Media is failing public in many ways

Allister Heath
WITH the phone hacking scandal continuing to grow, and the reputation of journalists at their lowest ebb since the death of Diana, now seems like a good time to add to the media’s woes.

A poll out today reveals what can only be described as another mini-scandal, this time relating to the media’s ability to convey accurate information to the public. True, it doesn’t disclose another sordid or criminal breach of trust committed by despicable, story-crazed hacks listening to people’s voicemails – but its findings ought nevertheless to be deeply worrying for all of us who work in the media and especially for those journalists who work for the BBC and the other mass market outlets.

As the ComRes/Institute of Economic Affairs poll points out, the public has got completely the wrong idea about what will be happening to the national debt over the next few years. Because the coalition will be only gradually reducing the budget deficit, the national debt will continue to soar in cash terms and as a share of GDP. An extra £350bn or so will be added to the national debt before the next general election, if all goes according to plan. So far, so self-evident, you may think. Yet the public – primarily because of the way this story has been reported in print, online and in the broadcast media, together with Britain’s appallingly low level of financial literacy – has no idea whatsoever about this. It wrongly thinks that the coalition is planning to “repay our debt” – and fails to grasp the key conceptual difference between the annual deficit (or extra debt) and the outstanding total national debt (a stock which keeps on growing as long as there is a deficit).

The poll asked whether the coalition would be keeping the national debt the same over the next four years, increasing it by £350bn or cutting it by £350bn. Just nine per cent got it right – 21 per cent thought it would be staying the same and an astonishing 70 per cent thought the national debt would be cut by £350bn. This is an extraordinarily depressing finding and first and foremost a massive failure of journalism. It is also a failure of political communication and of education. Given such catastrophic levels of misunderstanding about what will be happening to the economy over the next few years, how can the public possibly come to a sensible decision about spending choices? It is a bitter blow for democracy and robs the UK of the ability to conduct a sensible, grown-up discussion about what should be done to tax and spend.

The media as a whole has also been failing in recent days to give enough prominence to the growing Italian crisis. The Eurozone’s slow-motion implosion is the single biggest threat to the UK’s prosperity and living standards. While the scandal engulfing News Corporation and other parts of the traditional, paid-for UK newspaper industry is extremely important and deserves high billing, it is not the only story in town. What is happening in Italy at present is equally vital. There might have been an excuse for ignoring massive macro events in 2008 before Lehman brothers went pop – there isn’t this time. Those who believe that low standards are only rife in parts of the media are wrong. Even the up-market, sophisticated media is repeatedly failing to communicate the key facts to the public on a range of issues. There is no conspiracy or criminality – but in its own very different way it is equally scandalous.
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