I had the (mis)fortune to listen to the BBC’s World at One while returning home from a lecture yesterday. The second item (20 minutes in) was about the new fiscal rule proposed by Labour’s John McDonnell in a speech that morning. The item contained three segments. The first was from a BBC political reporter, the second an economist at the IFS, and the third from Labour’s 2015 election campaign director.
The reporter, Ross Hawkins, described the zero lower bound knockout as a ‘loophole’, and also talked about taxpayers money. He then described how the knockout would work (the MPC would decide), but went on to relate how a Labour press officer had described his questions as being from a Tory crib sheet and had walked away. The economist Carl Emmerson did a solid job of saying what the rule would mean post 2020, although he had to respond at least once that just because the ‘borrowing to invest’ idea was not new did not make it bad. Then came Spencer Livermore to say exactly that - as it was similar to Labour’s rule for the 2015 election, and as this had failed, Labour needed something new and radical. He did not say, and was not asked, what this new and radical fiscal policy might be.
It occurred to me afterwards that at no point did anyone ever ask whether this rule was better or worse than George Osborne’s fiscal charter. Carl Emmerson tried to contrast the two rules, but natural questions like ‘should we borrow to invest’ or ‘does it make economic sense to have a zero lower bound knockout’ were never asked. Just think about that: the opposition proposes a fiscal rule that is quite different from the government’s, and in 10 minutes of radio no one asks which is better.
Livermore was not asked what his new and radical fiscal rule might be because it was of no interest - all that was of interest to the interviewer was that he was criticising his own side. That was not an accident of the way the discussion went, but inherent in the way the segment as a whole was constructed. If listeners had been looking for any kind of discussion of the economic merits of the new rule they would have been disappointed.
Unfortunately this particular programme was not an isolated case. Channel 4 News took a similar line, interviewing Livermore again, with no economist in sight. I once saw a chart somewhere that looked at who talks about economics in the media, and less than 10% of the time it was economists. This matters, because it is how we end up with governments pursuing policies that sound good in soundbites, but cause considerable damage to our economies.