When a Tory voter emotionally complained about how she had been deceived about cuts to her tax credits, it caught the media’s attention. I don’t want to get into the debate that followed about whether she deserved sympathy or not, except to say this just shows up some elements of the left at their sanctimonious worst. What struck me was the juxtaposition of this with another remark I saw elsewhere, which is that everyone who had looked at the numbers knew Osborne would cut tax credits after the election. This remark is correct, if be ‘knew’ we mean highly likely.
That information had clearly not got through to this Tory voter. Conservative MPs know she is not alone, which is of course why the Prime Minister lied about it before the general election, and why he and Osborne continue to try and cover up the facts. It is the media’s job to get information across, and on this it clearly failed. Most in the parts of the print media that see that as part of their job did their best: those in the part who are paid to deceive also did their job well. Whether we should let those who produce news like celebrity gossip and sports reporting use that platform to peddle political propaganda is an interesting issue. But these do not arise in the UK with the television media, which has a duty to inform in an impartial way which it is clearly failing to fulfill.
This is not about the television media’s coverage as a whole, but how information is presented in the kinds of programmes that this Tory voter is likely to watch: the major news programmes, interviews with the Prime Minister or Chancellor etc. Take for example the clip where the Prime Minister lied about cuts to tax credits. There David Dimbleby asks him by saying “some people” have suggested tax credits would be cut, rather than “every non-partisan expert”. This may seem small, but this kind of detailed textual analysis is critical (and it is what many journalists have been trained to do).
Of course this is not an isolated incident. The idea that the deficit was a consequence of Labour profligacy rather than the recession is widely believed (as another pre-election debate illustrated), which means the television media again failed. In other areas where the partisan right wing press do their best to mislead, like welfare and immigration, the average person’s perception of key facts is wildly wrong (in the direction they are misled), which means the television media has also failed. Journalists seem happy to quote large sums of money on magnitudes like government debt in a way designed to make them sound scary, but fail to put them into historical context (it needs just one chart), which would mean focusing on the debt to GDP ratio and pointing out that this will fall even if we run modest deficits. The politically loaded and inaccurate term taxpayers money is freely used, and the term welfare benefits misused. I could go on and on, and have.
Political journalists working in television try hard to be unbiased in a party political sense. They do this partly because there are political machines that try and hold them to that. I would suggest being unbiased towards the facts, and more positively their duty to inform, are at least as important. Unfortunately there are no equivalent mechanisms to ensure this happens.