ourEconomy: Opinion

Voters deserve a media that tells them the truth about inequality

The public is being let down by journalists who lack the knowledge or will to give them vital information about the economy.

Sophie Knowles
11 December 2019
unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Voters need a clearer idea of the state of the UK economy, and the policies that are responsible for increasing inequality, to be able to make informed choices at the polls.

There are many ways to define inequality, but the picture has been so distorted by politics and the press that the public do not understand how dire the situation is, nor how rich the wealthy actually are.

In the UK, 14.3 million people are in poverty and over half of them work. To put it simply, people who are working hard still can’t afford to live.

Meanwhile, the super-rich have continued to increase their lion’s share of global wealth.

As part of a public talk organised at Middlesex University, Nobel Prize Laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz argued for policies that aim for 100 per cent employment to tackle inequality, which he thinks is a fundamental moral issue.

He said, “We do everything bigger and better in the US – and that includes inequality.

“In 2017 we passed a tax bill to lower tax for billionaires and corporations.”

He was joined by Liberal Democrat Sir Vince Cable, who illustrated just how politically charged the topic of inequality is in the UK, and BBC economics correspondent Ben Chu who discussed how misunderstood it is by journalists.

Vince Cable said that politicianscollectively promise far more than can be delivered.”

“One of the problems with this election is people are being offered tax cuts and massive spending. But the simple brutal truth is that in one, two years’ time, the British finances are going to be weaker than they are now. Brexit is going to have an economic impact.”

Seemingly throwing caution to the wind, he said “My remedy to it is austerity, promise people nothing and then they get a pleasant surprise.”

These comments came after he admitted that “it is shameful that people are living on the streets and having to collect food from food banks”.

He said he has tried to propose policies to alleviate inequality, but it is politically difficult to sell ideas that target wealth.

He gave the example of his proposed Mansion Tax, which would have taxed those in homes worth £2mn or more. “There’s a psychological problem” he said, “There are people who think they live in mansions when they don’t.”

Speaking still about the Mansion Tax policy, Chu said “They [the UK’s mostly right-wing press] had a vested interest to kill the idea rather than inform people about what it would entail.”

To remedy the situation Ben Chu argued that journalists need to understand some basic facts about economics.

He accused journalists of lacking understanding of journalism, singling out Question Time’s host Fiona Bruce.

“You may well have seen a recent episode of Question Time where a very voluble man from Bolton [apparently on an income of £80,000 himself] said Labour’s plans to increase income tax on people earning more than £80,000 and the claim it would hit only the top 5% of earners was a lie.

“He didn’t consider himself to be in that bracket. He said he’s not even in the top 50%.

“Fiona Bruce, who is a good chair in many ways, didn’t tell the man that he was wrong. She simply diverted it to the Labour person on the panel and said what do you make of that?

“80k does put you in the top 5%. Let’s start with that” he said.

“What if every public service broadcaster and civic event chair knew the median level of weekly earnings is £585 per week.”

But Chu calls the big story the rise of the share of the top 1%. He said the threshold to reach this bracket is earnings of 160k. And there is huge inequality within the top 1%. To get into the top half of the 1% you have to earn 236k. To be at the top 0.1% you need to be on at least 655k.

Chu argued it’s the job of a journalist to give views impartially. But the views we are being offered are polar extremes that either leave you feeling hot and impassioned, or chilled to the bone.

Policies are moving much farther to the left and the right of the political spectrum, and a press that spotlights these poles without highlighting the rest of the continuum are contributing to the divide.

Take the party manifestos. The Conservative party manifesto is 21000 words long. Yet the word inequality is used just twice.

By comparison the Labour Party manifesto devotes a section to ‘poverty and inequality’ and the word inequality is used 31 times.

Vince Cable said much of what is being sold as part of the election campaign won’t be possible after Brexit anyway because the UK’s finances are going to be negatively impacted.

In the case of the Liberal Democrats, a vote for them has become a proxy for staying in the EU.

So, our politics are more polarised and the press system we need to challenge policy proposals is lacking knowledge and the lived experiences journalists need to be able to understand inequality.

The public are, therefore, already at a loss and suffering from an information asymmetry they might not know exists.

When journalists, through either negligence or ignorance, misfire in mediating economic debates that might be pivotal in an election, they are contributing to an increasingly distorted picture of the economy.

And they are letting down the 95% in the country who earn less than £80,000 – and if you haven’t got it already, that’s the majority.

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