Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday 12 August 2018

What becomes news and why

One of the unfortunate things that some Remain supporters can do is treat anyone who voted Leave as stupid. How could you vote for such an idiotic idea is a good question, but to assume the answer is stupidity is wrong. I personally know non-political people who voted Leave and they are anything but stupid.

So why did they vote for a stupid policy. To answer that you should ask how do you know it is a stupid policy. My guess is that you have read a lot about it from experts in trade and law and so on, and you have then come to that conclusion. That puts you in a small minority of the population. Most people are pretty uninterested in politics, and do not go out of their way to inform themselves about it day in and day out. They read a newspaper for the sport or the celebrity gossip or the crossword, and take a quick look at the main bit, often reading just a headline. They probably also look at/listen to a single news programme from the broadcasters because they know their newspaper has an agenda.

You could say that indifference to politics is itself stupid. People should be more interested in things that can have a profound influence on their lives. But it is also true that one individual normally has no influence on politics, so it is rational for them not to bother. Furthermore we have a representative democracy which allows most people not to have to think about politics too much except during elections. They delegate the job of worrying about politics to their MPs or councillors.

We are where we are with Brexit not because people were stupid in 2016, but because Brexiters controlled key parts of the means of information. We had Brexit because we had large parts of the press who turned their newspapers into propaganda vehicles for Leave. To believe that almost no one who read these papers were influenced by all this is equivalent to saying advertising does not work at all. What Brexit shows is not that people are stupid but that it is vital who controls the means of information, and the restraints they face from government agencies (which in the UK’s case for the press is pretty much zero).

I am often told that the circulation of newspapers is falling (true) and therefore they no longer have any influence (false). A factor of 2.5 is often used to translate circulation into readership. So even if the combined circulation of the Brexit dailies is 4 million, that means a readership of 10 million (the Leave vote was 17 million). But if you ask people whether they have read a particular newspaper in the past month you get much higher figures: 10 million for the Sun alone, 9 million for the Mail. Electronic readership then multiplies that by a factor of around 3 for those two newspapers.

What about the non-partisan media that do not have a view they want to push. Someone said to me the other day that their job is to report the news, and not to make the world a better place. Unfortunately it is not that simple! What counts as news and what doesn’t? Media outlets will talk about covering things that are important, but who decides what is important?

Very occasionally, some in the media question whether the rules the media currently use to select what is newsworthy are working. Here is a piece by Ezra Klein, who asks whether US media should be paying so much attention to what Donald Trump says, and instead spending more time on what he does. The (unwritten?) rule book for what the media thinks is important includes, at close to the top of the list, what the nation’s leader says. So Trump can with his tweets or speeches send the media where ever he wants them to go, often distracting the media from what he does.

But there is another reason that the media focuses on what Trump says, and that (as Klein suggests) is that importance is only one of the selection criteria the media uses. If it is entertaining or shocking that helps too. Trump knows that as well: it is an important part of why he became POTUS (see here). That is why Boris Johnson’s remarks about letterboxes is straight out of the Trump playbook: media coverage for a week, with maybe a slap over the wrists in a few months time. If your target audience is the Conservative party membership it is a no-brainer for someone like Johnson.

Both Trump and Brexit have created other serious problems for non-partisan media. Balance just does not work when one side is telling obvious lies. As Gavin Esler writes:
“The “crisis in our democracy” comes because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with ‘systematic disinformation’ is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.”

But it would be foolish to think this just started happening two years ago. I knew in March how the Brexit campaign would go because I had seen how the media had treated austerity and the state of the economy before the 2015 election. And similar things were happening on other issues, such as the complete failure to provide good information about the Coalition’s disastrous 2011 health service reforms. An obsession with Westminster gossip meant a failure to educate and inform.

No media organisation ‘just reports the news’. What is news, and how it is talked about, is always a choice, and often a very controversial choice. It is partly about perceived importance, but other values also matter. Partly for that reason, there is far too much coverage of what people say and Westminster gossip, and far too little about what people (invariably governments) are actually doing. Partly because news coverage is so Westminster focused, the insistence of balance has created an incentive for politicians to lie their heads off and not be held to account. The media is neither a neutral purveyor of news nor an institution simply designed to support ‘the system’. The media runs according to rules, rules that can have a profound influence on how people think and how they vote.



  1. I believe that's the same Esler who, while at the BBC, kept saying if you ask however many economists a question you get more answers than there are economists to give them?

  2. "But it is also true that one individual normally has no influence on politics, so it is rational for them not to bother. Furthermore we have a representative democracy which allows most people not to have to think about politics too much except during elections."

    Also the UK has a district system. Only in part of the districts are the two main parties close to each other. In the others it does not matter what you vote, which does not give an incentive to inform oneself.

    For many the Brexit referendum may have been the first time their vote mattered. Democracy needs practise.

  3. "experts in trade and law and so on"

    But these are fops and clueless insulated well-heeled fools who bury themselves in theoretical models while ignoring the realities of everyday life for most of us.

    The idea that GDP growth is good is your problem. Read Lars P Syll's latest blog on how GDP does not correlate with happiness.

    GDP is a totemic number which is mostly imputed by statisticians who ignore holding gains because if they included them under income, their simplistic circular flow of income model would explode. More money comes in to the real economy from the financial sector, created from the thin hot air of promises, than is involved in trade of goods.

  4. I am with you on not labeling those who voted for Brexit as stupid. There is no winning in calling Brexit voters what they are.

  5. This is true up to a point. But we must recognise that a lot of Brexiteers are actually very politically active indeed, fanatics even, and will go out of their way to try NOT to understand the arguments against leaving the EU. They will believe quite preposterous conspiracy theories to explain away why real experts almost universally agree that we are heading for disaster.

    1. As opposed to the Russian conspiracy theories Remainers believe in...

  6. What is the mechanism by which the UK could run a referendum and rescind Article 50? I'd imagine that this would have to be included in the terms of any extension, meaning that the EU27 would have to agree to it, and possibly that agreement would need to go to the ECJ?

  7. Is there any way of working out the cost of the long anti-EU campaign waged by the overwhelming majority of the UK’s newspapers—the ones owned by British tax-exiles and Americans? You never heard a good word about the EU—or the NHS—in any of them.

    (Cunningly, you never heard anything about what might replace the awful EU or the failing NHS, all you heard was criticism. Presumably the reality of Brexit or of privatised medical care had to be kept hidden from their readers because it might put them off.)

    Think of all the money that these newspapers must have spent on paying journalists, researchers, printers and distributors to send anti-EU articles to every corner of the country. How much would an advertiser have to pay for that sort of influence? And why is this thirty-year campaign never even mentioned in TV interviews?

  8. Fascinating.

    As a prominent economist could you help me understand whether the print media market is at equilibrium or not, please?


  9. I believe Brexit shows, not that people are stupid but that they will fall for something if it comports with their small-minded nationalistic and somewhat racist viewpoint. Also, lies - I'm sure nobody who voted Leave thought there would be significant costs with leaving. It boggles the mind but as you say that was the line of propaganda used to sell it (350 million pounds saved per day!)

    1. So, Leavers are not stupid but racist.

      And Remainers wonder why they lost the referendum.

    2. No, I called them small-minded too.

  10. I'd like to challenge the notion that calling Leavers stupid is unfortunate.

    If the goal is to build a democracy that is mature, informed and wise then how we get there probably involves both stick and carrot. I think sometimes the Left tends to treat opposition as an educational challenge when actually the people voting for bad things are just jerks. In particular the Leave campaign saw a lot of people who aren't racist or xenophobic drawn into picking the anti-immigration side. Maybe they need a bit of a shock to wake them up to where they are now politically and who they've climbed into bed with. Particularly Lexiters.

  11. Boris must be the only politician ever who has tried to whip up a populist crowd by openly calling for religious tolerance and the rights of the individual over the state.

    And I note that UK unemployment is at a 40 year low and UK growth, despite all the uncertainty of Brexit, is outpacing the Eurozone. Cannot recall anyone promising that outcome before the referendum. How do you make rational decisions when no-one can predict the future?

  12. What a shame that an institution such as Merton College should diminish its reputation by associating itself with pompous twaddle like this.

    This author compares others with Trump whilst himself attacking the media and offering us a highly selective account of recent events.

    The Government did everything it could to stack the odds in its favour, using the tools of Government to its advantage whilst denying them to the Leave campaign. It also exploited its international links to gain backing for its case. It defined the rules for the conduct of the Referendum to its best advantage. Campaign spending limits would apply only after it had used public money to post a leaflet through every door in support of its views. The Treasury was coerced into concocting spurious short term economic forecasts based upon the absurd assumption that in the event of a Leave vote there would be no fiscal response.

    Yet we are told people voted Brexit because of a biased media. Hardly credible, there was at least as much bias in the other direction.

  13. The problem is increasing interests causes inflation it doesn't fight it. It weakens the currency not make it stronger.

    Pick a graph any graph from millions after 7 US rate hikes.

    There is none.

    The increase cost of credit credit gets passed onto the consumer via higher prices and then of course you have the interest income channels.

    Interest on treasury securities, $210.5 bln, up $17.6 bln. Interest payments are one of the largest spending items also sporting one of the biggest nominal y-o-y increases. Interest payments are growing at 9.1% y-o-, also one of the fastest growing spending items. Which is basic inome for anyone who holds $'s.

    On top of that The spot and forward price for a non perishable commodity imply all storage costs, including interest expense. Therefore, with a permanent zero-rate policy, and assuming no other storage costs, the spot price of a commodity and its price for delivery any time in the future is the same. However, if rates were, say, 10%, the price of those commodities for delivery in the future would be 10% (annualized) higher. That is, a 10% rate implies a 10% continuous increase in prices, which is the textbook definition of inflation! It is the term structure of risk free rates itself that mirrors a term structure of prices which feeds into both the costs of production as well as the ability to pre-sell at higher prices, thereby establishing, by definition, inflation.

    Volcker quickly found out the inflation rate followed the interest rate so did Putin and so did Lula in Brazil.

    The chart above, which tracks the Fed funds rate and annual changes in the Consumer Price Index since 1954, shows clearly that the relationship between interest rates and inflation are highly correlated and not in an inverse way.It's practically a one-to-one correlation. You could pretty much superimpose these two lines.

    Unless of course Simon you can point me in the right direction to any real data after 7 US rate hikes that backs up your theory that increasing interest rates fights inflation considering US inlfation is at a 6 year high ??

  14. As someone observing from another continent, I cannot be sure what makes for the Brexit vote. But I think people see the damage wrought by the EU institutions, which include fiscal strictures, deregulation, and the single currency. People see that the policies brought stagnation, cyclical instability, falling wages, public sector cuts to afflicted countries. These have not helped the UK; that country too has in fact lost on balance from the anti-Keynesian thrust of eurozone policies. Hence, imho, the views of voters are not as irrational as you suggest.
    Given the generally anti-Keynesian views of leaders in Germany and elsewhere in the EU, there is no way that EU policies will move very far in a Keynesian direction, with, say, a central fiscal authority to offset the contractionary bias of the single currency together with its fiscal limits. MMT blogger Bill Mitchell argues to this effect in this recent post:
    Hence, long after the vote, strong grounds exist for a claim that Brexit is smart on balance.
    On the other hand, anti-immigrant sentiments of pro-Brexit voters were far less rational and to some extent reflect the lack of good information on the issues in the media. These views helped to drive the vote in favor of exit. Namely, pro-stagnation policies that badly undercut effective demand and real wages around the region help to justify voters’ sentiments against a framework that offered more enlightened policies on immigration and social protections. The right government could do a great deal on these issues while remaining outside the EU.

  15. I think there is one fundamental fact about this that contradicts your position.

    For over twenty years the National Centre for Social Research has consistently reported that survey results show that more than 50% are in favour of leaving the EU or at least radically reducing its power.

    Brexit was not an aberration; it was an opportunity for many to express long held views and the media probably made very little difference.

  16. “One of the unfortunate things that some Remain supporters can do is to treat anyone who voted Leave as stupid.”

    But this is what this article does. It says that people are so stupid that they cannot recognise and compensate for bias in media reporting.

    In practice most people will read this article and they will see that there is no mention of Greece and they will correctly dismiss it as propaganda, (particularly since the author is always banging on about the evils of austerity elsewhere).

    The British media did a good job of fairly reporting what happened in Greece. Many voters correctly decided that it would be stupid to remain in an organisation that treated Greece in the way that the EU did. Remain supporters believe that they if they ignore the ‘Greece Issue’ then people won’t notice. It is they who are stupid. In the negotiations which preceded the referendum and in the subsequent negotiations, the EU have done everything possible to reinforce the view that their treatment of Greece is not a one-off aberration. People who reject the EU as a malign organisation are not stupid. Their wish to free themselves from the EU is not ‘idiotic’.


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