On the 30 April 2015, during a Question Time Election Special, the Labour leader Ed Milliband was challenged by a member of the audience over the previous Labour Government’s economic record. “How can you stand there and say you didn’t overspend and end up bankrupting this country?” the man complained. “It’s absolutely ludicrous you are frankly just lying’. Research carried out after the 2010 and 2015 elections confirmed that Labour had indeed lost both contests in large part because the public believed that Labour had overspent and crashed the economy. Yet both these beliefs were false.
In explaining why these falsehoods took root so deeply, commentators have typically pointed to two factors: Labour’s failure to adequately rebut them, and the discipline with which both Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians used a set of potent, easily understood messages about Labour’s economic record. Particularly powerful was the analogy of the economy as a household, expressed through the need ‘to reduce the record budget deficit and pay off the national credit card’. Although both factors were important, relatively little has been said about the role of the print and broadcast media, which played an equally significant role in influencing understanding of the financial crisis and justifying the need for austerity.
The media achieved this through four interlinked processes. First, they provided misleading accounts of where the deficit originated. This was particularly the case in the right-wing press which argued Labour overspending was to blame. Reports from the BBC’s News at Ten tended to provide more accurate explanations, but even here viewers were sometimes offered confused accounts which suggested that Labour had “court[ed] disaster by borrowing too much” (BBC News at Ten, 22 April 2009). These arguments had particular resonance because the right-wing press has waged a campaign of vilification against the state sector over many decades alleging waste,inefficiency and mismanagement. This meant that when the deficit rose sharply, people – especially tabloid readers – were already predisposed to believe it must be due to overspending and waste because they had been exposed to these arguments on a daily basis over a long period.
Secondly, the media exaggerated the scale of the deficit through apocalyptic language, bogus comparisons and false statistics. The Telegraph spoke of a “a crisis … almost unprecedented outside wartime“, the Daily Mail described the deficit as “terrifying“, whilst the Express spoke of a “full blown economic emergency“. Across the press there were misleading claims that Britain had the highest debt levels in her history (based on nominal data), and false claims that the UK would have the world’s biggest public debt. On the BBC, approximately half of the reports I examined in 2009 focused on the ‘record’ or ‘unprecedented’ scale of the deficit/debt which framed the data in nominal terms:
The national debt has hit a new record of just under £800 billion. (BBC, 21 July 2009)
Now with unprecedented levels of borrowing and debt. (BBC, 22 April 2009)
Thirdly, the media argued that unless the deficit was dealt with quickly then a number of serious consequences could follow: Britain might lose its ‘AAA’ credit rating, sterling might fall, interest rates could rise, demand for UK bonds might dry up, and Britain could go bankrupt. On the BBC, these warnings were repeatedly made by a range of official and City sources and some were, at times, endorsed by journalists. The BBC did not feature the counter-arguments from economists in both the UK and the US, who were highly sceptical of such claims, and argued that austerity policies would actually depress growth,reduce tax revenues and actually make it harder to close the deficit. The absence of these voices, whose opinions have since been vindicated, meant that the view that deficit reduction should wait until the recovery was well established, was rarely heard across the media.
Fourthly, the media presented austerity policies as the only way to reduce Britain’s public deficit. Across the press there were consistent calls for sharp reductions to public spending and rises in regressive taxation. Alternative deficit reduction policies such as increasing growth, clamping down on tax evasion or introducing property, wealth or land taxes were almost never featured. An almost identical pattern could be found in BBC reporting, where journalists almost exclusively concentrated on the need to raise regressive taxation, cut government spending or raise the retirement age as can be seen in the following example:
British workers might have to put off their age of retirement to help repay the country’s massive debt. That is one option proposed by independent think-tank … Their report lays out three stark alternatives for bringing their debt level down. Government could cut all public spending by 10% in real terms or it could raise the basic rate of tax by 15p or it could raise the state retirement age to 70 by 2023. (BBC News at Ten, 6 May 2009)
The key point here is that alternative policies focused on growth or targeted on corporations or the wealthy are largely invisible as public policy options and this has the effect of sharply curtailing the choices that the public see as available. This came through clearly when I ran a series of focus groups in Glasgow, the Midlands and the South East over the summer of 2009. During the sessions I asked people where the deficit had come from and what solutions were available to deal with it. Participants overwhelmingly saw the deficit as having risen from areas identified in media reports such as overspending on: welfare, public sector pensions, bank bailouts, foreign wars, quangos, MPs expenses and foreign aid. People across the three regions also thought that a key reason for the rise in the deficit was immigration. As one participant put it ‘social services are paying out so much money [to immigrants] if you sit back and see how much people are getting per week, just sitting back you know thinking ‘luxury, luxury’. (Pensioner group, Surrey)
Unsurprisingly, most people supported cutting back on public spending in these areas as a way of addressing the deficit. Not a single person in any of the focus groups mentioned pro-growth policies, clamping down on tax avoidance or raising taxes on the wealthy or corporate sector even those research shows these policies are highly popular when put to voters.
However, major events or changes in key political agenda setters have the power to shift the media debate and transform public understanding and attitudes. An obvious example of this occurred in a recent episode of Question Time when an audience member argued:
If we actually closed these tax loopholes, made people pay their taxes, we wouldn’t need cuts to begin with. The deficit would be reduced. (Question Time, 14 April 2016)
The key point here is that the increased coverage of large scale tax avoidance since 2012, culminating in the recent revelations in the Panama Papers, have meant that people now begin to see that there are alternative ways of addressing the deficit and that austerity is not the only option.
The media cannot tell people what to think in a simple manner. However by featuring some perspectives whilst excluding others it plays a crucial role in the legitimisation of policy and the exercise of power. In the period after the 2008 banking crisis it provided a partial, exaggerated and at times false view on the UK deficit which was then used to justify damaging austerity policies.
Mike Berry is a lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. He is author of five books including Bad News from Israel (Pluto, 2004) and has produced research for a wide range of bodies including the UNHCR, TUC and NSPCC. He is currently working on a book for Palgrave Macmillan on media coverage and public understanding of economic news.