The BBC’s Andrew Neil picks a fight with an economics professor. It doesn’t go well [TWEETS]


The BBC’s Andrew Neil picked a fight with economics professor Jonathan Portes late on 22 November. It didn’t go well.

The battle of words

It all began with a tweet from Stephanie Flanders, head of Bloomberg Economics. Flanders was calling out the UK government for overseeing the worst economic growth forecasts in the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s history:

Flanders joked that it’s ‘quite an achievement’ for the UK to slash growth forecasts, given it’s a small open economy. A small open economy is an economy that trades with international partners, but isn’t big enough to alter world prices and interest rates. The phrase ‘small open economy’ puts UK growth in its international context. The EU, the UK’s biggest trading partner, is forecast growth of 2.3% for this year. Still, the Chancellor announced UK growth for 2017 has been slashed from 2% to only 1.5%.

But BBC presenter Neil took the phrase literally:

Then Portes, economics professor at King’s College London, pointed out the definition:

But Neil branded the phrase “pointless” and “absurd”:

To which Portes responded:

Neil didn’t react well to that, taking aim at the professor’s credentials:

Portes then claimed Neil ‘displayed his ignorance’:

The lack of economic knowledge in the media

The lack of economic knowledge in the media has long facilitated the Conservatives’ austerity agenda. On the BBC, Neil has hammered the message home that government spending will always increase public debt. But it’s not just Neil who thinks this way. On 19 November, the BBC’s Andrew Marr framed an interview with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell with the idea that investment will increase public debt. Marr suggested that we can’t invest in schools and the NHS because:

The trouble is, as I said at the beginning, we are up to our eyes in debt.

The thing is, the Conservatives have been cutting public spending since they came to power in 2010. Still, public debt has increased by over £800bn since then. By contrast, progressive Scandinavian governments – Sweden, Denmark and Norway – were running budget surpluses before the 2009 crash. That’s not after relentless budget cuts, but on the back of a robust public sector and welfare system. Calculated public investment can facilitate economic activity and bring greater returns in the long term.

Portes says Neil has a blind spot when it comes to economics. This is not an isolated problem, but indicative of an absence of macroeconomic thought in the wider media. We need to speak up where they’ve failed.

Correction: This article was updated at 3.40pm on 24 November to make clear that UK public debt has increased by over £800bn since 2010. It previously incorrectly stated that the figure was over £800m.

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