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Media failure that is truly shocking

July 15th, 2011 Posted in Debt, Media by

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.

8 Responses to “Media failure that is truly shocking”

  1. Jon Says:

    Representative democracy is based on selecting leaders, not understanding the details. In that context, their judgement isn’t necessarily that flawed. If we left economic matters to the debt hysterics and the priests of the efficient market hypothesis it would be an even worse disaster.

    Mathematically speaking, the government is indeed planning to implement cuts that will produce a national debt lower than there would be otherwise. Is the public understanding completely wrong, or more relevant to the discussion than hyperventilating about absolute debt levels at the bottom of the cycle?

    The media could certainly be doing a better job. But in my experience they’ve been reasonably good about talking deficit rather than debt. What City AM is really complaining about is that channels aren’t pushing the ideology they think they should be.

  2. Neil Says:

    What sense is there for us to tax businesses and people so much only for the money to be given back to businesses and people?
    Tax businesses and people less, raise he minimum wage and we immediately remove the need for many to beg for hand outs from a bloated ‘public sector’!
    As for surveys, so many are too busy trying to ‘keep it all together’, they don’t have time to look at detail.
    Survey skewed by tabloid headlines = not worth a lot.

  3. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Jon – You are wrong about City AM. They may take a particular stance on business and finance – but their lead on financial literacy has been admirable and without agenda – other than the obvious educational one.

  4. ad Says:

    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.

    Why? What will happen to them if they do not?

  5. Jack Hughes Says:

    The BBC is leading an anti-cuts campaign.

    The public misconceptions on this subject suit the beeb’s agenda – and they have helped to shape these views.

    So don’t expect them to educate or inform the nation. Or even entertain it on this subject. Just expect a non-stop drumbeat of “tory cuts – aided and abetted by the libs”.

  6. Jonathan Says:

    The perception that the government is implementing large spending cuts is not helped either by Labour, the BBC and the left-wing media – who want to make the Tories and Lib Dems look like savage, mean capitalists – or by the Tories/most of the right-wing media who want right-wing voters think they’re tackling the deficit. Actually spending and national debt are both higher now than they were under Labour and the government is not doing nearly enough.

    If the media starts properly informing the public, maybe we can see through it and start having a proper, wider debate about public spending.

    Of course, to cut spending/regulation properly you need to leave the EU, which is constantly increasing its budget while its member states are trying to cut spending and is actually where most regulation comes from. It’s pretty unlikely that this government will do that, though.

  7. Psi Says:

    We can’t exclude the leader ship of the LibDems or the Tories from blame in this either.

    They need to change the vocabulary and need to press news readers when they are interviewing them who make the mistake that public spending is falling.

    I am told that John Redwood caught Kirsty Walk out on Newsnight and it resulted in a confused fizziling out of the interview.

    New readers who get pulled up for this should be made to look stupid until the embarrassment forces them to prepare and get their facts right.

  8. Dan Gire Says:

    Angela – you are my new hero!