Tag Archives: Mike Berry

Best books of 2019

Best Books of 2019
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” From its first sentence The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Penguin Books) by US writer David Wallace-Wells is a deeply frightening book chronicling the existential threat the climate crisis poses to humanity.

He notes all the commitments made at the 2015 Paris United Nations climate summit by the 195 signatories would still mean a deadly 3.2oC of warming by 2100. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he explains that as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”.

Answering Amitav Ghosh’s call for more fiction devoted to climate change, John Lanchester’s allegorical novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) considers how British society and politics could react to a climatic event called “the change”. Giving a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, Lanchester imagines a dystopian near future in which a colossal wall has been built along the entire coastline of the nation, manned by conscripted soldiers (“Defenders”) tasked with keeping out climate refugees (“The Others”) trying to get into the country.

Two other novels made an impression on me this year. Set in Chicago, Halle Butler’s The New Me (Orion) is a cutting, pathos-filled exploration of millennial work and social life, the bored and depressed female narrator is full of loathing for her work colleagues, so-called friends and, most of all, herself. Comic novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Simon & Schuster) also has a laser-like focus on the foibles and hypocrisies of contemporary Western culture, brilliantly skewing self-help gurus, hipsters, liberal parenting and mid-life crises – hell, pretty much everything and everyone is a target for satire. Rarely have I read an author where each sentence is so full of rich, imaginative language. And like the New Yorker’s 2010 novel The Ask it’s also hysterically funny, often in the most dark and delicious ways.

The new Glasgow Media Group (GMG) book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Pluto Press) is an essential read for anyone interested in the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party. In addition to showing how the media have played a key role in massively exaggerating the scale of the problem, the authors provide some welcome advice on how Labour can communicate much more successfully to the general public on this crucial issue. Heavily influenced by the GMG tradition, Mike Berry’s The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) highlights how the British print and broadcast media, including the BBC, played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests.

Taken together these two books have much to teach about contemporary British politics and the hugely negative role played by the media. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
23 November 2019

“Jeremy Corbyn’s anti‑semite army”, read the Times headline in April. “Labour is riddled with anti-semites”, announced the Sun last year. A Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”, argued the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph in a joint editorial.

With the press having waged an intense campaign against Corbyn and the Labour Party since 2015 over antisemitism, it was only natural the Tories and Lib Dems were going to use it as a stick to beat the Labour leader with during the general election campaign. First up was cabinet minister Michael Gove, who earlier this month started trolling leftist figures on Twitter, including Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani and Ash Sarkar, asking them to denounce antisemitic tweets sent by a Labour Party and Momentum member (the person was neither a member of the Labour Party or Momentum).

The coming attacks will be heard by a public already softened up by media coverage “consistent with a disinformation paradigm”, according to a 2018 Media Reform Coalition report into the antisemitism controversy. It seems the media’s reporting has had a big impact on public opinion, with a March 2019 Survation poll commissioned for the new Glasgow Media Group book Bad News For Labour finding “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism”. How can I say media reporting has played a big role? The authors of Bad News For Labour – Professor Greg Philo, Dr Mike Berry, Dr Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and Dr David Miller – commissioned four focus groups, which showed “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

With attempts to weaponise antisemitism no doubt being cooked up as you read this, it is worth spending some time reminding ourselves of the facts and evidence on the topic.

However, before we do this I think it is worth emphasising that there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left, that this should not be minimised, and any allegations should be addressed swiftly, effectively and, most of all, fairly. It is clear Labour’s internal process were not fit for purposes, though the party claims to have reformed and streamlined their disciplinary systems. As many people have already said, as Labour identifies as a progressive, socialist and anti-racist party, just one case of antisemitism is one too many.

So how do we counter attacks on the Labour Party over antisemitism? The first task is to correct the general public’s wild estimates: in reality “the actual figure” for Labour members reported for antisemitism “was far less than one per cent”, the authors of Bad News for Labour note. The general public’s estimate is, incredibly, over three hundred times the real total, Philo notes in a recent Q&A with Jacobin.

Moreover, these figures “could have been used for a publicity campaign defending the integrity of the membership [currently just over 500,000] and the Party as a whole, saying that over 99 per cent of the members were not involved in these allegations”, the authors note.

It is also important to interrogate claims of antisemitism – that is, to consider the actual evidence. It is, after all, a very serious accusation to make about someone, with important consequences for how the public perceive Corbyn and the Labour Party. For example, Labour MP Margaret Hodge repeatedly told the media she had submitted a dossier of over 200 examples of antisemitic abuse directed at her to the Labour Party. After reviewing the evidence, Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby confirmed those complaints referred to 111 individuals, of whom only 20 were members. Still a serious issue to be dealt with but ten times less in size than Hodge was implying.

As these examples suggest, much of the relentless hounding of Corbyn and the Labour Party on antisemitism is based on a number of erroneous, evidence-light assumptions: that it is widespread in the party; that it is worse in Labour and on the Left than in other parties and on other parts of the political spectrum; and that the problem has got worse under Corbyn. We’ve already seen the facts do not support the first claim, and there is evidence to suggest the last two allegations are also inaccurate.

Analysing survey data, a September 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) found “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” Interestingly, the IJPR went on to note “the absence of clear signs of negativity towards Jews on the political left” was “particularly curious in the current context” as there were “perceptions among some Jews of growing left-wing anti-semitism.”

The October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism also highlighted the mismatch between the media coverage and reality: “Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

Citing YouGov polling data from 2015 and 2017, in March 2018 Evolve Politics website noted “anti-semitic views amongst Labour party voters have actually reduced substantially” since Corbyn was elected leader. Moreover, the report highlights the Tories and UKIP “have a far bigger problem with their voters agreeing with anti-semitic statements.”

As the authors of Bad News For Labour argue, “the arguments about the level of antisemitisim in society and the Labour Party can only be resolved by evidence.” And the evidence is on the side of those who refute that Labour is “riddled” with antisemitism. The authors recommend the Labour leadership should have followed the principles of good public relations. “The priorities should have been to establish the scale of the problem, give clear and accurate information, stop exaggerated claims and, crucially, to show that the whole organisation was committed to resolving the issue.”

This is good advice for Labour members and supporters during the election campaign too.

Further reading: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief by Greg Philo et al, published by Pluto Press.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rather than dismissing it, the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media

Rather than dismissing it the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
15 November 2019

There seems to be an increasing and dismaying tendency amongst some people who self-identify as left-wing to dismiss mainstream media reporting out of hand.

Anything the Guardian or other corporate newspapers report is ridiculed and ignored. For example, I recently tweeted about a Guardian article which gave an overview of the ongoing protests around the world. I quickly received this sarcastic response: “From the newspaper that supports Assange [the Guardian has repeatedly smeared Julian Assange]… The Sun seems honest in comparison.” What part of the article did my correspondent take issue with? “I’d rather ignore that rags liberal pretensions from here on. They’re just a collection of churnalists and presstitutes” they replied.

I agree, of course, that the Guardian and the rest of the mainstream media are horribly compromised and establishment-friendly in much of their journalism and political positions.

Though most journalists do their best to ignore it, there is copious amounts of academic research which confirm this. In his new book The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis, Dr Mike Berry from Cardiff University shows how the British media played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests. Similarly, the new Pluto Press book from the Glasgow Media Group, Bad News For Labour, explains how the often erroneous coverage of the antisemitism controversy by the print and broadcast media has led the general public to massively overestimate its incidence within the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding this strong evidence I would like to make the case for a more nuanced and intelligent engagement with the mainstream media by left-wing and progressive people.

Because while the left should oppose the way the corporate media inevitably sides with elite power, there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from its reporting through careful and critical monitoring. They are, after all, the news organisations with the biggest budgets, best access to policymakers and largest staff rosters, including journalists reporting on the ground across the world.

Moreover, it is important to understand they are not monolithic structures – radical voices and useful information will often appear. Speaking to Andrew Marr in 1996 for the BBC Big Ideas programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky talked of investigative journalists in the US who “regard the media as a sham” and “consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through.” Interviewed for the 2016 documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I. F. Stone, US filmmaker Michael Moore said something similar: “He [I. F. Stone] said ‘When you pick up the paper you go to page 17 first. Don’t read the front page. Skip the front page. Go to page 17 because that’s where the truth is. And it’s going to be really small. It might be in a little two paragraph story, or it will be buried in paragraph 78. But that’s where they are putting it, and they know what they are doing.’”

Writing in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies provides a fascinating example of this from 2002-3. Davies records how Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy’s story looking at concerns within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about intelligence on Iraq had been rejected five times by the newspaper, which had taken a strong pro-war position under editor Roger Alton. “At the sixth attempt… Vulliamy had finally managed to slip a small fraction of his story… into the paper – as the final two paragraphs of a 1,200-word story on page 16”, Davies relates.

If you read Chomsky’s work critiquing US foreign policy you will see his arguments are often backed up by mainstream media sources. Likewise UK media watchdog Media Lens often use arguments and information sourced from one part of the mainstream media to criticise the coverage of another part of the mainstream media. Another example is Voices in the Wilderness UK, the grassroots anti-sanctions and anti-war group which produced some of the most well-informed, critical coverage of the US-UK attack and occupation of Iraq. If you take a look at their regular newsletters it’s clear they were buying and reading the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent every day – and sometimes tabloids too – to assist in gaining a full understanding of what was going on.

When it comes to ‘defence’ news the Telegraph is well known to be close to the armed forces, and therefore may publish information of interest to those who oppose war. During the occupation of Iraq, for example, it was the Telegraph which published the leaked 2005 internal Ministry of Defence poll which found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province).

I myself have collected some of the most damning quotes I’ve heard about UK military aggression abroad from BBC programmes.

It was listening to BBC Radio 4‘s The World Tonight in February 2009 that I caught Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, saying British forces used White Phosphorus in Afghanistan and Iraq “even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population”. Indeed it was in the right-wing Spectator magazine in January 2009 that Daniel Yates, a former British soldier, reported the British military was using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan “almost daily”.

Amidst the colonial-style violence and pro-military propaganda, there was also a hugely telling quote from a British soldier in Our War: Return to Death Valley, the 2012 BBC3 documentary series about Afghanistan. “One of the problems, especially with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the route 611 is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the Ancop [Afghan National Civil Order Police], or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us”, Lieutenant Jimmy Clark from 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment noted about an operation to secure a road in Helmand province. “So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

A similar sentiment was aired about the British occupation of Iraq on The World Tonight in February 2007: “90 per cent of the attacks here, or the violence levels recorded here, are against the British.  If you took the British out of it 90 per cent would drop, and you would be left with a residual bit”, Major General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British Forces in Basra, explained.

Of course, we should read and support alternative, non-corporate media outlets – the Morning Star, Peace News, Media Lens, Tribune magazine and Novara Media to name a few – and we should be vocal in our criticism of the corporate media. However, we shouldn’t forget a careful and critical engagement with mainstream news can often uncover important information and arguments that can be used against elite interests.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 November 2019

COMING out of the Glasgow Media Group tradition, Dr Mike Berry from the School of Journalism at Cardiff University has written a quietly devastating academic examination of the impact of the British print and broadcast media on public knowledge and understanding of the 2008 financial crisis.

Focusing on the October 2008 bank bailouts and debates about the national deficit and austerity circa 2009, Berry conducted content analysis, focus groups with the public and interviewed senior journalists producing the news.

With the public’s interest in economic and business news at unprecedented levels in 2008, he found the media “functioned to channel the very real public anger… into largely symbolic issues” while leaving the deep structural faults in Britain’s financial system “largely unexamined.” In particular he notes “City voices dominated core coverage of the [partial] bank nationalisations” on the BBC Today programme.

Similarly, he observed the media “constructed – to varying degrees – a narrative that the deficit represented a major economic threat which necessitated quick and sharp cuts to the welfare state.” Austerity was largely presented as inevitable, with his sample of BBC News at Ten’s output showing no space was given to economists, academics, unions or civil society actors “who might have advocated countercyclical or anti-austerity policies.”

Dismayingly, many of the participants in the focus groups said immigrants and asylum seekers were a primary reason for the rise in public debt caused by the recession created by the financial crisis – an outcome of decades-long misreporting of public spending, welfare and immigration by large sections of the media, Berry argues.

Contrary to the “dominant strand of thinking in both academic and lay circles that the media have relatively little influence” on public attitudes, Berry concludes the media had a “significant impact” on public opinion during the banking crisis and deficit debates. The repercussions of this manufactured ignorance have been immense, ultimately leading to a widespread acceptance of austerity that has devastated large swathes of the country, playing a key role in the 2010 and 2015 elections, the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.

Helpfully, Berry ends with a few tips for any Labour government interested in significantly increasing public spending, which will almost certainly incur the wrath of influential sections of the media: careful monitoring of public opinion combined with “a proactive and robust system of rebuttal” and utilisation of the mass membership to present the most effective arguments to the general public.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand post-crash Britain.

The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £22.99.

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2017

The morning after a draft of the Labour Party manifesto had been leaked, Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s general election co-ordinator, was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme in the high profile 08:10 slot.

Ten minutes earlier, the 08:00 news bulletin had reported that the manifesto promises to “nationalise the railways as franchises expire and to abolish tuition fees in England… to return Royal Mail to public ownership, to bring in an energy price cap and introduce a levy on companies with large numbers of staff on what it calls ‘very high pay’.”

“It looks like a great big wish list… that no government could possibly push through in five years or even fifty years”, stated presenter John Humphrys, interviewing Gwynne. “It is just unrealistic, isn’t it? It’s also far too to the left, far too much to the left for the British public to stomach, don’t you think?”

Some listeners may have swallowed the subtle assumptions behind Humphrys’ question but luckily a poll released the next day inserted some reality into the debate. Far from being “far too much to the left for the British public”, the Independent’s report on the research was titled ‘British voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies, poll finds’.

According to the ComRes survey 52 per cent of people support the state ownership of the railways (22 per cent opposed), 49 per cent support the state ownership of the energy market (24 percent opposed) and 50 per cent of people support the renationalisation of Royal Mail (25 per cent opposed). In addition, 71 per cent said they back Labour’s proposal to ban zero-hours contracts, while 65 percent supported Labour’s plan to increase income tax for those who earn £80,000 or more.

These findings are not a one off – a November 2013 YouGov poll found 67 per cent of people thought the Royal Mail should be run as a public service, 68 per cent supported nationalising the energy companies and 66 per cent wanted to nationalise the railways.

Humphrys’ attempt to dismiss Labour’s policies fits with the broader media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. Analysing press coverage during the two months after he was elected Labour leader, a 2016 London School of Economics study observed “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” Corbyn, “assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Other left-wing leaders have received negative press attention, though “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.” Another study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition “indicated how large sections of the press appeared to set out systematically to undermine Jeremy Corbyn with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage.”

The supposedly neutral and objective BBC, the most trusted news source in the UK, has played a key role in this political denigration and exclusion, with Sir Michael Lyons, the chair of the BBC Trust from 2007 to 2011, arguing in May last year there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”. Lyons continued: “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”

One such senior voice could well be BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was found to have erroneously edited a November 2015 interview with Corbyn to make it look like he didn’t support a shoot-to-kill policy during an ongoing Paris-style terrorist attack. The interview breached the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines, the BBC Trust found.

More recently, the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson dismissively tweeted “No-one should be surprised that @jeremycorbyn is running v the ‘Establishment’ & is long on passion & short on details. Story of his life.”

Rather than being aberrations, this bias against Corbyn arguably reflects the BBC’s wider politics. “Its structure and culture have been profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Dr Tom Mills argues in his 2016 book ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’. Unsurprisingly then, the BBC’s news output “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

Analysing the number and type of guests invited onto the programme, research conducted by Cardiff University’s Dr Mike Berry into the BBC Today Programme’s coverage of the financial crisis, confirms Mills’s thesis. “It was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions”, Berry told me.

With the Labour Party’s running on a transformational manifesto and Corbyn promising “a reckoning” with the unscrupulous sections of the British elite if he is elected Prime Minister, is it any wonder the establishment-friendly BBC is unable or unwilling to give the Labour leader a fair hearing?

 

 

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
3 February 2017

Dr Mike Berry, a Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, co-wrote Bad News From Israel (2004) and More Bad News From Israel (2011) with Professor Greg Philo.

In recent years Dr Berry has turned his attention to the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis. I asked him about his findings and why they are important for British democracy.

Ian Sinclair: In the last few years you have published two journal articles studying the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis – one analysing BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s output on the banking crisis in September and October 2008 and the other looking at the coverage by BBC News at Ten of the debate around the need to reduce the public deficit in the first seven months of 2009. What were the main findings of these two studies?

Mike Berry: Before answering that question directly I’d like to backtrack a little and provide some context to these events and explain why they are intimately linked. After 1979 the Conservatives introduced policies which fundamentally changed the nature and composition of the British economy. The withdrawal of the state from intervention in industry, the lifting of exchange controls and the deregulation of finance strengthened the power of capital at the expense of labour. The effects of what the Oxford historian Andrew Glyn described as, ‘Capitalism Unleashed’, was a shift towards an economy dominated by the service sector, a dramatic polarization in regional economic activity and sharp rise in income and wealth inequality. However this rise in inequality had a deflationary impact on the economy which was only compensated for by a steep rise in household debt. When New Labour came to power they largely accepted the Thatcherite settlement – the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector would continue to be the principal private motor of the economy whilst manufacturing was allowed to continue its long decline. However Labour did introduce record increases in social spending in areas such as health and education which in large part were paid for by tax receipts drawn from the City and the property boom. This meant that public spending increasingly took on the role of an ‘undisclosed regional policy’ by boosting state and para-state employment in areas outside the South-East where private sector job creation was ‘weak or failing’. However this unbalanced growth model, based on asset price inflation and ever expanding household debt financed by an outsized, reckless financial services sector was unsustainable and exploded spectacularly in 2008.

This is the point at which my research picked up the story and I was interested primarily in how the crisis was explained, how the bank rescue plans were discussed and the range of debate on how the finance sector could be reformed. Would the key role of the banks in creating such an unbalanced economic model be unpacked and would there be any voices featured who called for more democratic control of finance and restrictions on the free market? When I looked at the coverage on the Today programme it was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions. This meant that that on the question of what to do with the banks there was strong support for the government bailouts and the idea that the banks should be re-privatised as soon as possible. It also meant that arguments in favour of long term public stake in banking which could be used to support long term productive investment – rather than real estate speculation – never appeared in coverage. In a similar vein, major reforms such as heavier regulation of the shadow banking sector, the introduction of a financial transaction tax, the regulation or even banning of certain derivative classes, a clampdown on tax havens or restrictions on the revolving door between politicians, regulators and major banks, were also invisible. It was remarkable that in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which was precipitated by extraordinarily irresponsible behaviour by the banks, the Today programme featured a variety of City sources warning about the dangers of too much regulation.

The banking crisis led to a major recession which shrunk the tax base and sharply increased the public deficit (the gap between the tax take and public spending). It also precipitated a major debate about how to respond to the increase in public debt. At the heart of these debates were three interlinked questions: How serious a problems was the deficit? How quickly should it be eliminated?, and how should it be reduced? Some leading economists were sceptical that the deficit represented an economy emergency and believed that deficit reduction needed to wait until the recovery was well established. There were also many voices calling for the burden of deficit reduction to be primarily borne by those who had most benefitted from the sharp increases in asset wealth seen over the previous thirty years. However these voices didn’t appear in coverage. Instead the dominant perspectives in BBC News at Ten reporting were that the deficit was highly dangerous and needed to be dealt with quickly by sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive forms of taxation. These perspectives were mostly expressed by politicians, think tanks and City sources but on occasion they were directly endorsed by leading journalists. So for instance on 10 June 2009 a reporter commented that ‘What will be cut, by how much and when? As the Government’s coffers grow ever more empty, those are questions that can no longer be avoided.’

IS: Is this coverage a step change in the BBC’s coverage of finance and economics news, or is it a continuation of previous output?

MB: In many ways this is a continuation of previous output. There is a long history of research stretching back to the mid 1970s which has found that BBC economic news tends to reproduce free market perspectives on the economy whilst marginalising left wing views.

For instance research on BBC reporting of Britain’s industrial malaise in the 1970s tended to blame  industrial action by trade unions whilst sidelining the culpability of management and very low levels of investment in plant and capital, which meant that the average Japanese car production worker was using equipment worth ten times that of  their British counterpart. In the 1980s, research noted that BBC reporting of the Conservatives’ privatisation of state assets was heavily influenced by the governments’ PR campaigns with the consequence that most coverage focused on the potential profits to shareholders while excluding those who argued that 80% of the population would no longer have a stake in the newly private industries.

However, there are two key trends since the 1980s that have narrowed the range of opinion even further. The first was the decision by the Labour Party to abandon contestation of economic policy following a series of election defeats in the 1980s. By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 the party had wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism and the primacy of finance sector in the economy. Since the BBC tends to reproduce the spectrum of opinion at Westminster it meant that the major voice which had traditionally argued for an interventionist state and controls on the free market disappeared from coverage. The second factor was changes in the sociology of journalism. The 1980s saw the disappearance of the industrial news beat which had provided a platform for the views of the trade unions and a space where left-wing collectivist opinion could be articulated. At the same time financial and City news became a much more prominent feature of BBC reporting which provided much greater space for City experts and their apparently neutral opinions on the latest financial and economic news stories.

IS: How does the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis compare to that of other British news organisations?

MB: The BBC, due to its statutory duty to maintain impartiality, doesn’t employ the kind of aggressive editorialising that you see in parts of the national press. Nevertheless the range of opinion is similar.

So during the banking crisis both the Today programme and most national newspapers overwhelmingly viewed the part-nationalisation as the only option and featured commentators who argued against full nationalisation and public ownership of banks. In a similar vein both Today and the national press – with the notable exception of the Guardian – featured little information about serious structural reforms to the finance sector. If anything Today coverage, due to its exceptionally heavy reliance on City sources, tended to feature less criticism of the finance sector and more arguments against further regulation than any national newspaper.

In a similar vein, when I looked at the coverage of the debates around the public deficit what was remarkable was the degree of similarity in broadcast and press coverage with the key differences being in tone and tenor. So both the press and the BBC tended to treat the deficit as an economic crisis which threatened serious consequences such as currency depreciation, interest rate rises, bond strikes and even national bankruptcy whilst sidelining voices who questioned these claims. Similarly both the BBC and the right-wing press overwhelming presented sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive taxation as the only possible solutions to the ‘crisis’. The argument made by some on the left that some of the burden should be borne by the most wealthy just doesn’t appear in BBC coverage and even in the left of centre press it is largely absent except for the Guardian.

IS: The BBC prides itself on the principle of impartiality, and is even seen as left-wing by many commentators. Why, then, were the parameters of the coverage of the financial crisis on two of the BBC’s flagship programmes so narrow and City-friendly, and so dominated by elite, often City-based sources?

MB: If you ask journalists this question they will tell you that in comparison to academic economists City sources are invariably ‘available’ and ‘up to date’ on the latest events. Journalists also argue that you can rely on such sources to give clear concise arguments within the constraints of a brief news item and that they are the sources with the expertise needed to understand the intricacies and complexities of the financial crisis. All those are valid explanations but I think these sourcing patterns also reflect the fact that journalists internalise strong assumptions about who is qualified to speak on the economy or finance sector and this usually means a front bench politician, specific think tanks or a City source. These voices are then routinely over accessed and serve to sharply delineate the boundaries of what is said about how the economy can be managed. But of course there are always alternative sources who could be accessed to broaden the parameters of debate.

IS: Why are your findings about the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis important?

MB: Broadcast news remains a key information source for most citizens and so what appears has significant implications for the construction of public belief and attitudes. In my research in addition to analysing the content of media broadcasts I also run focus groups with members of the public in order to examine how news accounts impact on what people think and believe. What was clear from the focus groups was that most people were quite confused about key aspects of the financial crisis – for instance what a derivative was or the difference between the public debt and deficit. However what they had picked up tended to be very heavily influenced by what they had seen in the press or broadcasting. So most people knew about the ‘fat cats’ and the bonuses but nobody I spoke to had heard of the financial transactions tax or knew about the ‘revolving door’. When I asked people about how the public deficit could be reduced they overwhelmingly pointed to solutions they had picked up from press and television accounts such as reductions in quangos, public sector pension provision, benefit payments or immigrants. Nobody mentioned clamping down on tax avoidance or introducing progressive wealth or income taxes. However when I brought these up as potential solutions in focus groups they were received very well, reflecting the findings of large scale surveys in this area.

The press and television thus plays a key role in framing how we understand the economy and the range of possibilities as to how it can be managed. If the great bulk of the press argue that the public deficit represents a national emergency which can only be solved by cuts to a ‘bloated’ and ‘inefficient’ public sector – and crucially if such views are reinforced (in rather more temperate language) in public broadcasting then it is hardly surprising that such views become widely accepted amongst the public.

IS: What changes do you think the BBC should make to provide a wider selection of voices and a broader debate when it comes to financial and economic news?

MB: I think that the first thing that needs to happen is for the BBC to recognise that its economic reporting should be more balanced. On the day that the bank bailouts were finalised (13 October 2008) the discussion during one news segment was conducted between Sir George Cox, described by a BBC journalist as ‘someone with a liberal, free-market economic background, Institute of Directors and from perhaps the more right end of British politics’, and Patrick Minford who was introduced as ‘one of Mrs Thatcher’s chief economist supporters’. Such a narrow range of reporting was not uncommon and appears to reflect a belief within BBC economic reporting that, as Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there is no alternative’ to the free market.

However, when even economists at the IMF, the organisation mostly closely associated with the promotion of neoliberalism, are now publishing papers explicitly linking the decline in labour bargaining power with debt increases, financialisation and economic crises then surely it is time for BBC reporting to widen the spectrum of opinion it features in its new programmes.

There are many alternative sources that the BBC could turn to to provide an alternative to free market perspectives. Individual sources such as Ha Joon Chang, Geoff Tily, Simon Wren-Lewis, James Meadway, Ann Pettifor, Mariana Mazzucato, Mark Blyth or Graham Turner could offer fresh perspectives. Institutionally the BBC could source from thinktanks like the New Economics Foundation, the Tax Justice Network, PRIME or from academics connected to the Manchester Business School or SPERI. Occasionally such sources do appear, but to provide true balance they need to be featured routinely as a counterpoint to the views of City economists who tend to dominate reporting.