Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 19 June 2018

How Broadcasters should handle the Prime Minister lying

This post is about the Brexit Dividend and how broadcasters should treat it. However I want to start with an extreme case: Donald Trump. He is the right place to start because he became POTUS in good part because of how the media treated him and his opponent. He gained publicity by saying outrageous things. That increased his poll rating, so he started getting favourable coverage because his poll ratings were going up. (I explain how this works in more detail here.) Once he was the republican candidate, the media’s obsession with balance meant they spent as much time talking about the trivial issue of Clinton’s emails as Trump’s lies, whether he pays any taxes, bribes officials and assaults women.

One of the most remarkable polls during that campaign was that more people trusted Trump than Hillary Clinton. How can someone who lies all the time, almost every time he says anything, be trusted more than Hillary Clinton, who has had countless Republican inspired investigations into her affairs and has never been convicted of anything. For some time cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff has pioneered the idea that (among many other things - see for example a Guardian article with Gil Duran) lies that are repeated often enough become associations in people’s minds that they find it hard to combat. So the phrase ‘crooked Hillary’ that Trump repeats all the time has a purpose beyond firing up the base. Equally when Republican’s start investigations into her affairs that alone puts an association of guilt in people’s minds. That is a key reason why before the election they trusted Trump more than Clinton.

In the United States Trump played the media big time, and continues to do so. If the media is not careful the same thing could happen here. The phrase ‘Brexit dividend’ is the equivalent of ‘crooked Hillary’. If it is repeated enough, a sufficient number of people will begin to associate Brexit with a ‘dividend’, whether that dividend is real or not. And in case someone reading this does not know by now, the Brexit dividend is a complete fiction.

To see how May’s claim that there is a Brexit dividend should be handled, read this in the FT and this from Sky News. (HT Femi) The FT article does not have ‘Brexit dividend’ in its title, and this is important. As Lakoff argues, the more often people see those two words together the more likely they are to associate them, so do not put it in a headline as many people just read headlines. (Putting it in inverted commas does nothing.) He suggests what he calls the ‘truth sandwich’ approach: begin with a truthful statement, then report the dishonest spin, and then fact check the spin. Leaving out that first stage plays into the hands of whoever promoted the spin.

Who are the heroes and villains in this example of barefaced lying (see my definition of barefaced below). For villains we have to start with Theresa May herself: if this is a sop to the Brexiters in exchange for a soft Brexit that is no mitigation. Boris Johnson of course for suggesting the idea: the court might like to take a large number of previous offences into account. The right wing Brexit press for whom lying is just part of their game.

Heroes include Paul Johnson, who toured the broadcasters on Sunday to emphatically say there was no dividend, and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston for saying it was complete nonsense, as well as the two references already given in the FT and from Sky News. I hope there were other examples that I did not happen to notice.

What about the BBC? It did have Paul Johnson on, and Laura Kuenssberg did at least ask the existential question, although she felt unable to answer it. (There are not ‘economic’ and ‘political’ truths: arithmetic is arithmetic, lies are lies.) But there are unfortunately other occasions when the Brexit dividend was treated as if it was real and put into headlines (e.g. here), missing out the first layer of the truth sandwich. And of course the Marr interview on Sunday, where he did not even question the concept. All too often (e.g. here) any questioning of the dividend was left to the end of the article and was presented in the standard ‘he said,she said’ format.

Why does this all matter? In terms of Brexit, it is obvious. Another barefaced lie in the Brexit campaign was £350 per week for the NHS. Most Brexiters continue to believe that they will be better off after Brexit, and I suspect most are not aware why this is unlikely to be true. Talk of the Brexit dividend is designed to keep them in their ignorance.

But I think its importance goes well beyond Brexit. Why don’t politicians lie more often to enhance their cause? Some have integrity, but for the others the deterrent is being found out. But being found out depends critically on the media calling out lies when they happen. And when a large section of the media are very selective about how they treat lies depending on who said them or why they were said, or indeed are often the source of these lies, society has a serious problem.

That is the situation in the US with Fox and Trump and in the UK with the right wing press and Brexit or the Conservatives more generally. How the print media in the US and the broadcast media in the UK treats lies has therefore become critical. With lies ‘she said, he said’ type reporting is just not sufficient to defend democracy. Now often it is quite difficult to prove someone is lying, but if I could delineate a barefaced lie as one where it is very easy to establish the truth, then the Brexit dividend is a barefaced lie. OBR documents, accepted by the government as the basis for their tax and spend decisions, show quite clearly that the money has already been spent. You cannot spend the same money twice.

The right wing Brexit press have already supported this lie. As most of their readers also watch broadcasters, it is imperative that these broadcasters inflict some political damage on those who tell the lie. If they do not, the lesson certain politicians will draw is that they too can get away with barefaced lies, encouraging the kind of behaviour we see with Trump. For that reason broadcasters have to speak truth to power, otherwise the non-partisan media becomes complicit in propaganda or just a mouthpiece for politicians.


  1. I hope you'll moderate comments faster, you've done half a dozen posts now without the comments showing up, it prevents us debating one post before your next appears

  2. I'm on the left of the Labour Party but I find this sort of thing rather self-destructive. It's not good enough to lose and then blame the media. We did that all through the 80s. It was the Sun wot won it! Well, your party is supposed to win the election despite this barrier. Maybe you have to compromise on something like nationalisation, or taxes, or even -- shock horror -- immigration to win. It's better than losing and letting the Tories wreck the place. IS some of the compromise forced upon you by the power and influence of the press? Yeah, like in all countries.

    You don't seem to know enough about the Clinton case. Please be aware that the Sanders supporters saw through her, and the liberals in the American media (printed and online) are not the same.

    Using the phrase "Clinton's emails" and "trivial" here obscures the truth of the matter, which is that she took classified info off government premises without permission, something that ppl have indeed been prosecuted for. When Comey said she was "extremely careless" why did this not reach the standard of "gross negligence"? He didn't say. That's why you have ppl thinking Clinton was treated with kid gloves.

    Trump of course has never been "convicted of anything", and, well surely you know that Clinton, too, "lies all the time"!

    The Brexit dividend is incorrect of course, and while there are "economic lies" (deliberate untruths) there are things where the truth is in dispute *especially* in a field as inconclusive as economics.

    It's a popular belief, repeated by the FT and many others, that economic growth has increased because of EEC/EU membership. In fact growth has not increased during that time. It's a fraction of a percentage point lower.

    Our performance did improve relative to the original Six. But solely because their growth rate fell.

    So, where did this meme come from? Did somebody lie? Was it an innocent mistake? And how do you want to treat those who keep repeating it?

  3. A lot of people (and an increasing number of them) get Trump's statements straight from his Twitter account. It's only a matter of time before more politicians realise they can get away with more lies if they become social media influencers.

  4. “Another barefaced lie in the Brexit campaign was £350m per week for the NHS.”

    How many people like me are heartily fed up with the hypocrisy of the Remainers who are continuously calling out the falsities of the Leave campaign whilst failing to acknowledge the greater transgressions of the Remain campaign?

    For the record, Osborne stated prior to the vote that people who voted Leave would have to accept responsibility for initiating a post referendum budget which entailed £30 billion of tax rises and spending cuts. This was a naked attempt to blackmail people into voting Remain and it was based upon a blatant lie. Osborne’s falsehood was far more pernicious than Johnson’s and probably more effective. Had the vote gone the other way then few people would have believed that they had been deprived of a £350 million a week bonus but many people would have been believed that they had avoided an emergency budget.

    Whereas Johnson propagated a crude and barely believable exaggeration to persuade people to vote Leave, Osborne perpetrated a serious threat which was intended to intimidate people into voting Remain. The two are not remotely comparable. Osborne’s transgression was a severe and grave breach of accepted political norms way beyond the half truths, evasions and exaggerations which are a sadly a common feature of politics today.

    In fact Osborne’s false claim for an emergency budget was not the worst lie of the Referendum campaign. That dubious honour is jointly shared by the IMF who predicted a sharp rise in interest rates in the event of a Leave vote and Osborne who predicted a rise in mortgage rates even though he was aware that the BOE was planning an interest rate cut in the aftermath of a Brexit vote.

  5. It is important to challenge straightforward deception.

    1) May, and others, in the run-up to the referendum, said that we did not have unchecked migration because some serious criminals from EU countries were occasionally denied entry. So if one hundred in one million are denied entry then "unchecked" is an inapt characterisation of what EU membership does to our ability to control our borders. This, of course, is entirely false.

    2) The Treasury paper produced in the lead-up to the referendum noted all of the disastrous consequences of leaving the EU. Most of their argument was predicated on the UK becoming more protectionist once we were able to. Leave - essentially - meant Corbynista production subsidies. This, of course, is entirely dishonest.

    3) We're told that the economy needs migrants, ergo we need the self-selected group of EU migrants who choose to come to the UK. Utter piffle, of course.

    4) We're continually told that total GDP matters. A billion unskilled workers earning £10,000 each would be ten trillion. UK GDP would be six times higher than it is. We wouldn't, of course, benefit, and it's wholly dishonest for the Channel 4 chattering class "Are we really regulated by OFCOM? crew to tell us otherwise.

    5) We're told that EU migrants are net contributors when we've every reason to think this is an artefact of their being beyond compulsory education and before tax-credit funded fecundity, or senility. So noting the "benefit" of this migration is often dishonest: the people spouting this stuff know better.

    I could go on, but what's the point? Progressives excuse their own lack of candour because they think they're sharing their Butterkist with the angels. NB. Polly Toynbee ain't got wings, and Owen Jones is the brainless product of the unnatural coupling of Toynbee and a original copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

    1. 2) Incorrect, it was predicated on the UK being subject to EU tariffs, losing a lot of trade with the EU, and it not being replaced, and suffering a loss of future productivity gains an EU member would be getting from trade. On a loss of productivity due to a loss of FDI it does look like the Treasury were being naughty and not just sloppy. See this critique by Coutts and Gudgin, they find that Brexit would cause a small loss of GDP in the shoter term but far less than the Treasury and others did. SW-L had a skirmish with them but I wish he would engage with the whole thing.

    2. 4) Considering Jon Snow was the one who asked Miliband "what about the deficit?!" perhaps we can peg Channel 4 News as "socially liberal, fiscally conservative".

  6. The sad thing is, if they had claimed an extra £350 per week for the NHS even that would have been a lie.

    As it is, I think your article is missing a few zeroes at the moment ...

  7. On the specifics of the NHS and Brexit, if we negotiate a clean break from the EU then we will have money we would otherwise be paying to the EU to spend on the NHS. In that sense, it is correct to claim there is a "Brexit dividend"

    As to whether leaving the EU will economically damage the UK, this is unclear in the long term. In the short term, there is unanimity amongst economists that the UK economy will suffer. But there was equal unanimity that simply voting leave would cause a recession and lose jobs, neither of which happened, so I see no reason why the predictions of economists should be regarded as anything other than interesting commentary from a class of people who have a side in the argument.

    1. Indeed about the dividend.

      I voted Remain myself because I thought even a Leave result could cause enough uncertainty to send us back into recession, which is the last thing we need economically or politically at the moment.

      That didn't happen. But the difference between the referendum result and Brexit day itself is that in the latter case business needs to operate day to day without our EU membership and the sudden change could provoke a recession especially if there is no deal and/or the govt hasn't solved lorries at Dover etc.

  8. It isn't just May who has spouted this, the leader of the opposition has also made this same claim

  9. On NHS spending: suppose that inflation falls to zero for the next six years. Then under the government's plans, the present annual £115 million budget of the NHS would rise by 3.4% each year until it had reached £135 billion---a £20 billion increase---by 2023-24.

    Why did the Conservatives chose £20 billion for the increase? Well, it's an easy number to remember and it works out to be £385 million per week, which is bigger than the £350 million figure on the side of the Brexit bus.

    Incidentally, in the year before 2023-24, the increase is £16.5 billion, which is £317 million per week and does not meet the Brexit bus target. In other words the £385 million a week is not coming soon.

    Inflation will not, of course, fall to zero: the CPI---the government's favoured index of inflation---is currently running at around 2.5% per year.

    In her Andrew Marr interview (17 June) May said that by 2023-24 NHS spending will have increased by £600 million per week---in cash terms?---which means an increase of £31 billion for that year. (This £31 billion will have the same spending power as the £20 billion would have had under zero inflation.)

    This means that the Conservatives are planning on raising spending on the NHS by 4.9% per year to offset the reduced spending power that inflation causes.

    Take 2.5% from 4.9% and you're left with 2.4%. The NHS since it was first formed in 1948 has had average annual rises in its budget of about 3.8% in real terms. So let's hope, as I supposed earlier, that inflation heads downwards from its present value and stays down for five years.

    (Here's a date for your diary: watch out for the Chancellor boasting in November's Budget Statement that "NHS spending is due to rise by 5% in April 2019.")

  10. Whilst I completely agree with you, I fear that the new order is that lies, deceit and fraud will NOT be called out by most of the press. Sadly, we have an appalling press in this country. The BBC is the mouthpiece of the government of the day for the most part and older voters are still heavily influenced by the most right-wing press in Europe.

    Of course we had the barefaced lies about Corbyn as a Czech spy. Everyone knew, from day one, that was utter garbage but along with the drip, drip from the right-wing press, even allegations as ridiculous as these stick.

  11. Here's a double standard: “How can someone who lies all the time, almost every time he says anything, be trusted more than Hillary Clinton, who has had countless Republican inspired investigations into her affairs and has never been convicted of anything.
    Trump has never been convicted of anything.
    Would David Petraeus, who lost his CIA directorship because of carelessness with confidential information think the Hillary Clinton emails issue is “trivial”. Which media are "non-partial"?

    1. Amazingly this also happened to a previous Director of the CIA, John Deutch, who kept classified info on an unclassified laptop. Bill Clinton pardoned him on his last day in office. Hillary Clinton knew what she was doing was wrong.

      Of course, when deciding who to vote for for president there is more than just the email server or whether each candidate lies all the time. The real reason SW-L supported Clinton is of course that she was liberal, so he ought to justify his preference on those grounds rather than demanding ppl ignore the email investigation. E.g. she was going to give free tuition and primary healthcare to most people.

  12. I'm afraid your comments about Trump are hyperbole. The vast majority of the media in the US were pro Clinton; only really Fox News was pro Trump. When, some months before the election, there was a TV round table and when one of the participants suggested that Trump might win she was utterly ridiculed and insulted. No, the media may have stirred the pot but it was already boiling when Trump came on the scene so the lies meme fall somewhat short of a complete explanation.

    The same applies in the UK; although the Daily Mail et al were pro Brexit the alienation from the EU was already there.

    The implicit view you have is that people are simply lied to and manipulated and are little more than puppets and cannot distinguish between lies and truth and I'm afraid this is wide of the mark.

    1. You're both half right. The American media gave saturation coverage to Trump during primary season which helped him defeat the other 15 Republicans. The in the general election they were almost all anti-Trump. Since the other candidates were crazy anyway (wanting to reintroduce the gold standard for example) and the most likely major policy of Trump's that Congress would pass is the big tax cut for the rich (and they did), it may not have mattered much.

    2. The UK's many Conservative newspapers always modestly claim that they never form the views of their readers, they only follow them.
      Newspapers are seemingly unable to influence their readers to get them to do what the editors want.
      So why do newspapers carry advertisements?

  13. Perhaps over-thinking slightly? Surely all anyone really needs to do is wait until the PM starts speaking and without even hearing exactly what she says, just immediately snap, "LIAR!" Odds are overwhelming that you'll be right.

  14. I feel what everyone is missing here is not just that she lies, but Tories themselves say that if they told people the truth about their real intentions no one would vote for them.

    That said are the Tories really as stupid as we think they are, the chaos they create has enabled them to achieve their sole aim of dismantling the state, and at each turn they absract out attention by creating constant diversions to take our eye of the real objective, which is to blast out of the EU claiming it was impossible to make a so called deal work. Then immediately jump into bed with Trump and strike a TTIP deal that will alow American corporations to walk in and take what they want from our health service.

    The ground work has already been put in place by the arch stooge Simon Stevens with his bite size 42 footprints. United Health here we come!

    The other small matter is that those so concerned about staying in the EU delve into the minutia of detail relating to amounts of money gained or lost whilst overlooking the the real events now taking place in Europe.

    There are riots on the streets of Paris:

    Not only in Paris, but Germany, Turkey and Greece, Europe is suffering from exactly the same problems as we are here for exactly the same reasons. NEO-LIBERALISM and it won't go away until we and Europe get rid of these politicians and invested in people not global corporations.

    1. As Simon has pointed out, Osborne didn't simply want to shrink the state. He even did tax rises to try and balance the budget. But all his budgets were regressive, whereas Brown always did progressive budgets. The Tories wanted to make tax and benefit changes to hurt the poor and comfort the comfortable.

      If Osborne had got a budget surplus, which he was on course to do by the end of the last parliament with the aid of creative accounting, he would have boasted that he saved the economy, and then handed out a middle class tax cut, so the Tories would be re-elected, preferably with himself as PM after Cameron. It didn't work of course because austerity helped cause the Leave vote and an early general election.

  15. While I hold no truck with either May or Trump, your comments on Clinton are massively wide of the mark.

    Almost certainly the main reason that the US media took Trump seriously was because the Clinton camp expressly pushed for them to do so. Wikileaks have exposed their ‘Pied Piper’ strategy in which the Clintons used their tame media outlets to promote him and the other bigots in the Republican race as serious to ensure that either they would be the opponent come the Presidential election or at the very least the Republican nominee would be pushed far to the right.

    In her/their hubris they saw the outcome as a certain win for Hilary who could then use the political space between them to campaign on a centrist platform (that’s US centrist: neoliberal militarist with nice words on identity politics).

    The Clinton emails too were far from trivial – and stating that they were shows you’re all too susceptible to Lakeoff’s ‘repeated lies’. It was precisely these emails that were going to (finally) leave her open to prosecution for years of graft in the US. They were deleted despite (almost certainly because of) a subpoena for them to be released for the Benghazi investigation and there are all sorts of issues arising from the Clinton Foundation that their release would bring light upon.

    See this one for starters:


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