For the last year or so the RES (and others) have been expressing concerns about the way in which the media, and the BBC in particular, report economic news. Recent events suggest this anxiety is likely to continue for a while yet.
In the course of the debate leading up to the referendum in June 2016, the BBC frequently reported the forecasts and opinions of research groups (practitioner and academic) and even individuals on the likely costs and merits of remaining within or leaving the EU. Predictably, the broadcaster found differences of view and no doubt was grateful for the whiff of controversy that this implied. However, this pretence at even-handedness completely obscured an important truth which is that the overwhelming majority of the economics profession thought that Brexit was likely to lead to a loss of output and other disadvantages. Members who were present will recall the overwhelming show of hands anticipating a negative outcome at the Society’s Annual Conference in Brighton in April 2015(Newsletter no. 174, p. 10) and the vanishingly small number of hands that admitted to a change of mind at the Annual Conference in Bristol this year (Newsletter no. 178, p. 5). In spite of this and perhaps more strikingly in the face of negative predictions from the IFS, the National Institute, HM Treasury and others, the BBC insisted on treating the issue rather like a debate on the merits of fox-hunting.
This wilful misleading of the public by a refusal to report the true balance of opinion was the subject of a complaint by the Society to the BBC Trust which largely rejected it.
Disappointing as this was, some of us clung to the hope that the complaint might at least have been filed for action in the future and a resolution to do better next time. Apparently not. In the week beginning 21st August the BBC gave considerable publicity to Patrick Minford’s new report published by the ‘Economists for Free Trade’ on both Radio 4 (the ‘Today’ programme) and the BBC News website. Once again, the format was the classic ‘2-sided controversy’ with Monique Ebell from the National Institute of Social and Economic Research (NIESR) providing the main opposition.
In his ‘Mainly macro’ blog,1 Simon Wren-Lewis (who spoke about the BBC’s earlier referendum coverage in a panel discussion at the Society’s Conference this year)2 says the time has come for the BBC to be ‘deeply ashamed’. Why? Firstly, he says, because Patrick Minford is not an expert in international trade and when he published a similar report the merits of free-trade in the course of the referendum debate it was heavily criticised by groups and individuals who are such specialists. These criticisms are readily available. In other words, the BBC has failed to apply the most elementary and readily available form of quality control to its output.
Secondly, and once again, the Minford version is presented with no context. There is no mention of the fact that the overwhelming consensus is that the economic consequences of Brexit will be harmful and that Minford’s view is that of ‘a maverick’. It is, says Wren-Lewis, as though one or two climate change deniers were given airtime with no mention of the scientific consensus, or someone representing a drug company were allowed to claim to have a new wonder cure that the medical profession as whole had denounced as rubbish.3 Why does the BBC think it correct to withhold the information about the context?
As Ben Chu subsequently wrote in the The Independent4 ‘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.
2. And at the symposium on ‘Economics: the profession and the public’ in May this year. See Newsletter no. 178 pp.9-10. (The fact that this symposium was jointly hosted by the Bank of England, HMT and the RES is perhaps an indication that the anxiety about the BBC’s treatment of economics reporting is widely shared).
3. Readers with good memories will feel a sense of unease at this analogy when they recall the way in which the BBC helped Andrew Wakefield to publicise his 1998 paper claiming that the combined MMR vaccine caused brain damage in small children. The result was a dramatic drop in the use of the vaccine and a sharp rise in infant cases of measles, mumps and rubella, sometimes, sadly, with fatal consequences. Wakefied was struck off the UK medical register in 2010.