The statistical football of this week was lobbed all the way from Washington. From its US headquarters, the International Monetary Fund predicted the UK would be the worst-performing major economy of the year, and the only one to plunge into recession. The news dominated BBC coverage and Westminster debate for the morning, a useful stick both to poke the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, and to gauge the bleakness of the outlook.
But why? Why a mere prediction, rather than an actual economic fact? Why the IMF’s forecast, when it is usually wrong and there are already plenty of other projections that are, in fact, even more pessimistic? Most important of all, why fixate on GDP when the statistic bears no direct relation to most people’s daily lives, and a recent study funded by the Office for National Statistics showed that more than half of Britons don’t even know what the term means?
Such questions go right to the heart of our media and politics, so the BBC’s release this week of an independent review into its economics coverage is timely. Written by the economics experts Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland, the study is accessibly written and gentle – but it makes damning reading, not only about the BBC but also about the wider media and political culture.
The core problem the authors find is in what they call “politically led news” – statistics and policies that are seen through a Westminster framing. Rather than independent, curious-minded journalism, economics coverage becomes a parroting of politicians’ lines. Take public debt, central to British politics since 2009. In SW1, debt is a problem that must always be stamped out, and it was the description by the former BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg of the national debt as “the credit card … absolutely maxed out” that provoked the protest that prompted this review. Rightly so. As the study says: “States don’t tend to retire or die.” Nor do most households have a printing press in the attic and the IMF just down the road.
Yet that framing of debt has been the norm in politics and media – and disastrous for the country. It gave the former Conservative chancellor George Osborne his alibi for hacking at public services; forced Labour’s Ed Miliband to board the same bandwagon, and encouraged Sky News to run a deficit ticker. Austerity harmed Britons and it warped British politics, feeding the discontent that produced a narrow majority for Brexit.
This is not party-political bias – at least not when the main parties agree on so much. But it is an anti-democratic bias, which shuts people out of discussion about their lives and their society. Economics remains a subject poorly communicated by many journalists, poorly understood by the public and poorly executed by the supposed experts, in large part because they lack democratic challenge.
Politicians and journalists obsess over income tax, when more than a third of Britons don’t pay it. They barely discuss VAT, which everyone pays and which is the dominant tax for those on lower incomes. House prices are a front-page staple, yet the private rental market rarely gets a look-in. On the morning of the IMF forecast, another report showed supermarket food prices rising at an annual rate of 17%. It got a brief mention, yet the news has more to do with the historic wave of strikes sweeping the UK than anything from Washington. Economics affects us all, and all should feel empowered to discuss it. Best of all, it is much more interesting and open-ended than many in power would have us believe.