Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 31 March 2016

When the media is biased against the facts

When I write about what I call mediamacro, which includes bad reporting of macroeconomic issues by the media, I often receive comments suggesting that the importance of the media’s bias against Labour is exaggerated, and anyway there is nothing that can be done about it. Now of course the print media is biased against Labour, and what evidence we have also suggested a BBC bias against Labour under Miliband. But most of the time when I complain about BBC and other non-partisan media reporting on macroeconomic issues, it is not a bias against Labour that concerns me, but a bias against the facts.

Take the proposition that austerity was required because Labour borrowed too much. That proposition is simply false. The increase in the government’s deficit occurred in 2008/9 and 2009/10 as a result of the recession caused by the global financial crisis. As I noted most recently here, the Labour government before the recession was clearly not profligate in the normal meaning of that term. So when Conservatives constantly talk about having to clear up the mess Labour left, and this goes unchallenged in the media, that has the effect of legitimising a false statement.

What we have in this case is a variation on what they call in the US a ‘shape of the earth: views differ’ style of reporting. In that case one side claims the earth is flat and the other side says it is round, and the media in an effort not to appear politically biased report it as a disputed fact. If you think that example is too wild, think about climate change, or maybe wait until the US election where Trump is one of the two candidates. Was Obama a US citizen: views differ.

What we get as a result is a bias against the facts. In the case of Labour and the deficit, because Labour chose fatefully not to challenge the Conservatives on this, the media takes this as confirmation that it must be true rather than checking the facts themselves, or shy away from presenting the facts because that would be seen as ‘too political’. Myth then becomes a fact that even some Labour MPs start believing, and when someone actually stands up for the facts they are assumed to be dishonest or a slightly mad professor. So the BBC fails in its mission, which is to inform and educate as well as entertain.

I was going to advertise my talk in Bristol at this point, which will also explain how this failure played a major role in the 2015 election, but I see that it is now sold out. If there is sufficient demand I will write up what I say and publish it here. 




26 comments:

  1. Please do write up your Bristol talk. I'm sure I'm not the only one who will find it valuable

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  2. I probably won't agree, at least about what needs to be done, but please do write it up here.

    If you have a longer memory, you'll recall that "it is all the media's fault" was Labour's constant refrain from 1979-1994.

    Only when it stopped blaming others for its own failure did Labour win again.

    In 2001 every newspaper backed Labour in the General Election save for the Mail and the Telegraph

    http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/may/04/general-election-newspaper-support

    (The FT and the Economist are not included in that list, but they backed Labour as well.)

    The press are biased towards the party they think will win.

    Even today, the suggestion that the economics editors on the BBC go around saying that austerity was required because Labour borrowed too much is just untrue. Someone like, say, Duncan Weldon is not the idiot you paint him as.

    The New Labour lesson has been completely forgotten, and you seem to be in the business of continuing to fuel the comforting line that it is all terribly unfair and not the left's fault if it doesn't win.

    Which, for someone like me who would like to see a social democratic government in the European tradition pursuing much the same kind of policies you yourself approve of, is very sad indeed. Terrible really that someone as well respected as you should be peddling this bromide.

    Although, I suppose, there is not much to be done with Labour as it is currently led in any event.

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    1. AS ever, SH, you completely miss the point. Indeed you are the straw man that I invoke in my first paragraph.

      But sometimes you are far worse the mediamacro. The BBC does not go around deliberately distorting other peoples arguments, as in "Even today, the suggestion that the economics editors on the BBC go around saying that austerity was required because Labour borrowed too much is just untrue. Someone like, say, Duncan Weldon is not the idiot you paint him as." You are intelligent enough to know full well I have never said that. What most BBC journalists do not do is challenge others when they say it, which is very different. And that is not because they are idiots. People who work for organisations respond to the codes and incentives of that organisation.

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  3. If the media were as powerful as you claim, the tories would have a 100 seat majority, They don't. I am sick and tired of listening to lefties (Of which I am one) complaining about the media in the same way that the republican right complain about the media in the States.

    The brutal truth is the Tories are ruthlessly on message all of the time, and what is the message from the Labour Party? To say that the message from Labour under Miliband was confused is an understatement.

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    1. Completely beside the point of this post. I'm not a leftie complaining about the media, but a macroeconomist complaining about how they treat my subject!!

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  4. Although I agree with most of what you say, Simon W-R, it was Labour's failure - in communications, and strategy, from about 2010 onwards, - to understand how pernicious this myth was, and to actively address it that mainly accounts for the situation now. The media are no different now from how they have been for decades. A serious political strategist should be skilful enough to take control of the narrative. That's why politics is an art. It's no good Labour, or anyone else, sitting back and complaining that the media are getting it wrong.

    People may have criticised Tony Blair for what seemed like an obsession with controlling the message, but he was so aware of what the media had
    done to the Left over the years, understandably, he was not prepared to take the risk.

    As for the any BBC anti-Labour bias, I think it's more a case of taking their news agenda from the other media too much. But I think they and others are now are doing a pretty good job of covering Osborne's policy failures. The fact that despite this, Labour is still vulnerable, in the eyes of many of the electorate, to the 'mess they left ' jibe, is an awful legacy of Ed Miliband's era, and I'm pretty pessimistic about it ever being overcome, it was left unchallenged for so long.

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    1. I agree with what you say. That was not what this post was about!

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    2. Simon W-R - you may indeed have intended your post to be about how the mainstream media treat your subject, but the way they do is mediated, inevitably by current political weather, and so your views inevitably become feed into a wider debate.

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  5. I think you and continually underrate the difficulty of the public, and indeed the (popular) media, to understand these issues. Your conclusions may be correct (and I would agree with them) but to many they are counterintuitive and they have great difficulty in understanding them.

    I agree that Labour should have made a much greater effort to correct "overspending" charge but there is no doubt that it is a view which continues to have great resonance with the public.

    You asked the question before of one of my posts whether it is possible to have a sensible, facts based, economic policy and I would say "yes" but with great difficulty.

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    1. Part of the problem is that everyone thinks they can be an economist. If we are talking about, say, medical issues we ask people who know what they are talking about. We do not expect to have an intuitive understanding of them.

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  6. David Crystal said (I think in his 'Stories of English') that linguists need to pay more attention to the separate discourses of various professions, the way certain words and phrases repeat themselves only amongst, say, types of journalist.

    Samuel Johnson called trade terms 'cant', not in the narrow, pejorative sense, but as words used by, say, mariners.

    BBC cant on economics since 2008 would be a very good case study.

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  7. So, I) spending £40bn of borrowed money from (IIRC) 2004-5 onwards, ii) setting up a welfare state of such glorious perverse incentives that we were spending £250bn a year in 2010 in order to persuade the young (if fecund) not to work more than 16/24 hours in low-skilled work, and the middle aged not to save, iii) doubling health and education spending in real terms with nothing to show for it except producer capture of a staggering kind and iv) opening the doors to Europe's dispossessed on EU enlargement when everyone's second language was English.......none of that was unwise borrowing or the unwise baking-in of future borrowing?

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  8. There's definitely demand to hear about your talk, but my interest rate is stuck at its zero lower bound!

    (P.S. I'm joking. I'd love to hear what you have to say.)

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  9. My humble and non-expert opinion is wholeheartedly with most of what you write (when I can understand it, natch). However, there is one thing about Labour's 'non-spending' you seem to be forgetting. This was the enormous PFI push, started, I seem to recall under the Conservatives, but adopted wholeheartedly by Labour after they came to power in 1997. This has been to the enormous detriment of the Health Service, and, for all I know, other sectors too. It was an outrageous sleight-of-hand manoeuvre by Gordon Brown aimed at apparently keeping 'public spending' and government debt down in the mistaken (or just convenient?) belief that the private sector would always be be more efficient than the public sector for building and running large infrastructure projects thus providing better value for money. But as any fool should know, large private sector companies are not generally all that efficiently run, for a variety of reasons, even though SMEs may be.

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    1. I agree that PFI can often be a mistake generated by deficit concerns. (There was a paper on this in the OXREP volume that my paper on fiscal policy appeared in.) But that is not what the Conservatives are talking about.

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  10. "biased against the facts"? I fear so, as well. If that is true then we are lost. Who can we trust to tell us anything true?

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  11. I can fully understand your frustration with the media. The standards of commentary and insight are dropping over time and press releases are regularly regurgitated as if they are research. I did smile however when you described your Bristol talk as sold out when the quoted nominal price is zero. But seriously I look forward to reading your write up in due course.

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    1. In my defense that is what it says on the website!

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  12. Not sure why my previous comment was not published - even if it was slighty off-topic -but today I again heard from a well-educated German person -although obviously not very knowledgeable about economics-that it was all the ECB's fault if you see high real estate and art prices because it keeps pumping money that fuels speculation.

     Well that may partly be true - as discussed in your post - but it's interesting to see that the ECB's policies in Germany are never discussed/mentioned in the broader macroeconomic context but only criticized because of their supposed or real negative consequences. ‎

    In fact I suspect that many people are not even aware that an alternative to QE could be fiscal stimulus - and in fact they don't even understand why any action is necessary at all. After all doesn't Germany have a low unemployment rate? It's as if the rest of the eurozone doesn't exist. 

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  13. I can't believe that anyone thinks that the media is biased against the left. Let's look at two issues, immigration and the measurement of GDP. Immigration is always said to "boost the economy", "increase GDP" and "improve the debt to GDP ratio". The UCL article is taken as gospel. But let's think carefully. We're told that, "The average migrant pays more in taxes than they receive in benefits". This is as close to meaningless as any statement could be. If I receive £1,000 and pay £1,001 is it true to say that I pay more than I receive? Plainly it is. I pay £1 more. So right away we know that "pay more than receive" is an expression which might not mean very much. Is welfare the only thing the British state provides? Well, working age benefits cost £120bn, and the British state spends about £780bn, so working age welfare is 12/78ths of all state spending. But all state spending - presumably - is designed to advance the interests of the people who live here. The total state spend is £11,000 per person. I, presumably, benefit from policing, the health service, the parks, education, the roads and everything else. So the benefits received directly are only a small part of the total benefit received. So right away we know that 1) pay more than receive is almost empty, and 2) 6/7ths of all the benefit received from being in the UK is not working age welfare, so to say that a group of working age young adults pay more in tax than they receive in welfare is empty, or nearly so. We also know that people's journey through life sees them impose greater costs on the state as they age. If, over the course of their life, the average person is rarely a net contributor - although they are a net contributor when they are 18-24 before they have kids and long before they become ill - then looking at a group of people who are disproportionately 18-24 is pretty stupid. We have to consider their likely life course, and if they are as economically successful as the indigenous population then we know that most of them won't be net contributors. So if 3,000 people pay as much income tax as 9 million - which they do - and if the entire country floats on such tax receipts - which it does - then we'd better take ideas and statements a lot more seriously than some academics in University College London. The media report these things as they do because bien pensant opinion favours their coverage. If we look at GDP we also see the same institutional bias. When did anyone ever insist in looking at only the output of internationally tradeable goods? If I make whiskey and am surrounded by the unemployable, who compete with livestock to eat the waste barley from my distillery, my whiskey might be the entirety of the country's GDP. If I buy a Ferrari it counts towards Italy's GDP. If Italy has an unemployable class, and we impose massive taxes on the whiskey and Ferrari manufacturers of the world, we can bring the unemployed into the economy, by forcing the compulsory purchase of "Environmental Action Packs" and community education services by those who, had they a free choice, might fancy a lake of whiskey or a Ferrari. When did anyone ever explore the contribution of "Wednesday Guardian" jobs to the real economy, and the - obvious myth - that the activities of our public sector constitute real contributions to economic output?

    There's massive bias in the media, and it all favours the left. Total welfare spending hasn't fallen at all, but you'd never know it. Channel 4 News - where you go when you can't stand the right-wing rebarbative agenda of the Groaniad.

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  14. Re your Bristol talk, I presume this is one of the LP series to get economics across to the lay public. I have been trying unsuccessfully to get the LP to publish videos all of the talks on line. Maybe you could lend your weight to this end.

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  15. I am re-posting a comment from last Friday in case it wasn't actually sent. I haven't posted previously and wasn't sure it went through.

    Challenges with the UK media and fiscal policy/austerity appear to extend beyond national politics. In the 2015 Canadian federal election the Liberal Party ran on a platform of increased infrastructure spending and a modest deficit for the next few years. They won a large majority, returning to power after 10 years in opposition. While there were many factors that contributed to this result, it is generally thought that the decision to emphasize stimulus over balancing the federal budget contributed significantly to their success, especially as the other two parties, including the normally left of centre NDP promised that they would not run deficits.

    In the new government's 2016 budget, they are projecting a somewhat larger deficit than in their platform (almost $30B or about 1.5% of GDP) and a longer period before the federal budget is balanced. Last week the Canadian Minister of Finance Bill Morneau spoke in London, and according to radio news reports in Canada he was repeatedly asked by local (UK) media when Canada would be balancing the budget.

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  16. Professor,

    As a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter (for almost 50 years at the NYTimes, LATimes, Philly Inquirer, etc.), and best-selling author on economics, I'd appreciate seeing the British borrowing data charted against changes in political control. I'd love seeing it for the US, Germany, Canada, etc. Perhaps a good dissertation topic for a doctoral student...

    There is a lot of truth in what you say, though it is not so much bias as that POLITICS reporters don't know much about POLICY.

    In economics, as soon as you get past the idea of equilibrium most politics reporters are in over their head in America. My experiences with British reporters suggest many would be in over their head even on that basic, bragging as some of them do about how they grew one little quote into a full blown story.

    Mention accounting identities to most politics reporters and their eyes glaze over.

    If a reporter does not understand what they are writing about on a deep level then all she or he can do is accurately quote people. And if you don't really understand the assumptions in what politicians say, how can you ask questions that enlighten or impeach?

    Besides, covering the political horse race is more fun than sussing out the economics of policy positions, especially when you have Miliband mangling a sandwich and Trump promoting (and denying he promotes) violence.

    If you do make a chart I would appreciate a copy, with plot points, on debt issuance, interest rates at issuance and political control of Parliament. My email is davidcay@me.com

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  17. Very concise and very true. Please do write up what you say.

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