Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

More on how it happened

My post ‘The triumph of the tabloids’ is now easily my most read post in the four and a half years I have been writing a blog. I suspect that partly reflects readers from overseas trying to understand how on earth British voters could have chosen to do something so obviously harmful to the economy. I have subsequently been pleased to see others picking up the same idea: Maria Kyriakidou here and Charles Grant here. As Grant says, the tabloids “became propaganda sheets” for Leave. He goes on : “as I discovered while knocking on doors during the campaign, many Britons believe all sort of bizarre things about the EU that have no basis in fact, and the source of which is ultimately newspapers”. Of course the media cannot alone win a referendum like this, and Charles Grant also focuses on other factors, but in many of the accounts of how Brexit happened that I have read the media often does not figure at all. The idea that the media does not matter, or just reflects public opinion, is simply wrong.

Although the title of my post referred to the tabloid press, their success was only possible because the broadcast media failed to provide any antidote. I have written about this a lot during the campaign. One link that I did not mentioned is suggested by Grant. He writes
One of the BBC’s most senior journalists confessed to me, a few days before the referendum: “If we give a Leaver a hard time, we know that the Mail or the Sun may pick on us and that that is bad for our careers. But if we are tough on Remainers it might upset the Guardian and that doesn’t matter at all. This affects the way some colleagues handle interviews.”
He also notes that many journalists failed to contest falsehoods put forward by Leave politicians simply because they were not knowledgeable enough, a point I have made many times about political commentators knowledge of economics. This is so important, because if politicians quote ‘facts’ that are false and interviewers let them pass, you are bound to leave an impression among viewers that these facts are true. As any macroeconomist will tell you, people make decisions based on the information they have.

But it is not just the Brexit vote that the tabloids are partly responsible for. It is the racism and intolerance that they have helped legitimise. Of course politicians must take most responsibility for this, but the tabloids play an important role. This will only become worse as those who voted Leave become disillusioned that nothing has improved, and of course no tabloid will ever apologise for getting it wrong. They are the epitome of power without responsibility. And because of the power these newspapers have, politicians dare not criticise them for it. One did, and he paid a heavy price.



33 comments:

  1. I have gone the opposite way on the tabloid issue.

    The linking of immigration to a supposedly worsening NHS began with Enoch Powell, and has been incubated ever since in the right-wing tabloids.

    When Baldwin (via Kipling) said “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”, he was exasperated by the outsiderdom of the press.

    But in 2016 UK, it is this press not the politicians that have visibly driven Brexit.

    Glen Newey on the LRB blog ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie on a Push Bike’ 22 February 2016 got at the reason why these UK press barons wanted Brexit focused on after the 2008 economic crisis rather than their own affairs:

    “Leave may also swell with the Brexity froth from orifices such as the Sun (controlled by US citizen Rupert Murdoch) and the Telegraph (owned by tax-swerving Brecqhuo-residents the Barclay brothers). Then there’s the Daily Mail, now 89 per cent owned by the non-dom fourth Viscount Rothermere, whose dividends are funnelled to him via a trust in Bermuda, and the über-Europhobe Express, owned by the billionaire pornographer Richard Desmond, who slalomed round HMRC via paper loans from Luxembourg (effective rate: under 1 per cent). The Brexit revolution offers a new spin on the American one: (over-)representation without taxation.”

    These five men, and to a lesser extent the Tory journalist-cum-politicians Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, now have to deliver the riches in the short-, medium-, and long-term that they have told their readers for 25 years will come to them once the UK leaves the EU and which every expert body said was a vanity of human wishes.

    Independence Day means, for them, for the first time in their lives, Power with Responsibility.

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    1. They like the power, but when they learne about responsibility, they just quit.

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  2. I am highly sceptical of this. We just had an election here down under and all the tabloids supported the Government but no-one has won as yet.
    Sometimes they can be influential and sometimes they are not.

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    1. It's not "tabloids" per se, it's the press in Britain, the organization of media in terms of national distribution and how small the country is, how Britain's London papers are "national", the owners and their agenda, and as Prof. Wren-Lewis said, whether or not other media outlets are content to go with the flow either directly or indirectly, such as not challenging claims because they would become targets of the tabloids themselves.

      Australia is so much bigger, you don't have national tabloids in the same way. We don't in the US either. In North America, the problem is different, when chain ownership dictates to individual newspapers, who is to be endorsed for national elections, regardless of the appropriateness of "the endorsee" in terms of local conditions and considerations.

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  3. Of course, I agree that the tabloids have long been appalling. But the question here is: how much influence do they have? Are people right-wing gits because they read the Express, or do they read the Express because they are right-wing gits?
    It's difficult to disentangle these effects, but efforts in the US to do so suggest that newspapers have only modest causative effects:
    https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.101.7.2980
    https://ideas.repec.org/p/nbr/nberwo/14445.html
    This makes me suspect that the BBC is more guilty here. Not only does it have far more reach than individual newspapers, but also its (unjustified) image of impartiality gave it more credibility and hence more influence.

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  4. Professor Wren-Lewis and a lot of other Remainers have settled on a Stab in the Back explanation for the result of the referendum: The tabloids did it! The implication is that the no-voters are simply not sufficiently educated and informed to be trusted with the vote, at least not without the wise guidance of experts and “responsible” media. They do not know their “real” interests as defined by their betters. I think the same was said when workers and women got the vote. The Stab in the Back legend did not help Germany after 1918, and it does not help the pro EU side now. Consider the possibility that even voters without expert knowledge of treaties and economics know their real interests. Professor Jean Pisani-Ferry has a very good comment on why no-voters do not listen to experts.
    https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-voters-ignoring-experts-by-jean-pisani-ferry-2016-07
    Kevin O’Rourke’s observations on the great divide among the voters are as always very good:
    http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2016/06/27/this-really-is-a-slow-train-wreck/
    Professor Wren-Lewis and other remainers in the tabloids-are-to-blame echo chamber could benefit from pondering these comments.

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    1. Publics around the globe are fed up with the experts & pros of the 1% elites. "If their for it, I'm against it", though sometimes it may seem like shooting themselves in the foot, it is better than enduring the endless whippings of the status quo. Things have not improved for the lower classes under the dictates of the EU. You can't handle this truth and what it means for the everyday life. I'm disappointed in your Remain position, along with Yanis Varoufakis and others I've previously admired. Change can have bad outcomes no doubt, but at least it offers hope. Remain the same and believe any substantive reform can be gained is incrementalism that the common bloke can no longer believe in much less afford.

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    2. People are right to be angry. But they should've directed it at UK governments rather than shooting themselves in the foot.

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  5. Blaming the result (which I agree was tragic) on the economic illiteracy of the media and political class is smug, arrogant and smacks of self-justification and confirmation bias. People distrusted the experts for understandable reasons - remember it was an econometric forecast model that said that only 13000 people would migrate to the UK following Eastern expansion, and the political establishment foolishly listened to the 'evidence' of the experts. You can directly trace Remain's loss to the perception of 'uncontrolled immigration' to that advice and decision.

    The observations of this commentator questioning the forecasts and the very credibility of the economic orthodoxy are astute:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3_8etmXcIg

    When Leave perpetuated the perception that immigration was out of control, the game was up for Remain:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_2AUN-_zPE

    For whatever reason people found uncontrolled immigration unacceptable, even if it meant economic risk. NK.

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    1. right- I am sure many of the 'out' voters were reading and perhaps downloading the excel spreadsheet looking at the migration patterns of EU citizens produced by one economist. at least make sure your point has validity in say, 1/1000 of the situations.

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    2. You missed the point, and it sounds to me that you were not in the country. The estimate of 13000 used by the Government to make the case for rapid expansion without transitional controls was based on that by Christian Dustman (start googling that name and any tabloid newspaper or media organisation you like - the estimate is constantly referred to). It was repeated adnauseum by Cameron in his election that defeated Brown. Likewise by the tabloids. Of course they did not download the spreadsheet; what mattered was the forecast - a single number. When EU migration reached the millions, largely on account of Eastward expansion, it played to the hands of the anti-EU movement. UKIP was founded before immigraton was an issue, but once mass immigration started (in the mid 2000s) it gave it the ammunition it needed and it became a toxic political issue.

      There is a direct link between that forecast, the policy decision made on th basis of it - rapid eastward expansion without transitional controls, and Brexit. In other words poorly conceived research and policy formulation had big political consequences.

      This is not an argument over whether mass immigration is good or bad. It is about complacency about its political consequences and research used as the basis of an important policy decision that was based on questionable methodology.

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    3. This tabloid frontpage headline article is a an example of what I mean, the 13000 figure from derived from that econometric forecast being repeated even just a few weeks ago!

      "Ministers in David Cameron’s Coalition government were careful to avoid giving any estimates of how many they thought would arrive. They wanted to avoid the disastrous prediction by Tony Blair’s government in 2004 that opening the borders to Eastern Europeans would increase immigration by just 13,000 a year."

      Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3611697/Record-number-jobless-EU-migrants-Britain-Hammer-blow-PM-270-000-EU-nationals-came-year.html#ixzz4DhNh4elY
      Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

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  6. Who paid a heavy price?

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    1. Second this. I'm genuinely at a loss to the politician Simon refers to.

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    2. My guess is that SWL is referring to Ed Milliband? His criticisms of Murdoch in particular earned him real hostility.

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  7. Did you watch this:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b07k7m4x/panorama-why-we-voted-to-leave-britain-speaks

    There is more to this than the tabloids.

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    1. People obviously wouldn't say "because the papers told me to"

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    2. Having watched hours & hours of brexit coverage I felt the BBC where an absolute disgrace. They repeatedly interviewed pensioners, unemployed people & traders in fish markets. Biased is an understatement, I did not see a single member of the public have a relevant thing to day about voting remain the word immigration was like a mantra.

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  8. Why were the tabloids generally pro_Brexit ? Aren't their owners ultimately global businesses who will also suffer from Brexit ?

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    1. I was thinking the same. Does anyone know?

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  9. Project Fear has morphed into Project Wah Wah, Project Chicken Little, and Project "Why didn't they listen to me?"

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  10. It would be great if you could comment on the actually macro-economics of Brexit (not only in new trade theory but also on the relaxation of the fiscal rule). For example, commenting on the last posts from Paul Krugman. Politics aside, the economics profession is in serious danger of reduced reputation if Armageddon does not come.
    Your comments on the the death of left-right divide are interesting but many other people are making those. Back to macro please...

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    1. Yes, macro, whatever happened to that. It seems there are two periods to look at. First, the short run before brexit actually happens and assuming that it does. Then the long run after brexit.

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    2. Investment has almost certainly fallen and is likely to remain weak next year as uncertainty drags on. Private consumption will be helped by an imminent Bank rate cut, but the truth is that monetary policy has little room for manoeuvre. Osborne has binned his fiscal rule, so public spending will not be as tight as was once assumed, although will probably not be as loose as I'd like. Exports should be helped by a weaker pound, but the impact will likely be blunted by a sluggish global economy. (Ironically, us harming our biggest trade parter will not help!). I've not crunched the numbers, but my gut feeling is something like 1.5% UK growth in 2017.

      The longer term depends on whether we end up with Brexit-hard (WTO/Canada-type deal) or Brexit-lite (Norway-type that keeps us in the Single Market). I suspect Brexit-lite would entail loss of prestige but in practice little economic difference. Brexit-hard risks a loss of trade and investment, which I fear would not be plugged by RoW opportunities for a long time, if ever.

      S

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  11. «many Britons believe all sort of bizarre things about the EU that have no basis in fact,»

    But the "remain" campaign also had big blind spots: for example I have very rarely heard the argument that the UK government has a veto on every non-trivial EU decision or law or rule, and anyhow has voted against in only 7% of votes. The only plausible explanation I can think of is that the "remain" advocates did not want to remind voters that both parties once in government had been completely implicated in every EU policy, and so they did not dare to use a very serious argument.

    «and the source of which is ultimately newspapers»

    The source of which apparently was B Johnson! B Johnson was exiled at the beginning of his career to Brussels covering the EU, which was liable to destroy his career as it was so boring and technical that there were almost no news.

    So he cleverly started to create a lot of unboring news by looking for obscure details in EU laws and rules, and then reporting them heavily distorted and exaggerated to make them sound exciting and scary. This was very successful, and soon he was editor of the weekly middle-brow tabloid "The Spectator".

    http://europe.newsweek.com/boris-johnson-london-mayor-telegraph-brussels-dispatches-429010
    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/22/opinion/who-is-to-blame-for-brexits-appeal-british-newspapers.html

    «Mr. Johnson, fired from The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quotation, made his name in Brussels not with honest reporting but with extreme euroskepticism, tirelessly attacking, mocking and denigrating the European Union. He wrote about European Union plans to take over Europe, ban Britain’s favorite potato chips, standardize condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos-filled headquarters. These articles were undoubtedly colorful but they bore scant relation to the truth.»
    «Mr. Johnson’s dispatches galvanized the rest of Britain’s highly competitive and partisan newspaper industry. They were far more fun than the usual dry, policy-driven Brussels fare. Editors at other newspapers, particularly but not exclusively the tabloids, started pressing their own correspondents to match Mr. Johnson’s imaginative reports.»
    «By the time I arrived in Brussels, editors wanted only reports about faceless Eurocrats dictating the shape of the cucumbers that could be sold in Britain, or plots to impose a European superstate, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rear-guard actions against a hostile Continent.»
    «Articles that did not bash Brussels, [ ... ] were almost invariably killed.»

    Of course popularity is not just the product of the skills of authors, but also of the tastes of their audiences, and that UK audiences greatly enjoyed the entertainment about the EU, and the same article says:

    «These narratives reflected and exploited the innate nationalism, historical sense of superiority and disdain for Johnny Foreigner of many readers.»

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  12. I voted Remain. At best I was 6/10 (i.e less keen than JC) and in fact by the time of the vote I was all set to vote Brexit. I asked my son to give me 3 good reasons to vote Remain, which he did, and, figuring he had more skin in the game than I, I did too. I don't read the tabloids. I don't on the whole read the broadsheets (unless linked to by blogs I'm reading). I throw shoes at R4 (Today, WATO, PM - I have many shoes) but listen all the time. I very rarely watch TV news. I read Open Democracy, voted for Corbyn, read Off Guardian, and blogs and links sent to me by people I trust or respect. I support Diem25 and am a fan of Yannis Varoufakis. As the day dawned on Friday 24th June and I heard the news, I had already had the cold fingers of doom and foreboding clutching my heart at 2.30 am, wondering what cliff we were jumping off. By 6 am I was ready, and actually started to feel quite positive about our decision. I have become more so in the ensuing days - the Remainers are running round like headless chickens, and some of the Brexiteers are saying they didn't really mean it. The point I am rather long windedly making is that this is my individual journey (I haven't given all the arguments for and against in my head; they don't include immigration or the free movement of labour, for the record) - and I suspect it is just as idiosyncratic, complex and multi-valent as the 17 or 14 or whatever million voted to leave, and true too for quite a few of those who voted to remain. Generalisations about the tabloids, or racism, or ignorance, don't really help much and I suspect are a very long way from the truth.

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    1. I share your ambivalence. On the one hand I admire the EU for its efforts to protect the environment and human rights. I worry about the Tories being in place and now having carte blanche to remove these protections. I particularly worry about the possibility of the break up of the EU.

      On the other hand I thought the political establishment needed a kick. Rotherham, Rochester, the London-rest of England divide, hubris, groupthink and detachment in the economics establishment and basing economic policy on rational expectations models....

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    2. I think many people, whichever way they voted, are feeling a Brexit vote isn't as bad as feared. It seems to me a very natural stage to be at now. But remember Article 50 has yet to be triggered (i hope it never will). I suspect this is the calm before the storm.

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  13. I echo my comment on a previous post. UK press coverage from the broadsheets was, apart possibly from the FT and the occasional op-ed, appallingly ignorant. To take the case with which I am most familiar, the Guardian, journalistic skills and ideology are just not enough: the editorial direction of its economics coverage and the analytical skills of its economics correspondents are just non-existent. The current appeal for support for its Brexit coverage (I am already a member) would be more credible if it were to pledge substantial new hiring in trained economics staff. Instead we get pieces about the lack of understanding among the tabloid readership and not their own, and criticism of the role of the economics profession and not their own coverage at all levels. Ideology is not enough, whatever one's views. The Guardian seems blind to the deficiencies of its Brexit coverage.

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  14. And speaking of macroeconomy, this is Stiglitz:
    https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/brexit-future-of-advanced-economies-by-joseph-e--stiglitz-2016-07

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  15. More on what's going to happen, please.
    Balance of payments
    Government debt
    interest rates
    investment
    GDP
    etc

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  16. Maybe the HUMANS didn't vote for Brexit? http://www.optimizeyou.co.uk/single-post/2016/07/10/Chimps-win-the-Brexit-Vote-%E2%80%93-Humans-left-to-pick-up-the-pieces

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  17. Just read your triumph of tabliods - excellent. As sociologists we grapple with media effects but two things come to mind Gramsci's 'dual consciousness' and 'the drip, drip" effect. The neo-Marxist Gramsci claimed people can hold contradictory views such that they experience economic hardship yet still absorb the ruling hegemony whereby they collude with their oppression. The job of radicals was to bring out the former.

    Drip, Drip is a a more nuanced idea that rejects deterministic Marxism; we can reject the message like swearing at the Mail. But education/experience makes me do that. Over time, as you say the tabliod readers absorbed the vicious headlines of right wing Euroscepticism. The BBC shockingly gave disproportionate time to the right wingers like Boris to dispute every expert and specialist even when they were not from the 6 Remain parties.

    As always Labour ( more so with the ineffectual Corbyn) underestimated the power of this press as they underestimated its attack led by Murdoch and Darce last year. Ask a Labour person even the thinking one's about the press effect and they mostly wave it aside and say new media etc., the demographic which are most likely not to vote Labour are the over 60s and the less educated. Seats like Derby North, Harlow or Stevange compared to university towns. Tabloids remain powerful and shape the agenda most disturbingly the BBC's.

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