Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 12 September 2016

Trump, Brexit and balance

It is with a dreadful sense of inevitability that I’m watching what is happening in the US general election between Clinton and Trump. Just as the media in the UK normalised the flat out lies of the Brexit campaign, so the media in the US is normalising Donald Trump.

In both cases this stems from an obsession with balance. With the Brexit campaign the media balanced the lie about £350 million a week to the NHS with Remain’s claims (based on analysis using consensus economics) about the economic damage that leaving the single market would do. With the US general election, Trump's stream of well documented lies are balanced against seemingly baseless insinuations about Clinton.

This is not about what you read in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Their audience is generally not the electorate that could vote either way. The Financial Times provided exemplary coverage of Brexit issues, and the non-tabloid press as a whole was not too bad. With Brexit the critical electorate were those that read the tabloid press, just as in the US it is those that watch cable news. Those sources deliberately and relentlessly distort news to favour one side.

Without major changes to how the media is regulated in the US and how the press is regulated in the UK, there is little that can done about this particular media bias against truth. So the best we can hope for in the meantime is that the big ticket events like debates, or widely watched programmes on the non-partisan media like the evening TV news in the UK, offer some redress to the partisan nature of much of the media. Which is why the failure of Matt Lauer in questioning the two candidates is so important.

The concept of balance needs to be rethought by media organisations. Facts, and lies about them, should be above balance. The consensus views of experts like academics should be above balance. Standing up for both is not a journalist expressing an opinion, but a journalist doing their job.

The media likes to think of itself as the protector of free speech, and of holding authority to account. But that matters little if at crucial points in the democratic process the media either distorts reality or hides the truth. If you think that is an exaggeration, how else could you possibly get a result like this:

“Trump has his largest edge of the campaign as the more honest and trustworthy of the two major candidates (50% say he is more honest and trustworthy vs. just 35% choosing Clinton)”

If you are reading this in the UK and thinking this could only happen in the US, who do you think was trusted during the Brexit campaign?


  1. You're quite right. I just read this in The Guardian and shuddered:

    'In 2008, Barack Obama, then 47, released a 276-page report about his health. His opponent, John McCain, then 71, made available more than 1,000 pages related to his own medical history.'

    Not strictly to do with balance, but to do with the dangers you elucidate.

  2. I'm sorry but I would have thought the reason for the difference between the honesty numbers for Clinton and Trump was obvious and it's not really the fault of the media. Firstly Clinton has been mistrusted by both the right and the left for decades (she is dead wrong in thinking that being a centrist is buying her the votes of moderates). And her poor arguments against Sanders and the party's shabby treatment of him have added to her pre-existing unpopularity among liberals.

    Secondly, Trump must be getting trust from the fact that although he lies incessantly, he is not hiding his conservative agenda whereas Clinton is trying to hide hers (and failing).

    1. Except Trump is losing and imo, worse than the polls show.
      Trump lies who he works for. Guess who owns the bank of "Russia" and who Trumps owns 100's of millions of debt to?

      Your post reeks of being the host to the parasite. Weak minded posting.

    2. Key words: "he lies incessantly". And yet he's considered a credible candidate. Unbelievable!

    3. Yes Trump absolutely has been hiding his agenda, he's stood on both sides of every argument you can imagine, sometimes flip flopping within an hour. He's cultivated such a sense of chaos that nobody has a chance of knowing what he stands for, whether by design or by incompetence. The former option is as dishonest as it gets, the latter in so less scary. Don't be one of those bernie supporters who becomes so bitter that they give credence to that reprehensible man trump.

    4. «the difference between the honesty numbers for Clinton and Trump was obvious and it's not really the fault of the media»
      «he is not hiding his conservative agenda whereas Clinton is trying to hide hers»

      It is partially fault of the media, especially that part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy", but also as you say of the politics: while both are obviously and sincerely pro-rich, Trump is pretty clearly and sincerely against globalist neoliberalism and against neoconnery. Clinton comes across as shifty as she obviously is for globalist neoliberalism and for neoconnery, but she is trying to sound being pro-worker too.

    5. In a trustworthiness contest between the two candidates, there is no contest. Clinton isn't perfect by any means, but compared to Trump she is the embodiment of truth. He is a staggeringly crooked man that has happily scammed Americans repeatedly over the years. That you can write 'Trump must be getting trust from the fact that although he lies incessantly...' without irony helps confirm S W-L's point.

  3. Press bias seems to run both ways in that there is a huge amount of cover up going on in respect of Hilary Clinton's health problems. Even twitter and Facebook censors seem to be into the "let's hush up Clinton's health problems" business.

    1. er, its the front page of the NYT right now? It's not exactly hushed up is it?

    2. A sinus infection(the origin) is a health issue. More like a environmental issue. It is everywhere.

    3. COnservatives have been spreading vicious rumours about her health for some time. It doesn't mean anything is wrong. And we have laughable evidence about Trump's. I fear you're being distracted by this juicy TV footage from policy issues. Clinton has detailed policies (but no overall plan on health, unlike Sanders). They're just not enough to please or impress liberals apart from diehard Democrats, and she was already unpopular so has painted herself into a corner. If her policies were enough to convince the public the economy will fully recover, no one would care about her health and she would be trouncing Trump. He polls at 40-odd percent due to that policy doubt.

      As for the trustworthiness, it remains true that despite Trump's pathological lying, she lied about the email investigation itself to make sure she won the nomination, and her behaviour over the emails themselves was underhanded. She endangered classified material while a cabinet minister in order to hide conflicts of interest from the public. And if there was a close correlation between foundation donations and arms sales by a Republican secretary of state, we know what Democrats would say. They would not ask for eyewitness testimony that it was a bribe. Doesn't mean Trump should be president. Does mean Clinton is a turd.

    4. I was in the US earlier this month and channel hopped in the hotel. I was struck by how biased many news channels were: Trump could do no wrong by Fox News, while Clinton was lauded on another channel (i forget its name). Almost made me forgive the BBC's Brexit coverage!

      That said, it would be a travesty if a bout of pneumonia put Trump in power.

  4. Truth in our age it is coloured by the dogmas of the present and is not as valued as you perhaps make out. People like to think that they do however, which is different from acting on it in reality.
    More 'truth' which support a vision of what 'ought to be' is what is valued by most. Many do this and lets not exclude ourselves or even other 'experts' of being above such behaviour. When one engages in politics this is an inevitable outcome particularly in democratic society when one needs to sway people with a low time preference in regards to this information.
    Ideals and unintended consequences have gotten us to this stage, how much worse can it get?

    A man of your profession has likely seen this happen on a regular basis.

  5. I should've added in my earlier comment another example about Clinton's screwing people. Her supporters dismissed Sanders for not raising money for Democratic congressional candidates (although he did some, and obviously needed every penny he could get for his own campaign given the long odds). Clinton had the Hillary Victory Fund, which sidesteps campaign donation limits by splitting the money between her campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and a couple of dozen state Democratic parties. Now it turns out that money went into state party coffers for fifteen minutes before going back to the DNC, so Clinton and the DNC get 99% of the money in the end. More primary votes for Clinton collected using false pretences, same as lying that she wasn't under criminal investigation, etc.

  6. "the non-tabloid press as a whole was not too bad". Well perhaps, but there is big tendency for political values to determine empirical analysis. The Guardian, which I support as a member, has very little worthwhile daily coverage of the issues, unless by occasional guest experts, and Larry Elliott and Paul Mason seem entirely driven by values (which I share) to ignore facts. In view of their seniority and public profile this must have a bad influence on younger reporters on economics.

  7. Farage couldn't even win a seat as MP given a choice of any constituency in Britain, whereas when his campaign was backed by the press barons he could reach 52%.

  8. British newspapers perform a public service by informing and educating their readers about the realities of the country and the world they live in. That is why the VAT on them is 0 %.
    Well, the second sentence is true....

  9. Hush up -- as in "Hilary has pneumonia" being a page 1 story? What in the world is being "hushed up"?

  10. There's a piece of the jigsaw that I think is missing in your argument - obviously we have rules requiring the broadcast media to provide 'balance', and to some extent I guess some of our other media also do so, even though it is not officially required. In the USA, is there any rule or law that requires 'balance', false or otherwise, in reporting? Is there any truth in the story I've heard that broadcasting balance was abandoned in the USA during Reagan's time, and that politics in that country has become more polarised since that time? I apologise for raising questions rather than finding the answers, but I think there's something in this issue...

  11. Frankly I think you are being very naive.

    I believe the FCC removed the obligation of impartiality in 1987 and to be frank I think this is a better system; everyone knows where Fox News and NBC stand.

    In the UK we still have the fairness doctrine but it is a faux impartiality. There is no such thing as impartiality in practice and to pretend otherwise is wrong. I actually prefer the US system which is why I watch the US media far more than that in the UK. Many years ago when I studied PPE at Oxford one of my tutors, an American, said that in the US everyone was standing up shouting whereas in the UK there was a desire to suppress conflict. He was right then and he's right now.

    Your assertions about bias in the US media are laughable. On CNN a few weeks ago two of the presenters admitted on air that "we've done all we can for Hillary" (I paraphrase but only slightly).

    The "deplorables" speech by Hillary was even more bizarre than reported by the MSM. She said afterwards that the other 50% were desperate for change. Desperate for change from what? The present situation - which is her. So, on the one hand she insults a large swathe of voters and follows this up by suggesting that she is an inappropriate candidate for change.

    In the UK the media do distort the truth; but it's not in the way you think.

  12. With the exception of publicly-funded news media, the mainstream US news outlets have decided their only obligation is to provide a conduit for candidates to disseminate their daily talking points or retorts. The mainstream organizations also seem to believe that neutral reporting means applying the same rhetorical framework to Q&As regardless of the content of candidate responses. There is no recognition of the need to impose the same quality control on both contenders.

    And just when one thinks it can't get any worse, it does. DJT opined in a broadcast interview that central bank policy rates are determined by the White House. The problems enumerated in this post are being openly if half-heartedly discussed in the US...perhaps a little more noise from Oxford professors of economics would tip the scales.

  13. Where is the balance in the media of economists advocating undemocratic 'helicopter money' that is bound to harm price stability and does not actually slove poverty?


    To maintain price stability government needs to be an effective buyer, a master of procurement and a tough negotiator for value, which through sheer size within its currency area forces everybody else to act the same if they want to stay solvent.

    Government should be both generous and sparing with its money. It should ensure there is enough money in circulation at all times, but it should only hand it over for the maximum amount of real goods and services it can negotiate.

    Understanding this, think what happens if you give everybody money for ‘nothing’. The value relationships in the economy shift and the value of the currency shifts towards ‘nothing’.

  14. "The consensus views of experts like academics should be above balance." Hmmm..., isn't this a little bit self-serving?

  15. Congratulations on the award btw! Much merited.

  16. On the other hand, there are also some experts' ideas that other experts have critiqued and refuted. Rather than view those refutations with contempt, the former set of experts simply ignore the latter's critique. Here are my candidates for experts' ideas -- old and new -- that voters ought not only to ignore but to positively view with contempt because their promulgators have demonstrated contempt for basic standards of scholarship:
    Non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment
    IS-LM "Keynesianism"
    System of natural liberty
    Growth imperative
    Net present value discounting
    Kaldor-Hicks compensation
    Efficiency/equity trade-off
    Labor/leisure trade-off
    Ceteris paribus
    Say's Law of Markets
    Wages-fund doctrine
    Sticky wages
    Self-adjusting economic systems
    Built-in mechanisms
    Supply and demand
    Pareto improvement
    Rational choice
    Coase theorem
    Efficient market hypothesis
    Spontaneous generation

  17. Brexit was not won or lost on ANY of the arguments. It won via the common man, the man who has seen his wages, in real terms, destroyed over the last 7 years by 20%. That is the figure given to the Bank of England by Stephen Machin:

    and the workers know it. They know too, that those at the top have not only NOT suffered any loss, but have become richer and fatter off the QE handouts from the BoE and 0% bank loans. They have used these to inflate their own companies by buying back shares with borrowed money that cost them nothing.
    Well, OK, maybe the layman doesn't know that bit, but he sure sensed his opportunity to kick the establishment into a cocked hat, so he did.

    1. I agree that a prolonged weakness in wages aided Brexit. And I hope the pick-up in wage growth in the US avoids Trump winning.

  18. Do you have an explanation for the increase in the UK money supply? Is that because of Brexit or Trump or both?

  19. It was a Brexit lie when Osborne said that interest rates would rise if we voted for Brexit. Did you make a big effort to ensure that the public were made aware that that was a lie?

  20. There are third party candidates that many might consider better than the two main party nominees. If we all voted third party we would get a third party candidate.


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