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The BBC and Patrick Minford

Over the last few days the BBC has given considerable publicity to Patrick Minford’s new report published by the ‘Economists for Free Trade’. I have looked at both the BBC News website entryand listened to the Radio 4 Today programme’s discussion. They are both classic ‘2 sided controversy’ formats, with Monique Ebell from the National Institute of Social and Economic Research (NIESR) providing the main opposition.

So why was this coverage something the BBC should be deeply ashamed about? There are two main reasons, but first let me make a more general point which applies to journalism more generally. There is no quality control in most of the media when it comes to giving publicity to a report like this. There is a very simple reason for this, and that is the primacy given to immediacy. In a better world, when a report like this came out, journalists would spend a few days ringing around to see what the reaction of other experts were, or nowadays just look at reactions on twitter.

In this particular case such a strategy would have thrown up some apparently large errors, and this should have led journalists to question whether they should give the report any publicity. They might at the very least have waited until the full report was published next month.

Let me give an analogy. Suppose a report of a medical trial had suggested a miracle cure for some serious disease. The report had not been peer reviewed, and its author had connections to a drug company that stood to benefit from the alleged cure, but the BBC had decided to give it considerable publicity nevertheless. Within days it became clear that there were serious problems with the report, and that there were other existing papers that came to a completely different conclusion. The BBC would then look very foolish, and many sufferers from this disease would have been given false hope. I suspect for that reason the BBC would be much more cautious. Yet if the report is about a subject matter with any political implications this caution appears to go out of the window.

Now let me get to the two reasons why the BBC should be ashamed in this case. First, Patrick Minford is no expert in international trade. He is a macroeconomist, who in his younger, less obviously political, days served as something of a role model for me. He published a very similar argument about the benefits of unilateral trade liberalisation during the referendum campaign. It was heavily criticised by individualsor groupsthat are experts in international trade. So we have already had the quality control, yet the BBC decided to ignore that. Returning to my analogy, it is as if there had been earlier claims of miracle cure that had been thoroughly debunked by medical experts and the BBC had ignored these.

Second, at no point in either of the two items I looked at is there any mention that the overwhelming consensus among academic economists is that Brexit would be harmful to the economy. We just have reports that give two opinions, with no context whatsoever about which opinion is the consensus view and which is the maverick. It is exactly equivalent to giving considerable publicity to a report from some climate change denial outfit, and including a response from one or two climate scientists with no mention of what the consensus among climate scientists is. Again to draw on my analogy, it is like reporting a miracle cure and failing to say that nearly all doctors thought this was rubbish.

This last point about ignoring the clear consensus touches a particular nerve for me, because it is exactly what the BBC appeared to many of us to do during the referendum campaign. Yet when the Royal Economic Society complained about this, they were told that the economic consensus had been mentioned in this and that bulletin. Whether this was cherry picking by the BBC is not easy to establish after the event. [1] Well here is an example where it was not mentioned, and I would like to hear from the BBC why this information was not thought to be useful to convey to its audience. [2] 

On both counts, this is very bad journalism, even if you do not think economics has the same standing as medicine. The BBC may have thought they had brushed off complaints from economists, but here is a specific example where they really do have a serious case to answer. As Ben Chu rightly says: “The legitimate news story around Minford’s work is how bad science can survive and thrive when it supports the desires and prejudices of powerful people in our society … the BBC ... has become part of the problem.” Brexit is the Emperor's New Clothes, and no one - including the BBC - dares say that the Emperor has no clothes.

[1] Not easy but not impossible: it would cost a few thousand pounds in research time for someone to go through the main news reports during the Brexit campaign and establish how many times the economic consensus was mentioned.

[2] Channel 4 News did put the pointto Minford that many economists thought his work was flawed, to which he responded by saying “all these trumped up economists and the consensus they are all hired hands”‘. A very political answer from a very political economist, and therefore very revealing, but not a question the BBC apparently thought worth asking.  

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