Thursday, June 6, 2013

We don't have an impartial, truth-seeking BBC. We've got a toothless, neutral BBC

Consider: "Profligate Labour, unlike the financially responsible Tories, amassed a huge debt prior to the financial crisis, which is the major cause of our current economic problems."

This thought is everywhere. Tory and Lib Dem spokespeople drop it into their every other conversation on radio and TV. It's been repeated in the Press, on the internet, etc. to the point where it's become a factoid - something everyone just "knows" to be true.

However, Labour reduced the national debt by 22%. It inherited a debt of 42% of GDP from the Tories in 1997. By the start of the banking crisis the debt was just 35%. Here's a Conservative commentator, Ramesh Patel, confirming this. Patel concludes, "The deficit myth is the grossest lie ever enforced upon the people and it has been sold by exploiting people's economic illiteracy".

Also remember that David Cameron pledged to match Labour's spending plans (so much for "profligate Labour, responsible Tories").

Now, this "profligate Labour, responsible Tories" debt myth, if that is what it is, is politically enormously consequential. It's an election changer. It's also providing much of the justification for the heaviest assault on the welfare state since its creation.

If this is indeed a myth, shouldn't a state-funded national broadcasting corporation have a duty to explode it?  Don't they have a duty to educate and inform the public, to "speak truth unto Nation", ensuring that, particularly when it comes to myths that are likely to be election-deciders, politicians and journalists don't get to pull the wool over the public's eyes?

Yet, as far as I can see, rarely, if ever, do the BBC challenge this myth, certainly not in any sort of sustained and determined way.

But perhaps that is the stance that a properly impartial, unbiased BBC should take? It shouldn't be taking sides, right?

Actually, neutrality - not taking sides - is not the same thing as impartiality - providing an unbiased and objective investigation and assessment.

A politically neutral broadcaster will simply provide a forum in which opposing voices are given equal airtime. A politically impartial broadcaster with a commitment to revealing the truth is something quite different. An impartial investigative broadcaster has teeth and may robustly criticise a view. A neutral broadcaster is toothless.

The BBC's failure to challenge the debt myth effectively, given its scale and importance in shaping the political landscape and election results, may demonstrate neutrality, but it does not demonstrate an impartial commitment to exposing the truth and educating and informing the public.

A BBC committed to  revealing impartially the truth on key issues, in a country in which public opinion is heavily influenced by a largely right-wing press, will inevitably have to spend more of its time countering right-wing myths and fibs than left-wing myths and fibs. This will undoubtedly provoke accusations of left-wing bias. But actually, it's what any genuinely impartial broadcaster with a commitment to revealing the truth would do.

However, I fear we don't have a courageous, impartial, truth-seeking BBC. We've got a toothless, neutral BBC instead.







19 comments:

Michael Baldwin said...

You are slipping and slidding between debt and deficit as if they're the same thing. They're not. As far as my (very limited) economics knowledge goes, the problems are not with the debt but with the deficit.

Thus you are simply equivocating when you move from "[Labour] had got the debt down to 35%" to quoting Patel as saying, "The deficit myth is the grossest lie ever enforced upon the people and it has been sold by exploiting people's economic literacy". (Emphasis mine both times.)

Stephen Law said...

True though it's clear he is talking about debt and deficit.

Stephen Law said...

And actually it's not even true I actually muddle them, is it? If you read carefully. But I do move from a comment about one to a quote which explicitly only mentions the other (though it's clear he's referring to both).

Simon said...

Hmm. You're expressing debt as a percentage of GDP. If you do this, then yes - debt went marginally down.

However, this is due to increased GDP. Total debt went up.

And strong GDP increases indicate that the economy is doing well - time to be reducing your debt, not increasing it.

Stephen Law said...

Yes I am expressing debt as a percentage of GDP, not in cash terms. To quote the Conservative economist who wrote the piece: "Those who use cash terms (instead of percentages) do so to scare, mislead and give half the story."

Debt as a percentage of GDP went down 22%. That is not "marginally".

Stephen Law said...

Here is the link to the article from which I just quoted (written by a Conservative economist): http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ramesh-patel/growth-cameron-austerity_b_2007552.html

phayes said...

Considering what happened when Margaret Thatcher et al tried to implement a relatively much saner and much less evil policy, and went about it pretty honestly and honourably, perhaps the BBC is afraid of what might happen if the public were ever exposed to the truth about 'austerity'.

Gavin Doyle said...

This post reminds me of Marcuse and his notion of repressive tolerance.

According to Marcuse, liberalism was once a radical search for the truth freed from the shackles of authority. Now liberalism has become passive, maintaining the status quo through a neutrality that treats all opinion as equally valid.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, this surely is an example of "cherry picking" the dates to give the best spin.

According to the House of Commons Library note: SN/EP/5745 "Government borrowing, debt and debt interest payments : historical statistics and forecasts,public sector net debt in the final financial year of the last Conservative Govt was £347bn (42% of GDP) in the final year of the last Labout govt it was £828bn (57% of GDP).

You have clearly cherry picked the best possible dates by using 2008 to make a point.

Let's re-phrase your statement "Labour reduced the national debt by 22%" to something more honest.

Maybe something like this " During the first 10 years of the Labour Government, UK central government net debt rose from £352bn to £497bn a rise of 41%. As a % of GDP it fell from 42.1% to 35.8%.
However during the course of the Labour administration from 1997 to 2011 net debt rose from £352bn to £828bn and as a % of GDP rose from 42.1% to 57.1%"

If i was your "Professor" you would have had a D for the work you posted.

Should you re-write it?

Chris Wright

Anonymous said...


If i was your "Professor" you would have had a D for the work you posted.

Should you re-write it?


That's quite a snotty comment considering that the first sentence of the blog post clearly specifies the relevant point in time as being before the financial crisis.

Perhaps it should have been bolded for the benefit of the hard of reading.

Anonymous said...

But the point is, as i said , that it was a cherry picked date and even although it was given in quotes, there was no attribution given.

So the facts. as i stated them , remain, and thus Stephen's argument is thus a very weak one.

Still a "D"!

Anonymous said...

Actually, lets play Stephen's game and i'll chooses some dates that will substantiate other predjudices...

"Within just 6 years, from 2002 to 2008, the Labour Govet managed to increase debt from £314bn to £527bn, an increase of nearly 68%. And as a % of GDP it went from 30% to 36% , an increase nearly 17%!!!!""

Shock, horror etc etc.

This is just a variation of what Stephen has done, i.e choose the dates that fit his predjudices.

Thanks for your post, it has made me look at the truth of the issue in even more detail, and he now gets an "F'.



Stephen Law said...

I followed that Conservative commentator I quote in choosing from when Labour came to power to the start of the banking crisis (when obviously debt rose rapidly for reasons beyond the Government's control). That's clearly the most relevant period to pick, which is why he chose it. Sure there's variation within that you can now cherry pick (a rise from 30 to 35%GDP), but so what? It hardly justifies anyone blaming the current crisis even partly on Labour's "profligacy" compared to the Tories, which is the accusation I'm addressing. Even at 36% of GDP, debt was still well down on the debt the Tories left them (and remember, Cameron pledged to match Labour's "profligate" spending).

Tony Lloyd said...

The BBC don’t “push” the myth, they fail to adequately challenge it. But only fail to adequately challenge it if it is a myth.

Some with good knowledge say the idea that Labour were profligate is bollocks. Others, with equally good knowledge, say it isn’t. But that surely stops it being a “myth”.
Doesn’t a “myth” that the BBC have a duty to expose have to be pretty clear cut: like homeopathy, astrology, that 9/11 was a “false flag” and so on?

There is plenty of doubt about Labour’s handling of the economy, at least in the latter years. The 22% debt figure is before you account for PFI. PFI is basically using dodgy accounting methods to hide debt (incidentally, it also creates huge private sector profits at public expense).

The reduced debt was also in the “good times”. The basic Keynesian idea is to smooth the trade cycle by storing money in the good times so that you can let rip in the bad times. Gordon Brown fully bought into this with his promise of “no more boom and bust” and his “golden rule” to balance the books over the trade cycle. Well we did have a bust following the boom and partly because Gordon Brown consciously and openly decided to break his “golden rule”. Gordon Brown decided to spend in excess of a limit that he himself thought essential. There’s, at least, an argument that that was “profligate”.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Tony, you say:

"Some with good knowledge say the idea that Labour were profligate is bollocks. Others, with equally good knowledge, say it isn’t. But that surely stops it being a “myth”. "

That cannot be right, surely? In the realm of politics and religion, myths are regularly believed by even highly knowledgeable people. The fact that many well-educated people believe in God, and even in a six day creation, doesn't show these claims aren't myths.

But in any case, the issue is not whether Labour should have spent less, or done things differently. It's whether Labour ran up a mountain of debt that is the or at least a primary cause of our current economic crisis. Nothing you say above (and I agree with you about PFI btw) shows that the latter claim is true. It isn't true.

Remember too that we are also contrasting what Labour did with what the Tories did or would have done. They pledged to match Labour spending.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, you say that post the banking crisis "debt rose rapidly for reasons beyond the Government's control".

You are at odds with Ed Milliband who in a speech in East London only 2 days ago is quoted as saying " “I take responsibility for the most important thing which is that we did not regulate the banks properly"

Thus he clearly believes that the bankling crisis and subsequent rise in debt WAS to some extent, in their control.

As Mr Milliband has implied it was partially a failure of poilicy and thus they must take some responsiblity and thus we should judge them on their entire record, not just the good bits before the bad bits came.

I still think your case is still poor.

Sorry my name doesn't appear, i'm not trying to hide, i'm just not very good technically.

Chris W

Stephen Law said...

Hi Chris

Oh sure we can agree that Governments, including our own, didn't regulate the banks enough (and of course the Tories were no more enthusiastic about regulating them than was Labour).

However, when people blame Labour for running up a debt mountain, they mean due to profligacy: overspending and running up a huge debt prior to the crash. That's the myth. It didn't happen.

Simon said...

The myth is how the financial crisis is equated with government spending, especially government spending on welfare, schools, hospitals and such. Equated, that is, throughout the British media. Labour were responsible for the financial crisis in so far as they failed to regulate the finance sector, and by blurring financial regulation and an independent central bank. If one accepts both of the above, a solution rather suggest itself. Any future government take note. Incidentally, Labour ought to capitalise on this state of affairs.

Toni said...

This is cool!