The Mail on Sunday today splashes on “the most biased BBC News bulletin in history” – a reference to the Radio 4 Today programme on the morning after the Budget. I was a guest on that programme, coming in at the end, so I should be pleased to have been a part of history. But was it really so biased? I’m not so sure.
The furore is around the decision by R4 news to lead on a Resolution Foundation critique about the distributional effects of the tax cuts, saying that raising the personal allowances etc helps the richest the most. A left-wing story? Yes, but it was clearly identified as such by the 8am bulletin. The Tories simply lost the spin wars to one of the leading left-wing think tanks that morning, and seem upset now. The Resolution Foundation defeated them fair and square.
I'm not sure that there was any bias. If anything, the Tories should be pleased that R4 correctly identified the Resolution Foundation as “left-leaning”, offering listeners greater transparency than the (many) news outlets which describe Torsten Bell’s outfit as merely “independent.” Of course, it is independent, but it's also perhaps the most effective economic left-wing think tank in the UK. Even Guido, who has been campaigning for greater transparency on think tanks, was taken aback by R4's candour. Patrick Wintour, former Guardian political editor, thought that that programme's language made it biased to the right.
BBC currently keen to help frame our thinking. The Resolution Foundation is "a left leaning group". The "People's Vote" is the "so-called People's Vote" and the Budget on Monday was "the last Budget before Brexit".
— Patrick Wintour (@patrickwintour) October 30, 2018
The RF is run by Torsten Bell, whose political leaning is no secret (and nor is the quality of his work). His last job was Ed Miliband’s policy chief. The Resolution Foundation likes to say that it can’t possibly be left-wing because it has David Willetts as chairman, but you judge think tanks by output, not personnel. Every think tank has a bias and listeners deserve to be told what that is.
Torsten Bell's innovation is to use the tactics of political campaigning to plant stories. He’s very good at spotting what might grab headlines, although he can get a bit carried away (the notorious #EdStone, for example, was his idea). The Resolution Foundation has become known for working out what would be a good story, then adjusting its research accordingly.
Mr Bell will have spotted the opportunity last week. The day after the Budget typically belongs to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose post-Budget report is presented in the afternoon and normally leads the next day’s papers. But the morning? That’s up for grabs. So the Resolution Foundation embargoed its research for 8am: that is to say, Radio4’s 8am bulletin. And given that it was the only new development, it dominated that show. Left-wing bias? Of course. As much as the tax-cut spin was right-wing bias.
The RF was stating a well-established fact: that when tax-free allowances and tax thresholds rise, better-paid families do better than lower-paid ones (richer families are more likely to have two workers in the household). The same is true with the minimum wage: when it rises, richest families do best. But due to its left-leaning orientation, the RF would not make a big deal about the minimum wage. A right-wing think tank perhaps would. If any of them had the resources enjoyed by the RF.
Was the story - about the distributional effect of moving tax thresholds - new? No. But is it news? It can be, if it’s packaged up as a news story by a think tank and released under embargo. So it was possible for the Resolution Foundation to present a simple fiscal fact, dress it up a bit then present it as new, or exclusive – and grab the headlines. Bingo.
The Mail on Sunday quotes No10 as being furious that the main story was not the supposed tax cut saying “It is frankly astounding that on the morning after the Government cut taxes for 32 million people, increased the national living wage to help 2.4 million low-income earners, and invested £1.7 billion more in Universal Credit, the BBC chose to lead its coverage on a report from a Left-wing think-tank that claimed only rich people would benefit.”
But talk of a generous “tax cut”, too, is spin. Under Labour, the tax threshold rose every year: if it doesn’t rise you end up with ‘fiscal drag,’ whereby more people end up caught in tax bands and it's a tax rise. The higher tax rate was intended to catch the best-paid 1m workers - or did when Thatcher came to power. It now covers about 4m, with Osborne ensnaring an extra 1.7m via this fiscal drag. Osborne sneakily cancelled the automatic increase in the tax thresholds, so more lower-earners were hauled into the tax bands. If the Tories did not refer to Osborne's fiscal drag as a tax rise then they have no right to demand that the media refer to the partial unwinding of that fiscal drag as a tax cut.
So the Treasury’s spin about a giant tax cut for millions was just that: spin. And, on Tuesday, beaten by Torsten Bell’s more nimble spin.
You can see why the Tories are frustrated. The left is rejuvenating; it has well-armed and nimble think tanks who win battle after battle. Corbyn is aided by praetorians who have no formal link with his party but share his agenda. There is no such energy on the right. And the right has nothing like the Resolution Foundation. That Today programme hit was done in collaboration with the IPPR, which is repositioning itself as a Corbynite think tank. The IPPR is doing incredibly well right now, trailblazing for Corbyn in economics. And it's hiring effective people. Twice in recent weeks I've been in broadcast debates with the IPPR's Grace Blakely - a name I suspect we'll be hearing a more of in coming months. She is passionate, well-briefed and articulate and I wish there were more people like her on my side of the debate. These guys are all sharp, come out of the box fast and very effective: they have good researchers and even (via an IPPR report) the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So rather than complain about BBC bias, the Tories should try to be as good as their opponents. Yes, they were stung last week. Yes, it hurt. And they can expect a lot more where that came from.