Is the BBC’s reporting on economics impartial?

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The BBC commissioned a report from Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot that was submitted to the BBC in November and has now been published. It had this title:

Although I am not a big fan of Andrew Dilnot's objectivity, Michael Blastland seems to have a good record on this issue, and the report is well worth reading. I think it is a genuine attempt to address the faults in the reporting of the issues noted in its title.

I will attach at the end of this post the summary pages from the report because they are worth looking at. What I wish to highlight instead are some of the issues raised in it which might get overlooked.

The overall finding was that there was weakness in reporting, but the resulting biases were to left and right, although I have to say that I do not think that the report supports that claim: most of the weaknesses noted appear to me to suggest under-reporting of the concerns of those who might be on the left.

The reasons for this, if the report is read carefully are:

  • Economics reporters are not economically confident;
  • Those reporters are too willing to have what they report dictated by political parties and, most especially, other media;
  • Those biases are not questioned often enough, and nor are the assumptions that suggest that the issues reported are the real matters of concern;
  • There are too few voices on the BBC, especially those inclined to offer alterative opinion, which by implication means that the neoliberal hegemony is reinforced;
  • Inappropriate emphasis might be given to those numbers that appeal to those who seek to set the news agenda rather than those who are impacted by it.

I stress, these are my interpretation, but I think I too have tried to be fair. A couple of examples illustrate my points. This one is on household analogies:

The points are well made, but how the alternative should be presented is not discussed.

Another example comes  from the failure to report on bus travel

As a metaphor for the voices of many people not being heard because the journalists live in a different world, this was powerful.

So was this on the over-emphasis on income tax:

These two sections by themselves speak of profound class and regional biases that suggest significant partiality. As they note, balance between the front benches is not enough:

The report did correctly note that there is a need for the BBC to emphasise that many so-called facts in economics are just choices:

Too often they imply that the BBC suggests such choice does not exist, when actually it does. This comment on fiscal rules is illuminating on this:

Fiscal rules are just made up. They aren't rules at all.

But perhaps the most telling comment that was not given sufficient emphasis was this, on the fact that most journalists are not retained in economics, even when they have been commenting on it for years:

There is, in other words, a bias to the 'norm', which is the mainstream view because the experience to question it is lacking.

I think the report is more critical in reality than it superficially appears to be. And the bias is to the right, whether the authors appreciate it or not (and they may not be seeing the bias in their own work).  The BBC has a lot to do to get this right. But they are not alone.

Appendix - the report's main findings, in summary

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