Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Some concrete proposals for economists and the media

You can now listen to my SPERI/New Statesman prize lecture in full here, or even watch it all here. The talk looks at recent UK history, involving austerity and Brexit, to argue that there are serious problems in how the broadcast media treats economics. [1] The two main problems I talk about are exclusion and balance. Exclusion, where academic economists are simply ignored because they are not part of the Westminster bubble, can lead journalists to assume statements made by politicians are true even though an economist knows they are false or at least highly questionable. I give a number of examples in the talk, including after the 2013/14 floods where Cameron said there had been no cuts in flood prevention when there clearly had been cuts. Balance is where a view that represents a consensus among academic economists is treated as just another opinion, to be balanced by the opposite view. This simply devalues knowledge. The costs of Brexit is a clear example.

Solutions to these problems must start with academic economists themselves. It is asking too much to expect journalists to know whether a view put forward by an economist represents a consensus among academics or an idiosyncratic view. An obvious way to remedy this is through regular, topical polls of as many academic economists as possible. (I prefer this approach to sampling selected academic ‘leaders’ for reasons I may discuss in a later post.) The example I have in mind was the poll of Royal Economic Society members undertaken by the Guardian during the Brexit campaign. What these establish is whether a consensus exists or not on key issues. They are much better at doing this than letters to newspapers.

The reason why this is far better than getting more academics on programmes like Newsnight (not that I have any problem with that) is that it can then prevent the problem of balance. I use in the talk the example of climate change to show how the broadcast media could treat a consensus view among economists (90% or more agreement) as knowledge, not as simply an opinion to be balanced against another. Getting the broadcasters to do that will not be easy, but academics first need to remove the objection that journalists cannot know what economic knowledge is. Our target audience should not be Newsnight but the 6pm or 10pm news programmes, which may be the only non-partisan news that readers of the right wing press ever see. We need political correspondents to routinely say what the economic consensus is, and use it to interrogate politicians when they deviate from it.

Economists could learn a great deal from the physical and medical sciences on how to use collective pressure to ensure media policy is changed. Climate change is the obvious example where the media began to treat knowledge as just contested opinion (because that is the media’s preferred format), but it was changed as a result of pressure from the scientific community, working through existing institutions that represent scientists. This can be effective not just with the big ticket issues like Brexit, but also where an individual piece of research is misrepresented in the media.

Only once this pressure is brought to bear on the media will we see the media begin to improve its own capability in the area of economics. As I note at the end of my talk, the BBC trust recently commissioned a report on the use of statistics, and most of its recommendations could equally well be applied to economics. To achieve that requires pressure and help from economists as a collective.

The broadcast media should be a defense against populism, not the means by which populism takes hold. If you treat knowledge as just an opinion, of course people will vote for whatever sounds good to their ears. Let’s cut government spending: we should all tighten our belts. Let’s keep immigrants out so there will be more jobs for natives and better access to the NHS. As I explained in my lecture, this was not just a problem involving the EU referendum: because the broadcast media accepted the Conservative narrative on austerity by excluding the views of the majority of academic macroeconomists they helped them win an election. [2]

The referendum story is far from over: key decisions on issues like the Single Market have still to be made. We cannot expect people to make sensible decisions about these issues if expertise on these issues (not just economic, but legal, constitutional etc) is kept locked away in specialist programmes they will never see, or ignored altogether. We must stop allowing politicians to dictate what is knowledge and what is just an opinion.

[1] The lecture and this post are about the UK. Although the general points I make about expertise are universal, my specific recommendations only apply to a broadcast media that is not under government control and is regulated to prevent partisan broadcasting. Although my knowledge of the US is far less, it seems to me the problems there are deeper still, particularly now we have a POTUS and Congress who show no respect for truth.

[2] Someone asked me recently what had gone wrong with the media, but as I say in my talk this problem has been there for decades (see this post on Jay/Birt in the 1970s). What has happened is that, because of underlying social and economic trends, and simply because politicians have learnt how to play the media, media rules that kind of worked when politicians played by the rules and respected truth fall apart when they do not.


  1. A large scale poll is a good idea. If I may suggest a thing, I would like such a poll not only to show opinions, but also the area of expertise of those who held these views -- just one key area of research where they operate. Someone such as yourself probably have more to say about the business cycle than on, say, the labor market or education, whereas a microeconometrician could be more informative on the later. I would also advise against picking out a few key schools. If you are going to use a sample, make it a random sample and make sure the sampling procedure is easy enough to explain so that any Joe or Jane can get it.

    Obviously, the more transparent everything is in this procedure, the more credible it is.

  2. I make the total daily readership of national newspaper units to be about 8.4 million.

    At the Guardian, Charlie Ball ('Most people in the UK do not go to university – and maybe never will, Tuesday 4 June 2013) has it that:

    "The Annual Population Survey involves a sample of 155,000 households and 360,000 people, and is rigorously audited. It is good data and you can interrogate it using Nomis, a service from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Using Nomis, we can see that in 2012, 34.4% of the working age population of Great Britain, aged 16 to 64, achieved NVQ4+ (a degree-level or equivalent qualification or above)."

    We must have reached the point now for the BBC that newspaper circulations have diminished to such a point that it is clear that they are no longer purposeful and that they are a diminishing power.

  3. .
    Why not just run for office and convince your fellow competent economists to do the same?

    Perhaps the direct approach would be more efficient?

    Express yourself with clarity and you may do very well in the polls.

  4. The Treasury Project Fear document received plenty of coverage but is certainly wrong in its doom and gloom in the short run. It was associated with by public letter by many economists. Their expertise and therefore a consensus on fact not to be questioned by the broadcast media would just be wrong and misleading. It is a clear evidence why your idea is most dangerous.
    What, using your example of Brexit, is also weak in your position, is that it lacks a recognition of nuance in economic opinion. Take brexit, take the costs to the UK economy, a large group say it will be bad but there is difference in degree. This nuance must be represented in any report and allows in itself for critique of the opinion.
    It does seem that such an idea would be able to stifle economic discussion even within the so-called expert opinion and would become a captured group led by the vociferous with the rest rubber stamping their ideas. A real danger.

  5. Compared to Labour newspapers, Conservative ones aren't very good at actually getting their readers to turn out and vote Conservative. Although the Tory press is awash with money and high circulations, this massive support persuaded just 24% of the electorate to turn out and vote Tory in 2015, which was still enough to give them a slim majority at the last general election. The much smaller Labour press persuaded 20% to turn out and vote Labour.
    Sales of newspapers have dropped by around a half over the last 20 years. Because Labour newspapers make up such a small proportion of the total sold, the drop in the number of Tory newspapers sold is much bigger than the drop in the number of Labour ones. In 1997 9.4 million copies of the Sun, Mail and Express were sold every day. Today it's half that figure, which means a drop of 4.7 million copies. How many people read each copy of a newspaper? I believe advertisers assume that each copy is read by, on average, 2.5 people. This means that there around 12 million fewer people reading a Tory (paper) newspaper than there were 20 years ago.
    Of course this all ignores the rise in the number of people reading the online version of a newspaper. But do people read words on a screen in the same way as they read words on paper?
    The first priority of a newspaper is to make money and the paper and website versions are designed to attract as many readers as possible.
    Another important priority, especially to the billionaire owners of Tory newspapers, is to get right-wing views into the minds of their readers. This is what gives these billionaires their political power. Are the online versions of newspapers as good at doing this as their paper versions? When you can click on "sport" to read yesterday's match reports do you then bother to click on the "politics"? Do you click on "health and beauty" and then go on to read "today's political columnist"?
    Is it becoming more difficult for Tory newspapers to persuade their readers to vote Conservative? The Conservatives haven't had a decent majority in the House of Commons for 30 years.

  6. Alexander Harvey2 December 2016 at 01:50

    Have you spoken with the folks at OpenLearn?

    They seem to be the academic influence on and input to the BBC. Perhaps you could get their view why there is not more academic input into programming in the spheres of Finance, Business, and Economics.

    N.B. It seemed odd that their flagship finance/business programme "The Money Programme" died in 2010 (it had been a BBC/OU effort since 2005) just when it had such a rch landscape to explore and explain.

    It would be wonderful to have a programme with a mission to improve economic thinking in the UK and I guess it has been pitched by now, If so, what are the hurdles to making it happen.

    I realise that BBC4, the natural haunt of BBC/OpenLearn output, is niche, but it would be a start and much better than nothing.

  7. Indeed, take a lead from the physical sciences.
    Make some PREDICTIONS and test your hypotheses.
    If your predictions match reality reasonably frequently, then the media and everyone else will pay attention to what you say.
    If not, then Economics only has itself to blame.

  8. tangentially related is a column in the Toronto Star by columnist Ed Keenan about how professional staff in govt. should be allowed to give advice without it having to be shaped because of ideological/policy constraints put on by elected officials, there he is writing about the Mayor and transit related issues.

    My response based on my brief period working for an executive branch agency in a county govt. is that people don't understand how much staff are constrained by the directives of the people in charge. Staff aren't free to say and do what they believe is right necessarily, based on their training. Although my understanding is that Canadian planners are under different professional ethics guidelines compared to the US.

    Keenan has another column comparable to your general writings about NHS, floods, etc. and austerity, about how the Toronto Transit Commission is being forced to raise fares etc., because even though they are a revenue-generating agency, they are forced to confirm to the across the board 2.6% budget cut being pushed on all Toronto city agencies, cf. your point about the funds reduced to deal with flooding (how local govts. like Liverpool are getting crushed by funding cuts, etc.).

    And it happens that Toronto's transit system of any major transit system in North America gets much less "subsidy" funding (additional appropriations beyond revenue generation) comparatively.

    I look forward to reading your speech. (But sad about it too.)


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