Media amnesia, austerity and the great crisis

In our era, media amnesia has played a central role in the legitimisation of Austerity measures. For certain sections of the media there is clearly a wilful forgetting – or, more accurately, misremembering.

Laura Basu
19 May 2016

Flickr/Rob..Taylor. Some rights reserved.

It is widely thought, and indeed the party itself accepts, that Labour lost the 2015 UK general election because voters believed it had crashed the economy in 2008 by spending too much public money, and was not committed enough to tackling the deficit through austerity. In the words of Margaret Beckett, the party could not overcome "the huge myth it was overspending by a Labour government that caused the crisis". This is remarkable, not only because of the historical reality of the global financial crisis but because that crisis was all over the news at the time, only eight years ago. How has history been so quickly rewritten?

Several commentators, including Keynesian economist Simon-Wren Lewis  and the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott, have drawn attention to the extraordinary feat of the Conservative Party of focussing attention elsewhere. In the dominant Tory account the deficit is blamed on Labour profligacy and a bloated welfare state rather than the bank bailouts and the recession originating in the financial meltdown and deregulatory policies of the preceding years. But what role has the mainstream media played in all this?

German philosopher Robert Kurz wrote in The Black Book of Capitalism, “the total market system does not merely gloss over its own history; to a great extent it even erases it. 'Homo economicus' has as it were the same perception of time as a small child”. In our era, media amnesia plays a central role in this erasure of memory.

Since the beginning of the crisis,  governments have introduced a series of measures that have been found to escalate a redistribution of resources upwards, from “labour” to “capital” in economic terms, or from the 99% to the 1%, that had begun in the 1970s and was a cause of the crisis itself. These include virtually unconditional bank bailouts, creating what Yanis Varoufakis has called a “bankruptocracy”; government borrowing at interest from the very same “markets” it had just bailed out; Quantitative Easing, putting billions directly into the pockets of the bankruptocracy; widespread austerity measures; and “business friendly” measures such as cuts in corporation tax, the top rate of tax and capital gains tax, further deregulation and privatisation.

Our research has found that the mainstream media have largely endorsed these measures (and pushed for them in the case of the right-wing press), lending them legitimacy. This process of legitimisation is partly the result of ongoing amnesia. Over the years, the timeline of the crisis has steadily been eradicated. Back in 2008, as well as blaming the “greedy bankers”, the media did attempt some understanding of the systemic causes of the crisis in the financial sector such as securitisation and sub prime. It also paid attention to the previous decades of deregulation, liberalisation and “free market” economics – what is often termed “neoliberalism” – that had led to those systemic problems via a squeeze on wages, increasing inequality, rising debt and financialisation.

As the private losses were socialised and public debt began to soar from 2009, these explanations for the problems began to be forgotten. While the financial crisis and recession were regularly cited as causes of the deficit, the causes of those in turn began to get lost in the coverage. By 2010 the financial crisis itself had been dropped as a cause. Explanations were by this point rarely given at all. At the same time, the Conservatives and the Conservative press were busy spinning the line about Labour overspending and the bloated public sector. In the vacuum created by the absence of any other explanations (let alone the correct ones) the Labour overspending narrative was able to become dominant.

This ongoing eradication of the timeline of the crisis has had implications for the solutions to the economic problems that are given a hearing by the mainstream media. While attention was focussed on the financial sector and deregulation, we also heard a lot of talk about tackling “casino” banking and reregulation. As these causes were forgotten and attention shifted to the deficit and public spending, some form of austerity seemed to make sense and the media began to frame austerity measures as painful but necessary. Similarly, the forgetting of the “free market” processes that had caused the crisis has made an intensification of those types of policies in the form of tax breaks for the rich and further privatisation less unpalatable in media discourse. We could say that the forgetting of the roots of the crisis in neoliberalism has led to the legitimisation of hyper neoliberal solutions, which have escalated the redistribution of resources upwards.

What causes this amnesia? For certain sections of the media there is clearly a wilful forgetting – or, more accurately, misremembering. But for the “liberal” press and the “impartial” public service broadcasters there must be other explanations. Many of these can be ultimately traced back to the profit motive or, in the case of the BBC, the compulsion to submit to market conditions. Firstly, as media scholar Justin Lewis points out, the disposability or “built-in obsolescence” of news – stemming from the need to continually sell new news – has led to an obsession with the present at the expense of its historical context. Who wants to read “old news”?

Secondly, financial pressures increasingly mean that journalists are constantly pushed for time. They just don't have time to reflect on complex economic processes, seek out alternative sources, or experiment with different news formats that might be more conducive to incorporating a wider range of perspectives or giving more in-depth explanations. Since the crisis, working conditions for journalists have continued to deteriorate. We find that the same market-driven factors that caused the crisis have led to its inadequate reporting.

Curing media amnesia will probably require co-ordinated efforts on multiple fronts – campaigning for media reform to break up media oligopolies promoting active forgetting and legislate for plurality; seeking out strategies to help progressive organisations and heterodox economists get their voices onto mainstream media; using alternative media and joining “slow news” movements; and looking for ways to mobilise mass audiences for these media to circumvent preaching-to-the-converted syndrome – which might include using non-advertising based social media to “retweet” alternative news items that do give adequate explanations for economic problems and offer a range of possible solutions.

The connection between the crisis and its inadequate reporting points to the fact that the struggle over the media is part of a wider social struggle over resources. For Kurz, amnesia was a condition of capitalism itself, a system that he considered to be irrational. Resisting media amnesia and insisting on thorough explanations for the continuing economic crisis might help us develop ideas for more rational ways of distributing resources. 


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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