build bigger fences. These facts did not fit the mythical narrative.

The UK government was clearly rattled when it realised that many people were not happy with their narrative and policies. Myths can be challenged, but it is not easy. Policy has been changed somewhat, but attempts are also being made to repair the narrative: to take some of those who have made it to the EU will only encourage more (a variant of the previous European policy of reducing the number of rescue boats), and a long term solution is to drop more bombs. Such idiotic claims need to be treated with contempt, before they become a new myth that the opposition feels it is too dangerous to challenge. Challenging these myths does not imply pretending real voter anxieties about migration do not exist, but grounding discussion and policy around the causes of those anxieties rather than the myths they have spawned.

Yes, the non-partisan media needs to recognise the responsibility they have, and use objective measures and academic analysis to judge whether they are meeting that responsibility. But more generally myths are real and have to be confronted. The biggest myth of all is that there are no myths.

[1] The probability pedants among you who read the link will know that I’m actually making an assumption in writing this!


  1. That's an odd quote from Behr given that the day after the election The Guardian held a panel discussion at which he said that he believed Labour's biggest strategic error was in 2012 when the coalition slowed down the spending cuts due to the damage they were doing Labour should have said 'see, we told you austerity was bad for the economy, even the Tories accept that now', instead of carrying on focusing on opposing the cuts the Tories were making.

  2. Not really sure it's true about the print media having a right-wing bias. You seem to be forgetting that the likes of The Mirror, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Observer are all incredibly left wing.

    And that's not even going into detail about how what you claim are myths about austerity are not myths at all :)

    1. I'm fascinated by the idea that the papers you mention are 'incredibly' left wing, centrist/slightly left of centre perhaps, but as you seem to suggest that austerity hasn't been 'spun' as desirable and necessary perhaps any departure from the received wisdom of the Serious People is to be regarded as 'left wing'.

    2. Indeed the Observer, and the political desk at the Guardian are packed with Serious People who it would be hard to describe as even slightly on the left.

    3. At the General Election, The Independent gave their support to another Lib Dem/Conservative coalition: see here.

    4. And your point is? None of what any of you have said refutes the fact that all the papers I mentioned are left-wing. Moreover, they are just as biased towards the left as the right-wing media are towards the right. Hence, for Simon to claim that the entire media are right-wing is fallacious in the extreme.

  3. Right wing myths are reality for many. Right wing myths win elections. Right wing think tanks peddle myths. All the right wing media is owned by billionaires, who, on the whole, like to keep their billions and are against taxes.

    It depends on how many times right-wingers can repeat the myth, whether or not it is believed. The right-wingers repeat it as often as they can.

    So household debt = bad, therefore government debt = bad. If right-wingers repeat that often enough, people will believe it because especially it seems intuitively right. You do not have to be right-wing to believe it. But of course economically educated right-wingers put that out, knowing it is false, as that is often their job, to peddle myths.

    So if the right-wing government can cow the independent public media with threats to its funding (as it has in the UK), right-wingers will stay in power.

    How to get away from this right-wing nonsense which distorts reality and reason?

    Start watching some George Lakoff videos on youtube, who explains what really goes on in your brain, and how this reframing of reality into myths happens.

    And how it is done by the right wing. It is all a bit US centric, but you will get the drift.

  4. One big market , with two competing products :

    1 ) The Truth
    2 ) The Big Lie

    The great mass of consumers ( aka the little people , the great unwashed , etc ) , if asked , would reveal a strong preference for product 1 , but can't afford to pay a premium price for it. In fact , most would have to get it for free in order to consume significant amounts.

    The rest strongly prefer product 2 , and are willing to pay virtually any sum to guarantee that only that product is produced in quantity. Product 1 is considered an undesirable contaminant that should be minimized , and eliminated entirely if at all possible.

    The resulting media market then operates just as the economics texts would predict , yet here we are , pretending to be surprised by it all.



  5. I thought for a moment that this was written by Bill O'Reilly the right wing Fox News Anchor who spends all of his time blasting the media while he is the only honest person on TV! My point being that increasingly the left in the UK is starting to sound and behave like the right in the US.

    1. Whether something is a myth is a question of substance, not style. What you did for a moment wasn't thinking.

    2. Sorry I thought very hard before posting. My opinion for what it is worth is that the Tories are better at setting a clearer narrative that the Labour party. Until the labour party, and the left in this country, learn how to set a clearer narrative against the tories myth then they will keep on winning elections.

  6. Can I also add the role that social media plays on the general perceptions of the public. Perhaps not so much in relation to the economy but certainly relating to benefits and migrants / refugees. The amount of times I hear "facts" reported to me with the source of "Facebook" or "Twitter" is alarming. Maybe not the main source of myth but certainly a contributing factor....

  7. I see that Corbyn didn't even bother to attend the BBC News 24 Q&A as the other three Labour leadership candidates had.

    This is the Robert Peston 'sheep' issue (Krugman blog, JUN 6 2015 'Views Differ on Shape of Macroeconomics'):

    "So at this point research economists overwhelmingly believe that austerity is contractionary (and that stimulus is expansionary). Surveys show overwhelming support among US economists for the proposition that the ARRA was a job creator, a huge majority of British academics denying that the Cameron austerity program was positive for growth. The Federal Reserve, the IMF, the OECD, the OBR, and more believe that austerity is contractionary. Nothing in economics is ever settled for good, but for now at least expansionary austerity has virtually collapsed as a doctrine taken seriously by researchers.

    Nonetheless, Simon Wren-Lewis points us to Robert Peston of the BBC declaring:

    'I am simply pointing out that there is a debate here (though Krugman, Wren-Lewis and Portes are utterly persuaded they’ve won this match – and take the somewhat patronising view that voters who think differently are ignorant sheep led astray by a malign or blinkered media).’"

    However soft or harsh a person wants to be of this opinion of Peston, Behr et al, it surely must have the adjective 'conservative' applied to it at all times.

    Mythical, conservative, and I think knowingly dishonourable.

  8. Labour lost the 2015 election in 2008. Probably rightly so.

  9. I think you need to pop down the corridor and have a word with the philosophy dons. A real myth is real, and not a myth.

    As you say "the biggest myth of all is that there are no myths" ... is that a fact?

    It's just people disagreeing with you. Keep on arguing and maybe they will come around.

    Name calling them myth-makers is, well, silly. A bit like Marxists and their concept of "false consciousness". Perhaps you are one too?

  10. A myth is a widely held but false idea - so a myth maker is someone who promulgates such ideas. A real myth is by definition real but it's content qualifies as a myth. So what's the problem?

    1. I think you need to get out more. Have heard of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table? That's a myth. A widely held but false idea is just, well, false (in your eyes).

  11. "Those on the right know that the print media is heavily biased their way."

    A peculiarly 1980s and parochial view.

    Most commercial newspapers are biased towards reflecting what they think their readers want to hear, and as a result back those they think will win. This has the additional side benefit of sucking up to those who will be in power. This is not just a UK pattern.

    So, in 2001 the only papers to back the Tories were the Mail and the Telegraph.

    (The FT is not listed, but they similarly backed Labour.)

    In Scotland the Murdoch press back the SNP, whilst backing the Tories in England. Why?

    Today the power of the mainstream media is a fraction of what it was. The (appalling) rise of Corbyn is one aspect of this rise of social media.

    The rest is just complaining about the weather.

    "Myths need to be confronted, not tolerated."

    Absolutely, but for much of the left the media provides exactly the same set of excuses it did from 1979-1997. The idea that the general public are not going to go for a party with a reputation for fiscal rectitude rather than for one reading out sections of the General Theory is maddeningly naive. The vast majority are not going to care about the need for looser fiscal policy at the ZLB. Sorry, that is democracy.

    "BooHoo it is all terribly unfair, Murdoch and the Biased BBC are against us." I am very doubtful whether the most prominent economists on british TV, Duncan Weldon, Paul Mason, Robert Peston, are the Tory stooges you seem to think they are.

    What New Labour taught was that Labour not only needs to win in the world as it is, but can. Moaning about the weather gets nobody anywhere. It is a form of the self righteous indulgence that is about to see Corbyn elected.

    You do a good deal of useful critiquing of government policy, but far too much bemoaning the rain.

    1. "So, in 2001 the only papers to back the Tories were the Mail and the Telegraph."
      New Labour had support of Murdoch and some sections of the Right.

  12. There are vast numbers of gullible people out there who have no interest in politics---a trend encouraged by the Tories, who were never keen on the "Civics" lessons that Blair introduced in state schools 15 years ago. Conservatives like gullible people to get their news and views from the Tory press. In Britain, on weekdays 350 people read a (printed) Conservative newspaper as opposed to the 100 who read a Labour one. That's around 16 million Tory readers---a third of the electorate---and 4.6 million Labour ones. A further 3 million read "The Metro", a commuter freesheet which claims to be non-partisan, even though it's published by the "Daily Mail" group.
    I don't have a British example that would put numbers to the gullibility of adults in a democracy but I do have an American one. In 2001, with George W Bush as President, the US Congress passed a law which would phase out inheritance tax for the top 2% of estates. It was a massive tax-break for the very rich.
 To make sure of popular support for the measure Bush, the Republicans and their many friends in the media got to work. Impressions were created in the public's mind and less than 2 years later 17% of Americans believed that they would benefit from the tax-break. In other words for every two people who would actually make money from the tax-break another fifteen (who wouldn't) thought that they would. It's in Chapter 35 of Al Franken's book, "Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them".
    It's my guess that Bush and his allies were well pleased with that finding and not even slightly ashamed at misinforming the American public.


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