Ben Chu and Simon Wren Lewis have both opined on how the broadcast media let us down in their coverage of Patrick Minford’s memo as chair of ‘Economists for Free Trade’. They make the point that an impression of false balance of competing opinions was created by the juxtaposition of Minford’s ‘report’, and Minford himself, with an interlocutor from the opposing side.
This latest episode is a recurrence of a frequent problem on the topic of Brexit economics.
There are not many points to add to these incisive pieces by Ben and Simon. But we might well ask why the false balance phenomenon happens so often.
A feature of the equal status policy is to recapitulate debates as battles of talking heads. Let the viewers see the heads talk, the merits of the arguments should become apparent, and viewers can evaluate them for themselves. Sometimes we get a head from each side. At other times, the interviewer plays the role of the opposing side.
There are all kinds of problems with this; the implicit signalling that the arguments are balanced by having one person from each side of the argument; the apparent status of the argument as a live debate [‘look: they are arguing? Even the experts have not reached a settled view on this!’]; allowing the outcome to be determined by the fleet-footedness on the day of the chosen protagonists, or, if it’s the interviewer playing the part, by how well they are briefed.
But the format of talking heads slugging it out, however maddening, solves a problem. The basic topic is boring for most viewers. Editors have to entertain, otherwise their programs lose their followers and their raison d’etre. And if they don’t entertain, and viewers and listeners fall away, they are not there to be educated. The judgement is – probably rightly – that it is much less boring to watch fisticuffs and experience the thrill of discovering who will win today, than it is to watch a lecture, even when such lectures are punctuated by modern graphics of arrows, scales, euro symbols, pictures of cargo ships and robots making cars.
The false equal status policy arises, perhaps, for two other reasons, which colour treatments of Brexit economics in textual outputs like the BBC website.
One, I conjecture, is a business model that means an inevitable shortage of the requisite technical knowledge to recognise an economic debate that is not a debate any more. The BBC and similar have to sell clicks and eyeballs. And this is not done most efficiently within a given budget by carrying teams capable of gold-plating material that trespasses on technical economics.
Another reason for the equal status may be that is that they interpret the formal and informal regulatory constraints on them to mean that if there is sufficient ‘balance’ in the political controversy concerning a topic, then, regardless of the technical merits of the political arguments, the matter has to be treated as a live debate with protagonists of apparently equal claim to the truth.
In a democracy, state media and media with state functions perhaps has to behave in that way. It’s the same calculation that would divvy up seats on Question Time in a way that was roughly proportional to seats in Parliament, or percentages scored in opinion polls. If a sufficiently strong political group took the view that climate science was a hoax, despite overwhelming scientific opinion to the contrary, the same pressure for balance would be felt [and indeed, one could argue that the airtime given to Lord Lawson reflects this].
In which case the responsibility for the flat earth economics’ coverage lies with the political faction that does not accept the overwhelming economic consensus. For whatever reason, whether through lack of exposure to this consensus, or because they judge other non-economic factors surrounding Brexit sufficiently important to their constituents that the economics has to be disregarded and even undermined, members of this faction treat the economics as a live debate, and expect, rightly, that live debates are treated as such in media regulated by the state.
It might well be contended that the formal and informal regulations governing the BBC and similar are sufficiently vague that an editorial policy that would have ruled against the false balance model in the case of Brexit economics was possible. In which case, the outcome we got must be seen as a result of a balancing act by the broadcasters, choosing a point within the set of allowable policies that weighs some unknown vision for what it is they want to do against competing pressures of commerce and the power exerted by the political faction that it is not prepared to give up on pro-Hard-Brexit economics.
If things are how I see it, we are stuck with the coverage we have got, and there does not seem to me to be an easy way to fix it. Unfounded views amongst political factions survive because constituents are not persuaded to the contrary. This faction exerts rightful control over airtime on state regulated media and its views are heard; this reinforces the constituency for the unfounded view, and the cycle repeats.