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The media and Attitudes to Austerity



One of the important features of austerity introduced into the UK from 2010 onwards, at a point when the economy had not shown any significant signs of recovery, is that it was popular. Indeed, as many people appeared to blame the previous Labour government for the need for austerity as the Coalition government actually implementing it, because the deficit had increased while Labour had been in power.

If we acknowledge, as we should, that austerity was the wrong policy to pursue, and that it had harmful effects on everyone (an average loss of around £10,000 per household according to my most recent estimate), why was this policy popular? Many people would argue that the macroeconomic case for fiscal stimulus was complex, while simple analogies between governments and households were easier to grasp. However I have also argued that the media played a large role in focusing on the latter and largely ignoring the former.

This is the issue addressed in a new paperby Lucy Barnes and Timothy Hicks in the American Journal of Political Science. (For those that cannot access this, hereis a slightly earlier version.) They measure attitudes towards austerity on a simple scale, and then relate that attitude to party support and newspaper readership jointly.




The lower bars show that, for people with no party affiliation, attitudes to austerity were very different for Guardian readers compared to, say, Telegraph readers. In other words, a LibDem voter who read the Telegraph would be more hawkish about the deficit than one that read the Times. There are two explanations for this finding. The first is that how the newspaper was reporting issues around the deficit influenced readers. The paper verifies that the Guardian and Telegraph did report these issues in very different ways. The second is that readers choose their newspapers based on their attitudes to the deficit. This seems unlikely (remember these effects are over and above party affiliation), as austerity was a relatively new issue.

Nevertheless, the authors tried an experiment where it showed different groups a short text about the deficit, which differed in only one paragraph. A control group did not see the paragraph, a ‘Guardian’ group saw text which suggested that austerity might not be necessary, and a ‘Telegraph’ group saw text suggesting it was. Immediately after reading the text, each group was asked about their views about the importance of reducing the deficit.

The Guardian group (those that had read the Guardian type text) did indeed think austerity was less urgent than the control group. However those that had read the Telegraph style piece, which drew parallels with Greece, were no more pro-austerity than the control group. The paper notes that “a generally anti deficit discourse would result in little difference between control and ‘Telegraph’ groups, as indeed we find.” In other words the pervasive media discourse was pro-austerity, and so reading a pro-austerity text made no difference to people’s attitudes. Being exposed to Keynesian ideas, in contrast, did influence people.

So this research suggests two things. First, how the media presents issues like austerity matters because it influences public attitudes. Second, it suggests the general media climate in the UK was pro-austerity, and exposing people to Keynesian arguments could change their attitudes. The general media climate goes beyond newspapers, and includes broadcasters like the BBC. This suggests broadcasters were giving voice to an austerity agenda and deliberately excluding a Keynesian perspective. Which might be excusable if Keynesian economics and consequent anti-austerity views had been a fringe preoccupation, but in reality it was the viewof the majority of academic economists. It seems broadcasters had become tired of experts long before Brexit.



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