Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016


Monday, 24 February 2020

Guardian article on flooding


A very short post linking to my article in the Guardian on flooding. Long time readers will probably remember that I have written about this before. I even naively thought at one point, after the floods at the end of 2013, that this would be Cameron's Katrina. It wasn't, and my naivety was about the UK media. That is why my Guardian article talks not just about a political failure of successive Conservative governments, but also a failure (with only the occasional exception) of the broadcast media.

Some on the left might dismiss this as political bias in the broadcast media, but it is more complex than that. In the article I write
An obsession with breaking news has crowded out memory and background research. Flood victims ask why this keeps happening to them – but ministers simply respond with statistics that their interviewers have not been briefed about. No interviewer asks ministers why they have ignored the Pitt review, because they don’t know that the Pitt review ever existed.”

You cannot hold politicians to account if the broadcast media collectively forgets the past. Each episode of flooding will be treated as if nothing like this ever happened before. In addition there is an inability to handle numbers. Any reporter who looks at the numbers on flood defences (available here) should immediately notice the large increases in spending in 2008/9 and 2009/10. Why is that they should ask. That in turn should lead them to the Pitt review, or they can just ask someone who knows about this stuff.

That process does not happen. The journalist doing the interview has been sent off at the first opportunity to a flooded area, and crucially no one has been feeding them background research. As a result any minister that is available for comment will talk about how the money allocated for flood defences has increased, and the interviewer knowing no better will move on. If by chance any journalist is reading this, the killer fact is that spending in 2018/9 is a lot lower as a share of GDP than at the end of the Labour government, when it should have been much higher given the correct predictions in the Pitt review.

What has happened, it seems to me, is that broadcast media has farmed out background research to the press. Which might work, if the press was unbiased and was not battling to stay afloat. This is all part of a process of disconnecting the media from any source of expertise. As the last line of my article says
If much of the media is bereft of the information that can hold the government to account, then don’t be surprised when people elect governments that ignore experts.”

The result of this media failure is countless flooded homes that might have been kept dry, if the media had done its job in holding the government to account.

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