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Brexit and Corbyn: how our media fails the people


For every academic economist that thought Brexit would benefit the economy, 22 thought the opposite. That is as near as unanimous as you are ever going to get among economists. It is certainly a consensus. The BBC failed to get that message across during the referendum campaign. Instead, because of their policy of balance, they gave people a completely different message.

How could they have acted differently given their balance policy? Easily - by simply quoting the 22 to 1 figure every time economic issues came up. I am told they did sometimes, but sometimes is just not good enough, just like telling the truth occasionally will not do. I cannot say for sure that the BBC’s policy and inaction swung the vote, but over 40% of voters continue to believe they will be better off after Brexit.

The Royal Economic Society wrote angry letters, but they were brushed aside. Since then the government has produced their own analysis of the consequences of Brexit, and it is very similar to what economists said before the vote. But you would not know that from the BBC’s commentary on Brexit. In their ‘one year to go’ coverage I saw lots of talking from politicians and members of the public, but nothing was said about the economic consequences of leaving. No experts anywhere in sight.

The Prime Minister was also touring the country for the cameras last week. She did interviews. I saw two, with the BBC and ITV. In both she talked about being able to spend more money because we wouldn’t have to pay “year in and year out” the “vast amounts” we currently pay into the EU. That is simply a lie and she knows it. The Chancellor looks to the OBR to tell him how much money he has to spend. You may not like that system, but it is how things work in the UK at the moment. The OBR believe the Chancellor will have around $15 billion a year less to spend as a result of Brexit (source, p249).

When a politician lies so openly and so obviously, it is any serious journalist’s duty to recognise that fact in some way. The easiest thing to do in this case is to say ‘but PM. the OBR says there will be no Brexit dividend, and in fact …”. But on both the occasions I saw the lie was allowed to pass. Henry Porter makesa similar observation. In what way are viewers who may be looking to broadcasters for reliable information on Brexit served by this indifference to truth. It is, quite simply, the media’s job to expose politicians when they lie.

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I have talked beforeabout antisemitism in the Labour party. Contrary to what many members say, I think it is a particular problem for Labour members because of the Israel Palestine situation, and I also personally think implicitly arguing that Israel should not exist as a state is antisemitic.

But it is also true, unfortunately, that those who oppose Labour, or Labour as it now is, will use this problem as a means to attack Labour by exaggerating it. A classic example came in a poll that the Times commissioned from YouGov. Labour party members were asked which of these three statements most chimed with their view.
  1. It is a serious and genuine problem that the party leadership needs to take urgent action to address (19%)
  2. It is a genuine problem, but its extent is being deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, or to stifle criticism of Israel (47%)
  3. It is not a serious problem at all, and is being hyped up to undermine Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, or to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. (30%)
The numbers in brackets are the percentage replies (the rest said Don’t Know). Journalistsat the Timesinterpreted this as “Less than 1 in 5 Labour Party members believe antisemitism is a genuine problem that needs addressing”. Not 30%, which is worrying enough, but according to these journalists 80% of members do not think antisemitism within the Labour party is a serious problem.

Choosing to interpret the results in this way showed that reply (B) is in fact correct. The way the poll is phrased implies (B) is (A)+, not that (B) is different from (A), still less than choosing (B) implies you do not think antisemitism is a genuine and serious problem that needs tackling. On twitter I did come across some people who wanted to argue otherwise, and thereby exogenerate the Times journalists. One told me that answering (B) was malinging Jews. I was rather shocked by that, as I would have answered (B). The reality is that antisemitism in the Labour party is a genuine problem but it is being exaggerated to attack Corbyn. Labour party members should care about both and therefore answer (B).

That the right wing press plays fast and loose with polls and facts more generally is normal, unfortunately. What is much more worrying is when the BBC does the same. When a notorious right wing blogger broke the news that Corbyn had celebrated Passover seder at the invitation of his local Jewish organisation Jewdas, the BBC led with it as a major story. Other Jewish organisations suggested that by accepting this invitation Corbyn was not serious about dealing with antisemitism because, according to the BBC, “Jewdas has previously suggested anti-Semitism claims were right-wing smears.” That statement, unqualified, is at the top of the website’s storyat 3pm yesterday. Much further down the story is a statement from Jewdas saying “Let's make something clear: we do NOT believe accusations of antisemitism in Labour and the left are nothing more than smears.” Here, from 2014, is its guide at how to avoid antisemitism, which presumably it would not have posted if it thought antisemitism claims were just right wing smears.

This is just another version of the (A) or (B) problem above. The BBC through their reporting are explicitly judging that an organisation of the left like Jewdas are not serious about the left’s antisemitism problem because they dare to say that the problem is also being exaggerated to attack Corbyn. Either that of the BBC decided it was more important to follow a story from a right wing blog than first check out the facts about a left wing Jewish organisation, and then ignorethe facts anyway. I find it quite shocking that the BBC should do this.***
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Bias in the right wing press is obviously important: it gave us Brexit. The right wing press is almost always anti-Labour, and it is difficult to judge whether being even more anti-Corbyn makes that much difference. The exception is 1997, of course, and at least two studies (hereand here) suggest that had a large positive effect on the Labour vote.

It is the broadcast media where I think we find specific bias against Corbyn. There are some who say that if you accuse the BBC as being biased against Corbyn you ‘have lost the political argument’. On the contrary to suggest this reflects the kind of false centrism that I complained of here. I am no Corbynista: I wanted Owen Smith to win the 2016 Labour leadership election. I doubt if a former chairman of the BBC Trust is a Corbynista either, but he talksabout “extraordinary attacks” on Corbyn. Academic research suggeststhe BBC is biased against Corbyn, and how the bias can be subtlein a way other broadcasters are not.

I think Ivor Gabor gets it right here.The BBC does have a bias, and it is to the consensus or centre as it sees it. A key reference point to where the BBC sees the centre is Westminster. As many Labour MPs are unhappy about Corbyn’s leadership, that means Corbyn is outside the consensus and therefore subject to BBC bias against him. The cue for the BBC to ‘followthe story’ from press attacks against Corbyn is invariably whether attacks come in part from Labour MPs. The BBC did not follow the ‘Corbyn was a Czech spy’ nonsense, and Andrew Neil effectively demolished it here, but where Labour MPs did criticise Corbyn over the Salisbury attacks and antisemitism, the BBC has happily followed the story pursued by the right wing press. [1]

There clearly is a real story over antisemitism. But in the case of the BBC we do not have balance. At the time of the London mayoral elections the prime minister at the time falselyaccused an innocent member of the public, who had visited No.10, as being involved with the Islamic State. It was part of a blatantly Islamophobic campaign again the eventual victor, Sadiq Khan. But you would not know that from the BBC’s coverage. There was no discussion of the Conservative Party's Islamophobia problem. [2]

In addition, when it comes to antisemitism, some of the most worrying developments must be what is currently going on in Hungary. There the government has set up George Soros as almost the country’s No.1 enemy, and it is no coincidencethat Soros also happens to be a rich Jew. So when May’s ex-adviser in the Daily Telegraph described Soros as “a rich gambler … accused of meddling in nation’s affairs” who was part of a “secret plot” to thwart Brexit, that should have rung antisemitism alarm bells. It did in the Guardian and someothermedia outlets, but the BBC didn’t follow that story? Instead they coveredthe Telegraph story as the Telegraph did.

In the case of the Salisbury poisoning, Corbyn was more cautious in attributing blame to Putin than most of parliament. It was a tactical error in political terms. He would have done better to have followed parliament in accepting Putin’s guilt, and focused on why Putin felt emboldened to do such things: could it have anything to do with May’s reluctance to hold an inquiry into the Litvinenko killings, or the rather expensive tennis match between Conservative ministers and oligarchs linked to Putin. Because of his error and the anti-Corbyn bias in the media the story became him instead. But a minor tactical error in parliament does not seem to equate with lying about the Brexit dividend, which May gets away with completely. And it now transpiresthat Corbyn asked questions which the media failed to ask.

Just as it is obvious the BBC and to a lesser extent other broadcasters have a Corbyn problem, it is also obvious that this matters a lot. Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so criticism of Corbyn hurts Labour. As Justin Lewis argues here, the Labour surge in 2017 clearly shows what can happen when this bias is reduced because of election campaign rules. I have talked about how a media filter that slants the news against Labour normally applies, but this filter was removed during the final weeks of the election campaign. Who knows what the 2017 result would have been if this filter had been removed earlier. We have seen this filter in action over the last few weeks.

The problems within the BBC and perhaps other broadcasters over Corbyn also apply to Brexit. (The problems at the BBC over Brexit seem worse than for other broadcasters such as Sky News. Chris Grey has an excellent accountof how that can be.) At best, it may be that what the BBC considers as a consensus comes from Parliament, and both main parties support Brexit. As with Corbyn, this is the wrong reference point. Polls suggest that nearly half the country supports Corbyn’s Labour party, and a majority thinks Brexit is a mistake. The BBC needs to stick their heads out of the Westminster bubble and start focusing on the concerns of the country as a whole.
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One final personal point. This post is not about macroeconomics but media bias. Am I abusing the title of my blog? Only one of two will form the main party in the government after the next election. One of those parties has a sensible macroeconomic policy that I played a very minor role in helping to create, and the other has followed a policy that is refuted in first year economics textbooks and has as a result lost the average household resources worth £10,000. The same party seems to be controlled by politicians and others who would happily inflict even greater economic harm on the UK for the sake of their ideology. Economists are always criticised for not seeing the bigger picture. The bigger picture is if you want sensible economic policies you need to ask why extremely harmful policies have been implemented since 2010.

***Postscript (05/05/18) The BBC have admitted they made a mistake at the top of this report. (HT @patrickamon)
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[1] Corbyn supporters sometimes tell me that dissent within Labour justifies attempts to deselect MPs precisely because the media panalises dissent. I would prefer to keep dissenting MPs, and change how the media works.

[2] Another problem is that the BBC’s finances are too easily influenced by the government of the day, so it is inevitable that the BBC will be reluctant to pick fights with the government.


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