Listeners accuse Today programme host John Humphrys of making ‘misleading’ statements on austerity

Today programme host John Humphrys
Kerry-anne Mendoza

Listeners to BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme are demanding a retraction and apology from host John Humphrys. They claim that he made a number of errors during a news update, which left viewers misinformed on austerity – and not for the first time.

The issue

At 43 minutes and 30 seconds into the Today programme on 2 March 2018, Humphrys presents a news story from the Financial Times. The piece claims austerity has been a success and is delivering economic benefits to the UK. Humphrys does not challenge the veracity of the story. He then appears to suggest that austerity only began “a couple of years ago”. In fact, austerity was implemented in 2010, which makes it eight years ago. Humphrys does not correct himself, and is not corrected by his co-host.

Finally, Humphrys fails to mention that the Conservatives have promised (and failed) to end the budget deficit in the last three general elections. He also failed to ask what this particular response to the financial crisis cost the country in jobs, wages, public services, and stalled growth. As economist Ann Pettifor put it in a column for The Guardian:

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With a tweet, Osborne joined in celebrations around the elimination of the deficit on Britain’s current budget – used for day-to-day spending on, for example, the NHS, housing, education and local government.

The cheerleaders ignored the consequences of that “achievement”, not least of which is the threat to Britain’s economy and social fabric caused by the turmoil of Brexit.

The reaction

Listeners felt that the segment made it sound as if George Osborne had fulfilled his promise of eliminating the deficit though austerity economics.

https://twitter.com/davessidekick/status/969464822650851328

One listener told The Canary:

I think Humphrys is only hanging on because of his seniority on the show. He should go.

Others claimed Humphrys has a well-known Conservative bias. Just last October, BuzzFeed uncovered documents showing that Humphrys (the BBC‘s highest-paid journalist) once headlined a closed-door event for financial donors to Conservative MP Michael Gove. And this in turn has triggered a wider debate about how the BBC covers austerity.

If you’re trying to understand how the Conservative Party misled the public into supporting ideological austerity, the role of the BBC is pivotal. Here are four facts the corporation withheld or played down which helped the Conservative Party sell bogus austerity.

1. The deficit myth

The BBC repeatedly (such as Marr vs Balls in the video below) suggested that Labour’s structural deficit was to blame for the financial crisis of 2007/8.

The truth is that structural deficits are the economic norm around the world. In the last 25 years, only one UK government has raised more money than it spent in a single year. It was the Labour government of Tony Blair from 1998 to 2001.

2. Austerity is bad economics

The academic basis for the modern doctrine of austerity is a Harvard study called Growth in a Time of Debt. In a landmark speech laying out the economic rationale for austerity in 2010, George Osborne relied heavily on its findings. He called it:

Perhaps the most significant contribution to our understanding of the origins of the [financial] crisis.

In a major controversy only three years later, researchers at MIT found that the study relied on a single Excel spreadsheet. Worse, they concluded that:

Coding errors, selective exclusion of available data and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors.

While the BBC reported on the debacle, it then dropped from the conversation. BBC interviewers should be raising this with Conservative MPs every time they attempt to sell austerity. It is bogus economics. When was the last time you heard it mentioned? If ever…

3. Austerity has never worked

Austerity has literally never worked. In fact, the vast majority of economists around the world consider it junk economics. But the BBC’s host of political journalists rarely, if ever, put this point to Conservative politicians. This coverage risks leaving viewers with the mistaken impression that austerity is necessary to avoid another financial crisis. But austerity is the financial crisis. As economist Paul Krugman wrote in 2015:

It is rare, in the history of economic thought, for debates to get resolved this decisively. The austerian ideology that dominated elite discourse five years ago has collapsed, to the point where hardly anyone still believes it. Hardly anyone, that is, except the coalition that still rules Britain – and most of the British media.

4. There is an alternative

Last and arguably worst, BBC news and politics coverage provides almost no space for new ideas. In 2013, researchers at Cardiff University undertook a major content analysis of BBC coverage – funded in part by the BBC Trust. The findings revealed that:

  • The BBC consistently grants the Conservative Party more air time, even when Labour is in government.
  • On BBC News at Six, business representatives outnumbered trade union spokespersons by more than five to one (11 vs 2) in 2007 and by 19 to one in 2012.
  • When it comes to the financial crisis, BBC coverage was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.

All four of these gaps in coverage have contributed to a wide-scale public misunderstanding of austerity; the results of which include a 134% rise in rough sleepers, a 2,792% rise in food bank use (measured by three day parcels from the Trussell Trust alone), and 400,000 additional children living in poverty. Just like Humphrys’ latest oversight, the BBC continually under-examines austerity economics and those who promote it. And this allows the government to promote a myth which most economists ditched some time ago.

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Featured image via YouTube screengrab

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