A new publication was launched earlier this week “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big steps to a smaller state“, calling for a radical downsizing of the public sector and giving an indication of the corresponding tax cuts that would be made possible as a result. The media coverage was, as you might expect, mixed. The Guardian headline read “Thinktank advocates abolition of the NHS and slashing overseas aid” whereas the Daily Mail had a somewhat different take on the issue “You call those ‘savage cuts’? Actually they are dangerously pathetic” . No surprise on the line taken by either of those papers – no change there then.
But the headlines that actually caught my eye – and caused a huge intake of breath - both came from City AM – “Public in dark on UK debt” and the editorial “Media is failing public in many ways” . The focus of these two articles was not on the “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes” publication per se but on the COMRES/IEA survey that ran alongside this story.
That survey suggests a terrifying level of misunderstanding/ignorance about the state of Britain’s finances. One of the most astonishing facts coming out of the survey was that an alarming 70% of those asked believed the government is cutting £350bn from the debt over the course of the parliament – fewer than one in ten people realised that the government is actually adding hundreds of billions of pounds to the national debt.
This is a startling revelation. We are not talking about people “getting the gist” ..but being out by a billion or so. If this survey is correct, then we are talking about the vast majority of the British electorate having completely the wrong idea about where we are financially and what we still have to face.
How can the public determine which spending policies are right for the country if they are blind to the actual state of the finances? How can democracy be expected to operate when those voting are so ignorant of so many of the essential facts?
Alistair Heath suggests that it is the media must take much of the blame. And he is almost certainly correct. Coverage of the spending cuts has been, if anything excessive. We have all enjoyed ding-dong after ding-dong with politicians facing one another, special interest groups and indeed highly paid journalists to discuss Britain’s finances.
And yet the sum total of all that “shouty television” is a population which thinks this government is doing the precise opposite of what it is actually doing. That is truly shocking.
If the state of affairs is truly as the COMRES/IEA poll suggests, the BBC, whose remit is to educate and inform, must be sitting very uncomfortably today. Not only are we, the people, paying for the BBC to educate and inform us – but BBC is the dominant news provider in the UK. (Figures below from Conservative Home - click here for information on BBC’s dominance of other media).
The BBC must surely move, and move fast, to assuage our fears concerning the ignorance of the nation or, if COMRES/IEA survey is correct, to put this woeful state of affairs to rights. If it does, then the IEA may well “extend the frontiers of the very limited debate we have on public expenditure” in more fundamental ways than even it may have intended.