Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 12 April 2016

The EU referendum and the media

The government is to send a 14 page leaflet to every household setting out the ‘facts’ that make a vote to stay in the EU the sensible thing to do. Anything wrong or undemocratic about that? US readers might be rather surprised to learn the official In and Out groups are only allowed to spend up to £7m each on campaigning: we in the UK have this rather quaint and intensely democratic idea that money should not be able to buy elections. But the government’s leaflet, which will cost nearly £10 million to produce and distribute, does not count as part of that. [1]

For that reason alone, this leaflet is both unfair and undemocratic. But most of the complaints about this seem to have come from those supporting the Leave campaign. Is this because others who might normally be expected to speak up for fairness and democracy are staying quiet because they support staying in the EU? I honestly do not know, for reasons that will become clear.

What I think is pretty clear is that a large majority of what you might call the establishment, and also a majority of what was once called ‘the chattering classes’, plus a majority of academics (e.g.), are in favour of staying in the EU. One of those is Timothy Garton Ash, who wrote an article in the Guardian recently about BBC coverage. He complains that because the BBC is focused on being fair to both sides, it is failing to be informative. I couldn’t help thinking to myself as I read this (very fair and sensible) article, welcome to the world that many scientists (including social scientists) have had to live with for quite some time. Here is the BBC’s mission, which I was discussing recently in a talk on a different topic.

The world that Garton Ash describes is a world where, on any subject that is contested by significant (to the BBC) groups, evidence is only presented with counter evidence for balance, even when the quality of the counter evidence is weak or non-existent. It is a world where the view of the massive majority of scientific researchers has to be ‘balanced’ by the pseudo science of special interests. It is a world where everyone is an expert on economics. It is a world where the visual media refrain from presenting facts if those facts might be seen as ‘political’. It is the ‘shape of the earth:views differ’ world, and the world where everyone just knows that in 2010 the UK government was saved from the brink of bankruptcy. [2]

As we are seeing in this EU referendum, setting up everything as a two sided debate does little to inform anyone. It can even be counterproductive, setting the climate change scientist (full of natural scientific caution) against the climate change denier (chosen for their rhetorical ability). It is a format that militates against evidence: you cannot normally show a chart in a debate, and so instead we get the presentation of summary statistics that are selected on the basis of how best they support a view rather than how best they summarise the data. (UK spending on flood prevention is a clear example of how that happens.) It is a format where even numbers lose their meaning, and where dots are hardly ever connected. [3]

It is not hard to see how that happens, particularly when media organisations are fighting for their survival. Some things can be done, as long as they are seen to be non-political. For example journalists can use statistics in a way that informs rather than confuses. For example less status should be given to journalists who have good political contacts, and greater status given to those who know their subject and can quickly source experts. Above all else, we have to do all we can to resist government attacks on the public media.

But these changes will not make a major difference. I suspect that the BBC, for example, will only start to fulfil its mission to inform and educate when it is safe for it to do so. In the meantime we will have to put up with the uniform ‘views on the shape of the earth differ’ style of reporting. The government’s leaflet on the EU may be one consequence. Our membership of the EU may become another.

[1] That the government has resorted to trying to rig the vote in such a blatant way is interesting on many levels. (If you think this language is too strong, how would you react to the government doing the same before a general election?) I suspect the government was unprepared for the impact of being on the wrong side of most of the print media. In many other respects, it reflects chickens coming to roost. (One I did not mention here is voting ‘reform’ which tends to exclude the young who tend not to vote Conservative, but who also tend to favour the EU.) But the move may also reflect continuing hubris. Is it wise to associate the Remain side so clearly with a government which is right now losing popularity? It would have been so much better to do a 2003 Euro entry type exercise. The government must have known it would come out in its favour, so why was this not done?

[2] Just in case anyone does not get the reference, more detail here. I’m not sure whether this example represents ignorance, or journalists talking to the wrong people (i.e. some City economists), or not presenting the facts because this would be seen as ‘being political’. Probably a mixture of all three.

[3] For example, compare how much information you get from this 2 minutes (from the excellent John Van Reenen) to ten times that amount of normal reporting.


  1. The whole concept of official In and Out campaigns is undemocratic, particularly on a subject as wide and complex as the EU. It squeezes out the views of those who will be voting one way or the other but with very different views from those leading the official campaigns.

    Many who are highly critical of the EU for both democratic deficit and its neoliberal ideology will vote Remain out of concern that a Leave vote will signal an assault on rights and minorities. Similarly, some of those who detest UKIP and defend migrant and refugee rights will vote Leave to avoid the constraints the EU places on progressive policies. In the official campaigns, these opinions will not be heard.

  2. I am not sure if I have ever been so disappointed by (read disagreed so strongly with) one of your posts.

    You argue (I think) that the Government "has resorted to trying to rig the vote in such a blatant way" because it is refusing to adopt strict neutrality. This is wrong on both facts and arguments.

    On the facts, the government need be no more neutral on this point than it would be if, for example, there was a referendum on leaving NATO or to require all Muslims to wear a green crescent. Holding a referendum (which Cameron may now be realising was a near catastrophic mistake) is not the same thing as having no opinion.

    Moreover, you say "how would you react to the government doing the same before a general election?". I have news for you, Professor: it does this ALL THE TIME! There is a whole government department devoted to getting news and information about government policies and actions to the public - and this is pretty normal. It even - be brave now - seeks to put those policies and actions in a positive light. What it does (or at least should) not do is publish anything contentious in the run up to an election. Hence the distribution of this leaflet nearly three months, as opposed to two weeks, before the referendum.

    Given the clarity with which you show how the UK media, including the BBC, are not doing a proper job in this, and many other, areas I don't really understand why this leaflet upsets you so much.

    But in other ways the arguments are the opposite of rigged - or rigged the opposite way. Until the publication of this leaflet every single issue that might be thought to influence the vote was decided according to the wish of the 'leavers'. Should Ministers be allowed to speak and vote against the collective Cabinet position? Even before the campaign opens? Should 16 and 17 year-olds be allowed to vote? Should EU nationals resident in the UK be allowed to vote? Should UK nationals living in the EU and who don't have a vote in general elections be allowed to vote? In every case, ask yourself which way a 'Leave' activist would want to go and you will know what was decided.

    Finally, this leaflet (which arrived in our house yesterday) is long overdue. More than three years ago a 'balance of competences' study was undertaken by the Government to find out which areas of activity could better be done at a national than EU level. The results showed unequivocally that in all areas important to the national interest, better results could be gained working together than alone. These studies are available but were never publicised: you have to know where to find them.

    To conclude, your negative reaction to the distribution (not the content, which we can discuss another time) of this leaflet is itself a beautiful example of the 'Views on Shape of Earth differ' paradigm: because some people disagree with the government view they should be equally entitled to publicise these views with government money. Views on distribution of Government information and views differ!

    1. I am not suggesting the government remains neutral - it clearly is not. But this leaflet is not like the information the government churns out about its policies all the time.

      Lets spell out the analogy with a general election. There are limits to what each side can spend in that election. Suppose the government, just before that election period (so avoiding those limits) sent leaflets to every household explaining why households should vote for the government. The amount spent on those leaflets exceeded the total amount the parties were allowed to spend in the election. How can you suggest that would be democratic and fair?

    2. S W-L,

      I completely agree with you but consider a further analogy:

      Just before the election the government sends out leaflets to every household explaining that the earth is round.

      Most people would think that that is ok and part of the government's duty to inform. But it is undemocratic and unfair on those who argue to the contrary. Either everything is :views differ, or at some point a group of people in charge have to say that some things simply need to be accepted. Neither sounds nice but I feel as though the latter is a bit too much to swallow for the electorate (the government has bypassed getting popular support for its propaganda, but I think it is useful to consider what kinds of approaches an electorate would find just.)

  3. Interesting. Yesterday I listened to the first part of this episode of Farming Today. The subject is that archetype of absurd pseudoscientific nonsense and (necessarily) unethical pseudomedicine: homeopathy. Dr Chambers makes a case against veterinary homeopathy which, if anything, should've been challenged for being too weak (on both ethical and epistemological grounds). Instead the presenter Anna Hill acts on behalf of the 'other side'. Infuriating! On the other hand, that 'other side' is out there and I wouldn't want the BBC to simply ignore them - at least not in 'news story' contexts like that one. Where I think the BBC really fails is in not doing the educational and informative stuff dealing with issues such as veterinary homeopathy or austerity or whatever in which it would be appropriate to ignore [be one-sided about] crackpot [perverse] opinions.

  4. While I recognize the force of the argument made here, it seems to me that there would be dangers in the BBC giving preponderant weight to the "expert" side which, in the case of economics, might turn out to be the wrong one. In economics, the more serious problem seems to me to be the failure of the anti-austerity side to put its case with sufficient vigour. I've been meaning for some time to write on this blog that I was dismayed by John McDonnell's interview on the Today programme on 12 March. McDonnell allowed himself to be boxed in by John Humphreys who treated the new economic policy McDonnell was presenting as constituting acceptance by Labour that it needed to be "sensible", "balance the books", "reduce the deficit" etc. McDonnell did not do much to question this way of framing the policy. While the policy may in itself be a good one, it is important that McDonnell present it more agressively, emphasizing its differences from government and New Labour policies, attacking the idea that it's important in the short term to reduce the deficit and making clear that Osborne's polices are motivated by a desire to reduce the size of the state rather than by economic necessity. He needs to put the likes of Humphreys on the back foot, and take the BBC to task for accepting the government's economic assumptions. He needs to sound more like Bernie Sanders. I wonder whether you, Professor Wren Lewis, could have any influence on him in this respect?

    1. On the point about the BBC, of course experts may be wrong. But expertise has to count for something. If every time an expert appears in the media, their views are balanced by those of a non-expert, with no indication of expertise given, then you are obscuring expertise from viewers.

      On austerity, I tend to agree, and I do what I can.

  5. So are you in favour of them sending out of the leaflet them? If that would avoid the press being needlessly ambiguous.

  6. "To educate and inform" is not a neutral stance as I'm sure you well know; there is unconscious bias masquerading as being objective.

    I have come to have very mixed thoughts about the broadcast media in the UK and their remit to have a fair and balanced view because I think that is actually impossible and it gives an aura of objectivity where there is none in actual fact.

    In the US they had the "Fairness Doctrine" for many years but that is no longer the case and the broadcast media can be biased and I'm not sure that that isn't a better system because everyone knows where Fox News and NBC stand in the debate and there is no faux superiority as there is with such organisations as the BBC.

    With regard to the debate and the John van Reenen clip you mention it is very interesting because you presumably put it forward as a clear exposition of the position. Except that it is no such thing.

    When I was studying PPE at Oxford many, may years ago I was there at the time the original White Paper on entry was published and the paper distinguished between static and dynamic effects (you can guess what each would be). The point is that the long term dynamic effects swamp everything else but are essentially unknowable; they cannot be forecast.

    In any case as you will know from the work of Philip Tetlock the views of "experts" are worth very little and they are in fact very poor forecasters of the future and, if the debate about the EU is about anything it is surely the future.

    To my mind the decision about the EU has nothing to do with information or "experts" or balance; it is a leap of faith, akin to the decision of being an atheist or believing in God. That does not of course mean that it shouldn't be discussed; but it may mean that, at the end of the day it's like Shakespeare's view of life: full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

  7. Agreed. Poor BBC [World Service excepted].

    But, for 'mitigate" read "militate"?

  8. my question is not what the outcome of the referendum would be, but whether - if the outcome is "OUT", the Cameron-government would commit to leaving the EU or would they try to loophole their way into staying?

  9. Simon you are beginning to sound like the mainstream economist who says there is no case against free trade or free capital flows or for collective bargaining systems. There is discontent with the EU. I put a lot of it down to overly hasty expansion. It has become an inefficient machine. Look at how the migration crisis has been managed and how the Eastern bloc blocked quotas. I suspect the crisis would have been best managed had the EU kept out and it was managed by the say the G8.

    We have also had large influxes of cheap labour from the A8 which has put pressures on public services eg school class sizes and handling lots of non-native English speakers (any one who has children in state schools in London knows what the impact of this has been), contributed to housing problems, may force building on the green belt which may lead to all sorts of loosening of environmental safeguards, and surely does not help people on zero hour contracts, the unemployed and discourages investment in the local workforce - eg through apprenticeships etc. This is socially not good for this country. It may have contributed to inequality and could not possibly have helped.

    I am not saying that on balance we should leave the EU, I am just saying that the case is no where near as clear cut as you make out.

    1. Anon, actually the evidence is that migrant groups impact positively on the educational achievement of incumbents

    2. "I put a lot of it down to overly hasty expansion. It has become an inefficient machine. Look at how the migration crisis has been managed and how the Eastern bloc blocked quotas."

      The funny thing is that it was a UK pet project to expand the EU - you can only discuss the motives, not the fact. IMHO it was to weaken the Paris-Berlin axis.

      And now UK may leave. This whole affair tells me that in UK most politicians see the EU only as tool not as long term politicla project and as cheap excuse for own mistakes.

      IMHO the EU may even gain in the long term by getting rid of a member that has issues with delivering constructive input.

  10. "[3] For example, compare how much information you get from this 2 minutes (from the excellent John Van Reenen) to ten times that amount of normal reporting"
    Well, no: that was two minutes of rather biased opinion.
    The only real information gleaned over that two minutes is on John van Reenen's pro-EU prejudices. On that subject we can now be very clear!

  11. Very good discussion, but doesn't it follow that whether the 'leaflet is both unfair and undemocratic' can be considered in the round. That is, Murdoch and his like spend very much more on campaigning to Leave and as the media in general are not giving a balanced account then the leaflet, if effective, only helps close an existing democratic deficit. Having read the leaflet, I didn't find it specious. It exaggerates the importance of welfare payments but then both sides do that, though strangely it leaves out the EU potential for co-operation on better tax compliance...

  12. Hi Simon, I'd like to make an off-topic comment relating to the (very interesting) themes you generally discuss on this blog. As I understand it, your general argument is that post-2010 macroeconomic decisions by the coalition/tory governments have been poor, driven either by wishful thinking based on spurious economic theory or small-state, free-market ideology. Austerity has failed. Policy following standard new-Keynesian prescriptions on the other hand would have assisted in making the recession shorter, potentially making up the lost ground, back to business-as-usual economy growth.

    Although you write as an academic economist, intermingled within your writings a concern about environmental/climate change issues comes across. As a non-economist, but as someone who works with regional climate models and long term projections of climate change, one question that I find completely absent in these rather short-term analyses is to what extent economic growth is either necessary or beneficial any more in advanced economies. Natural resource extraction
    cannot yet be decoupled absolutely from economic growth and recent commitments on GHG emissions for Paris COP21 remain too high, yet hardly any economists talk about the role of growth in all this. The evidence that new technologies, leading to more efficient production/transportation, will lower the overall environmental burden is highly questionable.

    My basic question is whether macroeconomics can start to address different questions, such as how can economies maintain high standards of living whilst decreasing consumption levels? The Stern review framed climate change mitigation as the 'pro-growth strategy', without ever considering that growth itself was the problem.

  13. Supporters of staying in should really worry about this.

    Experience here in Australia is that government-funded campaigns on political issues of the day tend to be highly counterproductive. Bluntly, it pisses people off. And official propaganda created by the bureaucracy will never win any advertising awards either - it is usually very boring while being transparent in its dishonesty.


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