Rod Liddle says that television news is intrinsically biased: it transforms what it reports.
In the case of the economy, ministers are right to counteract this with a dose of optimism
Excuse me for a moment; it’s all become a little too much for me and I need to sit down somewhere quiet, take a few deep breaths and dry my eyes. I feel all choked up inside. He came down for us, to wash away our sins. Sorry, sorry – forgive me, I’ve been watching the BBC’s coverage of Barack Obama’s coronation, live from Washington. It’s a sort of cross between Princess Diana’s funeral and Live Aid Concert, except happier and the black people aren’t covered in flies. Every so often they cut to something called the Bernie Grant Centre in north London where local youngsters from the ethnic minority community, on parole for the day, are chanting that famous spiritually uplifting refrain from Bob the Builder – Yes We Can!
I don’t know — maybe it’s just me — but if you watched the inauguration of Barack, did you detect just the tiniest, weeniest difference in tone from the broadcasters, compared to how they marked the re-election of President Bush four years ago? Just an infinitesimally minute difference in nuance? I might be wrong but I don’t remember them cutting to a bunch of well-fed, middle-aged, middle-class white people in the Peter Bruinvels Centre in Beaconsfield every so often to hear them singing ‘Go George — nuke the Arabs!’, amidst bunting and drained bottles of champagne. ‘Awe-inspiring’ and ‘breath-taking’ and ‘momentous’ and ‘I have a dream’ were the words used by the correspondents this time. Sheesh, I dunno, I could well be wrong — it’s just that my memory seems to tell me that with the inauguration of Bush, there was a little less ejaculate sloshing around. Actually, come to think of it, did the BBC even cover the re-inauguration of George W. Bush for a whole afternoon? Or was it just a clip in the news: ‘Uh-oh, look who’s back.’ My memory plays tricks sometimes — maybe Jon Sopel and Huw Edwards cried for joy all afternoon then, too.
Television news of course does not simply report what is going on in the world in a neutral and unbiased manner; it transforms it. The BBC was, I think it’s fair to say, pro-Barack Obama. Perhaps it was right to be so, because so was the rest of the world, from what we could gather from the, uh, television news. No report is free from bias — in tone, or story selection, on what is left in and what is left out. I think it’s also fair to say that the BBC, in its reportage, has been biased against Robert Mugabe (to the extent that it is barred from the country), has been biased against the Taleban in Afghanistan (although it was initially quite pro) and certainly biased against the current regimes in North Korea, Burma and Russia. It was partisan in the Ukrainian elections of a couple of years ago. In a more obviously contentious manner it seems to be rigorously pro-Hamas and, in the recent presidential election, openly pro-Obama and anti-McCain. Both of these positions were arrived at more by a sort of naive, humane sentimentality than outright leftist bias, I would argue. But arrived at, somehow, they undoubtedly were. Partisan they undoubtedly were. Please, argue among yourselves as to whether the bias was right or wrong.
The ‘credit crunch’ has also been heavily reported by the BBC, as it has by all media worth the name. You will remember that at one point in the late summer the Corporation’s business correspondent, the extraordinarily camp Robert Peston, was fingered by the Association of British Banks, which seemed to wish him to be prosecuted for having done what journalists are supposed to do and found out lots of new stories about what the banks were up to, the implication being that Peston had been ‘fed’ stories to the detriment of the economy and in contravention of an assumed confidentiality. Rightly, Peston was exonerated and the barefaced cheek of the banks held up to public ridicule. After all, it was largely they, not some diligent and well-connected journalist, who had buggered up the economy. But still, the media’s involvement with our current financial crisis deserves a bit more in the way of scrutiny — not because of people like Peston, finding stuff out and then reporting it, but in a more general sense. And that brings me to two propositions, neither of which you may agree with.
First, that the financial crisis has been deepest in those countries in which there is a strong and rapacious media — the UK, USA and Iceland, among others — and undoubtedly worsened as a direct result of relentlessly baleful headlines. And secondly, by corollary, that the government, via both Margaret Beckett and Baroness Vadera, was right in the last week or two to suggest that the housing market was showing signs of recovery and that ‘green shoots’ could be espied within the financial sector. I am not saying that they were correct — that those green shoots or signs of recovery were actually existent — merely that they were right to have planted such a suggestion in the fevered minds of the world.
My first proposition seems almost incontestable. As we have learned of late, if we ever didn’t know it, high finance is smoke and mirrors; a question of fragile confidence founded upon gossip, rumour, guesswork and suggestion. It is about as scientific an endeavour as the final voting for Strictly Come Dancing; endlessly and hopelessly suggestible. At the same time, there is nothing the media like more than armageddon and annihilation — it is, after all, the story to beat all stories. The banks collapse and the media help them on their way by talking up the most dire of prognoses for our economy. The worst-case scenario suddenly becomes accepted as a likelihood. There is a truism: if we think the economy is fine and display our belief through investment, then the economy will be pretty much fine in the end. However, if every redundancy is front-page news — no matter how incompetent and bereft the companies announcing them might be — and every hole into which we seem to sink dug deeper still by those reporting it, then the economy will continue to sink, almost ad infinitum. Tomorrow you will turn on the news and learn of more misery; a slight drop of the pound against the euro, whereas a similar move in the other direction would merit scarcely a sentence. And so on. There was a poll carried out back in the summer of 2008, in which almost one quarter of British people thought that the ‘credit crunch’ was entirely a media confection, a crisis whipped up to fill the blank pages. A little later the notion of the media being ‘responsible’ for the credit crunch became an urban myth. It is not quite so simple as that, nor quite so stark — but you would not bet against the media having been critically influential, given the ectoplasmic nature of city confidence.
Which is why Baroness Vadera, a government minister with responsibility for competition and small businesses, may have been on the right track when she said — in a heavily qualified response to a question, replete with all manner of caveats — that she had seen one or two ‘green shoots’ in the economy. Perhaps she has, perhaps she hasn’t — either way, the media storm which consequently engulfed her seemed almost surreal. Shoving suitably qualified optimism into the system seems to me not merely a reasonable thing to do, but a responsible thing to do.
Which was what Old Ma Beckett did when she announced that she believed we were at the bottom of the property slump and that, by implication, prices would henceforth rise. The government was already worrying about the next property boom, she suggested. Well, so it should. By my reckoning house prices have not fallen nearly enough — give it another 20 or 30 per cent drop and the average propert
y in the UK will cost about what it does in France. Further, the government has — again rightly — long bemoaned the unaffordability of housing for the bottom quartile of income earners. Why not, then, worry about what will happen when the housing market kicks off again? And once more there is the question of confidence: if you say loudly enough every day that property is a good investment and house prices will rise, sooner or later they will indeed rise. It is a simple case of cause and effect. This seems to me so obvious it is almost axiomatic.
In short: talk the economy up and it will begin to recover. This doesn’t seem to me a hugely controversial thesis.