The BBC , the economy and the Spin Doctors

Yesterday the Chairman of the BBC Trust and the Director General came to the Commons to talk about their service. I went along to ask them why BBC political journalism confines itself to the agenda of the spin doctors, and to repeating the half truths and misleading comments encapsulated in the soundbites.

The BBC took this as a request for a few more academic type programmes to go wider than the news. It was instead a complaint that the BBC is too influenced by spin, to the exclusion of the audience understanding what is really going on.

Let’s take three examples. Readers of this site will know I have been a long standing critic of the government soundbite “We made the Bank of England independent and that guarantees economic stability”. The first half of this was never true, as any well informed Whitehall watcher should know. They did not make the Bank independent – they took away crucial responsibilities from it and interfered at crucial moments with the MPC. The second part is now unravelling – can you claim it is stable to have a run on a bank, a halving of mortgage activity, a halving of house sales and a collapse in property and housebuilding?

The second is the current soundbite “We must not talk ourselves into recession”. The sharp slowdown we are experiencing is not the result of idle talk, but the result of a shortage of money. It is the direct consequence of a boom-bust credit and money policy pursued by the authorities, who created easy credit in the period 2004-6 and tight credit 2007-8 through their handling of banking regulation, money markets and interest rates. Ministers will not be able to talk their way out of this one. They need to take action in markets to sort it out.

The third is the soundbite “The UK is well placed to ride out this international storm”. The BBC dutifully puts into bulletins that the Credit Crunch was made in the USA, and this is an international problem. They should instead ask some of the following questions:

1. Wasn’t Northern Rock a British collapse, based on the UK mortgage market?
2. Didn’t nationalisation of the Rock remove the most aggressive large mortgage lender from the market, intensifying the mortgage squeeze?
3. Isn’t the boom-bust in UK property prices and housebuilding a UK phenomenon brought about by British monetary policy?
4. Isn’t the UK government in a bad position, having borrowed and spent too much in the good years and now unable to reflate the economy with tax cuts?
5. Didn’t the UK government use off balance sheet vehicles and creative credit devices itself on a large scale, fuelling the credit boom of recent years?
6. Hasn’t UK competitiveness declined significantly in recent years, making UK adjustment more painful?
7. Why did the UK fail to add more to non fossil fuel electricity capacity during the good times, to ease shortages now?
8. Why does the UK impose some of the highest taxes on oil products, and increase them during a period of sharp upward movements in oil prices, exacerbating the squeeze?
9. Why did the government increase North Sea oil taxes, putting companies off from more exploration and enhanced recovery?

If they asked some of these, they might see that repeating uncritically the notion that this is entirely a US or international problem is just not the case. The UK dimension to this crisis reveals serious flaws in the conduct of policy in recent years.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

19 Comments

  1. Glyn H
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Wonderfully on the money Sir! As one of the few Liberals who talks some sort of sense and once had a proper job Vince Cable ought to be enticed over to the Tories; he can hardly be truly at home with the average Liberal activist can he? You, he and the increasingly impressive young Mr Osborne would make a splendid treasury team.

  2. Cliff
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    The cynical side of me feels that the BBC will say what it's paymaster wants them to say.
    It appears to many of us, that the Labour government basically told the BBC, if they want to keep the license fee they need to do as they are told.
    I can remember a government minister around about the time of the Dr Kelly incident coming onto the news and almost saying as much.
    I suspect very few people honestly believe the BBC fulfils it's charter condition to remain unbiased and balanced in it's reporting.

  3. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    News bulletins, and programmes such as The World at One, broadcast government propaganda and call it "news". It is clear that they receive a written or perhaps verbal briefing from one of the multitude of spin doctors employed by the government at great expense to the taxpayer. This is then delivered to give the illusion, to those who don't know how the system works, that this is in some way the BBC's independent assessment of the daily political events. The agenda is set by government and the depth of understanding of any topic by the broadcast presenters is negligible, as can be witnessed by the poor standard of questioning when ministers deign to put themselves forward for interview. I have no expectation that this cosy set up between government and broadcaster will change.

  4. John
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Gordon Brown, far from being the best person to handle our problems, has shown a fiscal incompetency that would have split up a family if transferred to a household budget. Mind you many families have copied him. Borrowing on credit cards and spending loads of money they didn't have. Seeing Brown swanning around the world pontificating about all sort of things, I feel he is either (fibbing or misinformed – words to that effect). In either case he is unfit to run this country

  5. Michael Taylor
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Your criticisms are, of course, all accurate and pertinent. As to why they don't ask these questions, it's because they are rather stupid and ill-disciplined people who have substituted the easy indulgence of commentary for the difficult and demanding task of real journalism.

    And, quite obviously, being state employees financed by a regressive tax, they have no understanding of economics or the alternatives to socialism.

    But we wait in vain for the Conservatives to tell us what, if anything, they intend to do about it. Are you tough enough to break it up, sell it back to the public who pays for it, and let these people live or die by the market? If not, we're stuck with the BBC, paying for it in cash and in the drip drip drip of socialism.

    I think the BBC can make and break the next Conservative government. And that's wrong.

  6. Stuart Fairney
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    You may also want to ask them why they quote the British crime survey which tells us knife crime is falling (seriously!) when they know that it excludes the under 16's who are in the demographic which is very likely to be involved in said crime.

    Or why they can't tell us that 60,000 people were stabbed last year in the UK and how does this square with their report that knife crime is falling?

  7. Rose
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    I couldn't agree more, except to add that HM's Opposition were much too reticent on the question of the BOE's independence after 1997. For far too long HMG got away with flagging it up as a great reform.

    Your questions for the broadcasters will never be asked. It is much easier for them to read out the PRs from the Treasury, and confine their investigations to gathering gossip about conservatives. For example, the brave and noble performance by that hard-faced young woman on Channel 4 News, recently, in exposing Mr Lewis. She proudly said she had been working on it a fortnight. You would almost think they didn't want positive discrimination, or guns and knives etc. to be tackled. Can you imagine them working for a fortnight on some important economic question and actually getting it right?

  8. mikestallard
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    There are countless examples of BBC bias. The one that really shocked my wife when I uttered an unRedwood Word and promptly stormed out of the room was some cretin telling us all about petrol prices being entirely the fault of the Saudi Government.
    Another was a report about knife crime which did not even mention the word "Police".

    However, there is a silver lining. Do you remember when the wretched David Cameron was shouted off the air by Jeremy Paxman when he was first chosen to be the Conservative Party Leader?
    Things have swung round very fast sine then and now the Conservatives on Newsnight are treated with the same sort of impertinence as everyone else.
    That's progress.

  9. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Why not privatise the BBC & use the once off windfall to fund a once off tax refund for all taxpayers ? That would end the Poll Tax that is the BBC fee being used to fund Guardian style propaganda and so would make things fairer . It would also give consumer demand a bit of a boost by helping familes and the rest of us make ends meet . The BBC is a bloated , left wing white elephant that is an affront to market competition and is funded by a Poll Tax that is paid whether or not the payer uses the BBC . It is double standards for Auntie to be financed by a Poll Tax when they opposed Lady Thatcher’s Poll Tax ! Privatisation as John Redwood knows was a great success as lots of places copied it and indeed took it further ( i.e. Russia into pensions , Hungary into healthcare and Sweden into education ) while we could all do with some extra cash at a time of mounting economic distress . Time to end a Soviet style broadcaster and help poorer people suffering from Labour economic madness !

  10. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Why not privatise the BBC & use the once off windfall to fund a once off tax refund for all taxpayers ? That would end the Poll Tax that is the BBC fee being used to fund Guardian style propaganda and so would make things fairer . It would also give consumer demand a bit of a boost by helping familes and the rest of us make ends meet . The BBC is a bloated , left wing white elephant that is an affront to market competition and is funded by a Poll Tax that is paid whether or not the payer uses the BBC . It is double standards for Auntie to be financed by a Poll Tax when they opposed Lady Thatcher's Poll Tax ! Privatisation as John Redwood knows was a great success as lots of places copied it and indeed took it further ( i.e. Russia into pensions , Hungary into healthcare and Sweden into education ) while we could all do with some extra cash at a time of mounting economic distress . Time to end a Soviet style broadcaster and help poorer people suffering from Labour economic madness !

  11. adam
    Posted July 9, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    dont get me started on the bbc, gets worse every day.

    Ecobeebies is… interesting.

  12. John
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I am pleased that the BBC Trust is to hold an enquiry into the antics of TV Licensing against those who have no TV license.Having been inundated with demands to purchase a license(even though the property is under major renovation and therefore empty), I am delighted that they will be the ones under investigation. Although it's a pity that "authorised officers will visit you and interview you under caution and the statement will be taken under compliance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 or Scottish criminal law" won't apply to those at TV Licensing.

  13. Richard
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Every time I hear or read about Gordon Brown admonishing the banks for "off-balance sheet spending" I find my self fuming.
    PFI (the Private Finance Initiative) is the biggest off-balance dodge in history resulting in megamillions of debt for future generations and long-term (25-30 year) gold-plated contracts for the favoured New-Labour donors.

    The Conservatives need to highlight this more strongly.

  14. Neil Craig
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    It is inherent in a state funded institution that they believe the answers to most questions are more state funding.I am not entirely happy with the idea of fully privatising them but I see no better solution.

  15. Stuart Fairney
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Adam said

    "Ecobeebies is… interesting"

    You are right to be concerned, it’s just like the young pioneers concept was in the Soviet Union. The goals were different, the methods the same, indoctrinate the young with straight propaganda before they can think for themselves.

    Imagine if anyone else tried indoctrinating young children with an overt political message, what would the BBC say?

    JR, you really must privatise the dinosaur that is the BBC, first term. No speakers conference, no feasibility review, no option analysis, just straight privatisation and what can't be sold as a going concern, should be auctioned off. They are way beyond reform.

  16. TrevorH
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Re. BoE (non) independence – the other issue is of course the creation of the inept FSA and the labyrinthine 'tripartite agreement' (which sounds like just the sort of treaty designed to draw you into a World War – instead its drawn us into a recession).

    This cats cradle has collapsed at its first time of asking and was of course crafted by one G. Brown Esq.

  17. Man in a Shed
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Your right on this John. Its not just the inbuilt bias in an organisation like the BBC, but its lack of professionalism.

    The example that annoys me the most is when they swallow the pre-announcement spin ploy.

    They report the desired headline on what a government minster is going to say, but as he hasn't yet delivered the speech no one from another viewpoint can respond (in the unlikely event they were invited to do so. I notice that the habit of inviting the opposition to respond ended when Labour became the government ). Perhaps a BBC correspondent gets invited to pontificate, but has generally swallowed the spin line he's been fed. Which is all the more convincing as it gets delivered by someone who is supposed to be objective and neutral.

    It also means the speech has left the news cycle by the time people examine what was actually said, and the implications of the details. On the government's pre-speech spin wins air time with counter viewpoints denied access to the details or even opportunity for a response.

    I have written to them to complain, for all the good it does.

  18. William B.
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    One of the best arguments the Beeb ever had against privatisation was the absence of adverts interrupting their programmes. These days, of course, between every programme we seem to get a good 4 or 5 minutes of adverts for BBC products and/or a nicely turned threat aimed at those who might try to evade the telly tax.

    It was one thing when the telly tax was at a reasonable level, but the current price is quite oppressive for those on low fixed incomes. Sell it, I say, bring it into the real world.

  19. Cityunslicker
    Posted July 12, 2008 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    The UK is in a terrible place. I hope you can lead the party here John. They need to come up with real policies to differentiate themselves from Labour.

    At the moment, here
    we are in a bad place and looking at years of turmoil. We need a party and Government who offer us light.

One Trackback

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

  • John’s Books

  • Email Alerts

    You can sign up to receive John's blog posts by e-mail by entering your e-mail address in the box below.

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

    The e-mail service is powered by Google's FeedBurner service. Your information is not shared.

  • Map of Visitors

    Locations of visitors to this page