Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The BBC and Patrick Minford

Over the last few days the BBC has given considerable publicity to Patrick Minford’s new report published by the ‘Economists for Free Trade’. I have looked at both the BBC News website entry and listened to the Radio 4 Today programme’s discussion. They are both classic ‘2 sided controversy’ formats, with Monique Ebell from the National Institute of Social and Economic Research (NIESR) providing the main opposition.

So why was this coverage something the BBC should be deeply ashamed about? There are two main reasons, but first let me make a more general point which applies to journalism more generally. There is no quality control in most of the media when it comes to giving publicity to a report like this. There is a very simple reason for this, and that is the primacy given to immediacy. In a better world, when a report like this came out, journalists would spend a few days ringing around to see what the reaction of other experts were, or nowadays just look at reactions on twitter.

In this particular case such a strategy would have thrown up some apparently large errors, and this should have led journalists to question whether they should give the report any publicity. They might at the very least have waited until the full report was published next month.

Let me give an analogy. Suppose a report of a medical trial had suggested a miracle cure for some serious disease. The report had not been peer reviewed, and its author had connections to a drug company that stood to benefit from the alleged cure, but the BBC had decided to give it considerable publicity nevertheless. Within days it became clear that there were serious problems with the report, and that there were other existing papers that came to a completely different conclusion. The BBC would then look very foolish, and many sufferers from this disease would have been given false hope. I suspect for that reason the BBC would be much more cautious. Yet if the report is about a subject matter with any political implications this caution appears to go out of the window.

Now let me get to the two reasons why the BBC should be ashamed in this case. First, Patrick Minford is no expert in international trade. He is a macroeconomist, who in his younger, less obviously political, days served as something of a role model for me. He published a very similar argument about the benefits of unilateral trade liberalisation during the referendum campaign. It was heavily criticised by individuals or groups that are experts in international trade. So we have already had the quality control, yet the BBC decided to ignore that. Returning to my analogy, it is as if there had been earlier claims of miracle cure that had been thoroughly debunked by medical experts and the BBC had ignored these.

Second, at no point in either of the two items I looked at is there any mention that the overwhelming consensus among academic economists is that Brexit would be harmful to the economy. We just have reports that give two opinions, with no context whatsoever about which opinion is the consensus view and which is the maverick. It is exactly equivalent to giving considerable publicity to a report from some climate change denial outfit, and including a response from one or two climate scientists with no mention of what the consensus among climate scientists is. Again to draw on my analogy, it is like reporting a miracle cure and failing to say that nearly all doctors thought this was rubbish.

This last point about ignoring the clear consensus touches a particular nerve for me, because it is exactly what the BBC appeared to many of us to do during the referendum campaign. Yet when the Royal Economic Society complained about this, they were told that the economic consensus had been mentioned in this and that bulletin. Whether this was cherry picking by the BBC is not easy to establish after the event. [1] Well here is an example where it was not mentioned, and I would like to hear from the BBC why this information was not thought to be useful to convey to its audience. [2] 

On both counts, this is very bad journalism, even if you do not think economics has the same standing as medicine. The BBC may have thought they had brushed off complaints from economists, but here is a specific example where they really do have a serious case to answer. As Ben Chu rightly says: “The legitimate news story around Minford’s work is how bad science can survive and thrive when it supports the desires and prejudices of powerful people in our society … the BBC ... has become part of the problem.” Brexit is the Emperor's New Clothes, and no one - including the BBC - dares say that the Emperor has no clothes.

[1] Not easy but not impossible: it would cost a few thousand pounds in research time for someone to go through the main news reports during the Brexit campaign and establish how many times the economic consensus was mentioned.

[2] Channel 4 News did put the point to Minford that many economists thought his work was flawed, to which he responded by saying “all these trumped up economists and the consensus they are all hired hands”‘. A very political answer from a very political economist, and therefore very revealing, but not a question the BBC apparently thought worth asking.  

23 comments:

  1. When I looked on Sunday at the BBC's red button teletext service, the Minford report was top story under UK News, under Politics, and under Business.

    The title of the piece and the way it had worked its way into BBC news across its Sunday coverage suggests to me this was a think-tank manoeuvre of the sort the BBC has been supplicating to for decades.

    I think we have a recent analogy when it comes to bad journalism, those reports of the MMR jab.

    Sadly, the BBC has become, since 2008, a quack institution fit only for careerists.

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  2. I think the BBC as become part of the problem because it kills two birds with one stone,it discredits the BBC which also serves those powerful forces in our society! whilst also putting out flat earth economics ideology,this can be seen by the fact private news as kept away ,well until the storm brews and then they will use it to attack the BBC but without ever actually debunking it themselves,this is how our"free to abuse media" works,the BBC needs changing and (made independent once more)other media needs strong enforcement over it!

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  3. excellent and important post. I do hope to see a response from the BBC.

    The economics profession needs to become better at communicating the consensus positions.

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  4. If you haven't seen, the Zurich based Media Tenor put the BBC bias ratio in EU stories at 5:1 over last 15 years. Shameful. see: http://mediatenor.com/images/files/pr_brexit_june_24_2016_1.pdf

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  5. Many people would criticize the BBC as you have done and for exactly the same reason. They may think that they cannot win in a situation like this and will never get it right and tend to withdraw to the line of least resistance. And they are probably right and the fact of your ire tends to confirm that.

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  6. It's curious. I remember a radio discussion panel among economics journalists in German, immediately after the Referendum. One participant confidently predicted that the UK would become "Europe's Mexico". A centre of low-cost, low wage manufacturing.

    It seemed a bit far-fetched to me - I felt the UK had plenty of other advantages in trading, even post-Brexit, even outside the Single Market.

    But it's actually eerily similar to the prognosis of Professor Minford

    http://www.economistsforfreetrade.com/News/brexit-could-boost-uk-economy-by-135-billion-say-top-economists/

    "The very threat of UFT would also put huge pressure on the EU to offer Britain a free trade deal because, if it did not, its producers, such as car makers and farmers, would find themselves trying to compete in a UK market flooded with less expensive goods from all over the world, Professor Minford argues. Much the same would happen even if the UK simply obtained FTAs with key world suppliers of food and manufactures that are keen to do so such as the US, Australia and New Zealand."

    With the slight difference that the German journalist sounded appalled at the prospect, on Britain's behalf.

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    1. «One participant confidently predicted that the UK would become "Europe's Mexico". A centre of low-cost, low wage manufacturing.»

      But that's not a prediction of the future, it is a description of the past. For example Sunderland is a low-value added Nissan "maquiladora" plant in which Japanese and continental manufactured car blocks are merely assembled for re-export. An article in the FT reports that 75% of the parts that go into Vauxhalls assembled in the Ellesmere "maquiladora" come from continental (polish, french) sources.
      These "maquiladora" plants were sited in England because at the time it had the combination of lowest wages and weakest labour laws in the pre-enlargement EC.

      That was why M Thatcher pushed hard for a customs union and complete removal of barriers within the EC with her Single Market plan: she was persuaded that having cut wages and wreck the unions, and privatized whatever could be, english industry unleashed by her neoliberalism would outcompete and smash the lumbering socialist and corporatist industries of France and Germany, dragged down by the costs of socialdemocracy and the delays from state influence.
      Thus english exports to the rest of the EU would surge with english business profits, and dominance of the EU single market would give the english government greater power in setting EU policies. Rule Britannia! :-)

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  7. Odd?
    I read said article on BBC website, and was left in no doubt that Minfords model was fundamentally flawed and that a significant number of serious sounding bodies (I'm not an economist - i live somewhat in the real world) had models that showed (presumably agreed with eachother - for a given value of agreed) a substantially different outcome to the brexopalypse.

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    1. The original report on the BBC website described Minford and his colleagues as "economists", while those cited with opposing views were called "campaigners"; so the impression given to the naive reader was that the expertise was on Minford's side, and criticism was politically motivated. That version was replaced with a more balanced one within a few hours, I presume in response to the many complaints. You must have read this second version.

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    2. It left me fuming at the partiality of bbctoday

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  8. The exposure given to Minford may be excessive but it does raise an interesting question: why isn't any prominent defender of Brexit saying "that's not what I meant at all"?

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  9. I think you are right about the BBC's economics coverage but I am far from sure that it is much better in other fields. The case of the MMR jab mentioned by another correspondent is a good one. Back in the 1970s John Birt complained that TV news and current affairs was a conspiracy against understanding. Little has changed.

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  10. The online story may have been edited later. The one I read had balancing comment but you had to read on to get to it. Arguably, the balance should have been in the second sentence or paragraph.

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  11. What is "economists for free trade"?
    Is it a think tank?
    Who funds it?
    They do have a plausible collection of eight economics/finance Professors, and former MPC members, http://www.economistsforfreetrade.com/who-we-are/ which gives an aura of academic respectability for their views.
    Their advisers, Rees-Mogg, Patterson, Ridley, et al, are rather more obviously oriented in ideology, than evidence based science.

    FWIW my previous complaints to BBC about Today's 1v1 adversarial discussions, on e.g. Lord Lawson, have met with well practised straight bats.

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  12. Quote:- "he responded by saying “all these trumped up economists and the consensus they are all hired hands”‘. Well Simon, there's another mention of the consensus for the BBC to count.

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  13. "Let me give an analogy. Suppose a report of a medical trial had suggested a miracle cure for some serious disease. The report had not been peer reviewed, and its author had connections to a drug company that stood to benefit from the alleged cure, but the BBC had decided to give it considerable publicity nevertheless."

    This is exactly what happens in certain mainstream newspapers, and I fear that the BBC is heading the same way. It has neither the capacity nor willingness to exercise quality control. One possibility is that the unwillingness to exert quality control would put it in open conflict with the right-wing press and it wants to avoid that.


    Guano

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  14. Your group of 'individuals and groups that are experts on international trade' doesn't seem to include a single person who trades anything internationally.

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  15. This reminds me of the accusations of "science by press conference" around the link between the MMR vaccination and autism. Fundamentally the media seems ill-suited to covering discussions within academia.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MMR_vaccine_controversy#Media_role

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  16. This extract from Wikipedia sums up the BBC perfectly for me:

    "Israeli–Palestinian conflict[edit]
    Criticism of the BBC's Middle East coverage from supporters of both Israel and the Palestinians led the BBC to commission an investigation and report from a senior broadcast journalist Malcolm Balen, referred to as the Balen Report and completed in 2004. The BBC's refusal to release the report under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 resulted in a long-running and ongoing legal case.[45][46] This led to speculation that the report was damning, as well as to accusations of hypocrisy, as the BBC frequently made use itself of Freedom of Information Act requests when researching news stories.[47]

    After the Balen report, the BBC appointed a committee chosen by the Governors and referred to by the BBC as an "independent panel report" to write a report for publication which was completed in 2006. Chaired by the British Board of Film Classification president, Sir Quentin Thomas, the committee found that "apart from individual lapses, there was little to suggest deliberate or systematic bias" in the BBC's reporting of the middle east. However, their coverage had been "inconsistent," "not always providing a complete picture" and "misleading", and that the BBC failed to adequately report the hardships of Palestinians living under occupation.[47][48][49] Reflecting concerns from all sides of the conflict, the committee highlighted certain identifiable shortcomings and made four recommendations, including the provision of a stronger editorial "guiding hand"."


    As a casual observer of the media and BBC in particular I have always recognised the bias, the BBC has been decked out completely by establishment sycophants that peddle propaganda as though it were fact

    An old trick explained to me by a local journalist, was ommission, when for example this journalist (we used to call them that in the 1970s ) said that when he wrote an article favourable to Labour in some respect, the editor had a blue coloured pencil and just crossed through it, cancelling out balance in reporting.

    We only have to look at the people now presenting politics at the BBC to know what the BBC represents, Nick Ferrari being the latest addition to the Tory Stable. The latest applicant to join Theresa May's team Robbie Gibb, Robbie Gibb edits the Daily and Sunday Politics programmes. now the new Tory Communication director.

    There were always people that would cry out conspiracy theory when others made claims that the establishment had a hand in any of the underhand tricks perpetrated against the public at large, but today we see it first hand as an open conspiracy, and they simply don't care.

    The latest evidence of that is hot of the social media, "Traingate" where Branson lied about Jeremy corbyn pointing out overcrowding on
    Virgin trains.


    https://twitter.com/ToryFibs/status/900309939201204224?t=1&cn=ZmxleGlibGVfcmVjc18y&refsrc=email&iid=f05e1f2c1ab74bcfb733f30da6abbff3&uid=330210724&nid=244+289476608


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  17. Perhaps the BBC are cleverer than you think. Had they interviewed bankers, market experts, and indeed even economists, during the 1990s and early to mid 2000s, they would be told that deregulation of international labour, goods and even capital markets was a unanimously good thing because it ensured "an efficient allocation of resources" - and this would be the unquestioned mainstream consensus. This would be based on evidence presented by "experts" with "sophisticated" models that only they could understand. Sceptics, which would have included people with backgrounds in history, philosophy, anthropology and history would have been ignored.

    I suspect the BBC also gives voice to climate change denialists. However, even if they do they would have little traction in the eyes of the public because the science behind climate change is fundamentally sound. It does not rely on abstraction; scientists literally go to glaciers and collect all kinds of quantitative and non-quantitative evidence. The science is also multidisciplinary - and includes every one from historians (real ones) to soil experts. When was the last time you got primary evidence from the labour market, including paying a view visits to factories? Do you do this or do you just input numbers into an econometric model? The recent financial crisis exposed the economics (and financial) profession and their models and ways of doing things for what they were. Of course such experts are going to be met with scepticism.

    I do not like Patrick Minford and his rational expectations models, but I do appreciate what the BBC is trying to do.

    NK

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  18. I'm not alone in finding BBC 'news' coverage increasingly 'tabloid', by which I mean sensationalist and lacking rigorous analysis.

    I used to think that if each of the main political parties was insistent that the BBC was biased against it that that was a fair sign that it was doing a good job in its attempts at impartiality.

    BBC impartiality on the matter of Scottish affairs is also seemingly non-existent.

    Increasingly I turn to Al Jazeera (online) for a view that may be more balanced. I no longer regard the BBC as a reliable news source. In fact I'd go so far as to say that that I regard it as a source of 'establishment' (not necessarily government) propaganda.

    And I decline to pay the licence fee. Have done for a number of years and recommend others to do likewise. Not being exposed to television 'noise' is very mentally liberating I find.

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  19. It is important to chat to Japanologists (and I stress Japanologists - not so called Japan experts who go to Model rather than an extensive knowledge of the country).

    The Japanese had to put up with a lot during the 1990s and 2000s when the macro-elite (including the IMF and OECD) said that their debt levels were too large. This included, by the way, Paul Krugman - for a very long time before he changed his tune. But believe me it was what you would call the Japanese heteredoxy and old-school Japanese economists saying that Japan should not worry about its government debt levels because of malaise in the private sand especially the financial sector - not mainstream economists (including Japanese economists who were part of this international elite).

    Careful with this "borrowing in your own currency" thing. While this is true for Japan (which is, perhaps surprising to many, largely a closed country), it is not for say South Korea - which must borrow in dollars to finance its trade. Such countries are OK as long as they do not have large external deficits.

    NK.

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  20. Perhaps it is time to make the BBC accountable to the people who pay for it. The current system of a Board appointed by people appointed by government is not healthy imv.

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