Government Policy Advocate

The BBC and Austerity

Not every media organisation can bear criticism, even self-criticism, but others require it to keep going.

Can't find any coverage. Anti-austerity demo, London.

This may be why the BBC has quietly acknowledged it failed to adequately inform the public on economic policy, especially austerity and deficits.

The BBC commissioned an independent thematic review of these aspects of its coverage. Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot have reached some damning conclusions in their review.

“We think too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence in reporting it. This brings a high risk of impartiality,” wrote Blastland and Dilnot.

“Some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realise this can be contested and contestable,” they stressed.

Although the review did not find any political bias in BBC coverage, Blastland and Dilnot clearly found that the corporation had failed to deliver.

This independent review was completed in November 2022 before being released in late January. Somehow this report has not received the mainstream reception it deserves.

It’s almost as if the rest of the media has learned nothing.

But this isn’t quite the full picture. The oh-so-diligent Telegraph managed to find the time to cover the report, while the rest of the right-wing media has been largely silent. It may be that there is a common interest in not acknowledging this story.

Meanwhile, the liberal mainstream published two op-eds: one by James Meadway, director of the Progressive Economy Forum, at The Guardian, and another by Tom Clark, a fellow at the Resolution Foundation, at Prospect.

The BBC board has pledged to take the review into account for a “plan of action” to uphold the corporation’s much-treasured commitment to impartiality. It may be that the board members are worried about the BBC’s long-term credibility.

Most people watching BBC News still trust the corporation, but the BBC has now been exposed for its failure to deliver on the public interest. Unfortunately, the basic assumptions of austerity are still very engrained in our collective imagination.

Household Economics

Raising questions about the BBC’s impartiality is a bit like questioning the NHS in Britain. Though it’s not as revered, the BBC is one of the few institutions assumed to hold the UK together.

Almost all criticism directed at the BBC comes from the right in mainstream publications and broadcast media. This is a testament to the lack of media diversity in the UK, not a lack of left critics.

However, the trigger for the review was Laura Kuenssberg’s claim that the UK government’s “credit card” was “maxed out” in November 2020. This misleading metaphor – that favours an austere fiscal politics – sums up the failures of BBC economics coverage. 

The household analogy of government finances often grips journalists. The picture is always a house has to spend less than it brings in, and debt is a problem because it’s another cost to the household. It sounds so simple; it’s common sense.

Government borrowing has little in common with household budgeting, the review notes, because “states don’t tend to retire or die”, and government debt is partly what helps keep capitalism going.

But few voices were allowed on air to debunk the household analogy. One rare example was Grace Blakeley sparring with Michael Portillo in This Week during the Theresa May era.

Households don’t print their own money. Nor do households reduce their ability to earn by cutting back spending. Nevertheless, it was precisely the household analogy that was used to help sell austerity.

Impartiality would have meant giving equal time to the arguments against austerity. The BBC would have framed austerity as a political choice, but it didn’t. Instead, the reporters and correspondents assumed debt equals bad.

Anyone who questioned it was treated as an economic illiterate or a dangerous fantasist. We all had to accept “difficult decisions” – like cutting school funding and lowering corporation tax – had to be made to get the debt problem under control.

Many people will miss the review precisely because it hasn’t got the spotlight, just like the arguments against austerity for much of the last decade. The BBC sets the agenda in UK media, whether it is impartial or not.

Coalition of Chaos

Rewind back to 2010: David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg – a triumvirate of supreme mediocrity – were about to embark upon a disastrous project to “balance the books” during a recession.

It’s not ancient history, but it might as well have been another epoch. The 2010 case for austerity was presented as if it were a natural law of economics because deficits are always a sign of unsustainability.

Austerity was launched as a project to reduce the deficit and get the national debt under control after the 2008 financial crash. The Brown government was ejected from office, getting the blame for a global banking crisis and an ‘out of control’ budget deficit.

The debt-to-GDP ratio was 70% in 2010, and it rose steadily to around 85% by the decade’s end. This ratio has since come close to 100% due to emergency spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even still, the UK has the second-lowest national debt of any G7 economy, as Tom Clark pointed out in Prospect, – but it also has the distinction of the most stagnant economy today.

The IMF expects the UK to be the only major economy to shrink in 2023, even compared to long-stagnant countries like Japan. 

After the Truss ‘mini-budget’ spooked the financial markets, we’re back to austerity illusions.

This time, we’re not coming down from a crash brought about by an unprecedented economic boom. New Labour squandered a period of growth and stability for short-term electoral gain.

Trade unions are fighting back, and people are taking to the streets in protest and joining picket lines. This isn’t like 2010. It feels fundamentally different as much of the public is behind the strikers.

In the Cameron era (2010-16), there was no opposition until Corbyn became Labour leader and finally began to distinguish the party from soft austerity. Some people have forgotten that the coalition years were a dark time in British politics.

Many centrist dads still look back on this period with dewy eyes. They think we were a more united, open, and tolerant country before Brexit ruined everything.

If only we could get back to the good old days when the posh boys sold austerity to the country on a pack of lies and the BBC (along with the rest of the media) let them get away with it.

Here we are, thirteen years since the age of austerity began, and the UK is a battered, broken country. 

The wave of strikes and pickets hitting the streets is the long overdue reaction to this state of affairs. It’s hard to forgive and forget.

Photograph courtesy of Julian Stallabrass. Published under a Creative Commons license.