Simon Jenkins is completely wrong when he says that the Brexit “campaign was ironically [the BBC’s] finest hour”. The exact opposite is true. The BBC treated the referendum like a general election, with a rule book which said focus on the two campaigns and ensure any coverage is even handed. It mattered not that this produced a blue on blue campaign where opposition politicians were hardly heard. It mattered not that this allowed the Leave campaign to state facts that were simply untrue: by and large journalists kept their head down. It mattered not that their viewers wanted more information about the EU and the BBC has a duty to inform. The BBC had a good campaign only in the sense that they played by rules they designed to keep them out of trouble.
The area where this BBC failure mattered most was the economy. The Remain campaign, for better or worse, focused on the economic costs of leaving. They were on strong ground, with a near unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term. A view that was backed up by international institutions like the OECD or IMF. Yet the BBC’s rules meant that this view had to be treated as just one side’s opinion, to be always and everywhere offset by an opposing opinion from the other side.
In essence the BBC’s key mistake was to not treat the consensus among economists as knowledge. Knowledge that their viewers should be informed about and the reasoning behind it explained. The view that Brexit would reduce average incomes was no more of an opinion than man made climate change is an opinion. They are both almost certain facts. That the BBC did not treat it that way meant that Leave won the vote.
That this lost the referendum is unquestionable. Many surveys pointed to a belief among Leave voters that they would not be worse off after Brexit. Surveys also showed that most Leave voters were not willing to pay anything, in terms of loss of personal income, to reduce immigration. That is not because immigration does not matter to them, but because for many Leave voters it mattered because they believed reducing immigration would improve their access to public services. In that they were completely wrong, but the BBC failed to tell them why they were wrong.
I mention climate change because almost the same fate befell this science. The non-partisan media’s default mode is to treat anything that is politically contentious as a clash of opinions, and with some politicians adopting a climate change denial view, the BBC began to treat climate change as a clash of opinions. But the BBC is open to reason and pressure from scientists. So when scientists complained about the BBC treating climate change as a controversial opinion rather than knowledge, the BBC changed their policy. Debates between climate change scientists and climate change skeptics were largely dropped. When man made climate change was in the news, it was to be treated as a fact: as knowledge.
I have heard no good reason why the consensus views of economists about trade should be treated differently from climate change science. What the BBC’s policy in effect says is this. Forget that society spends large sums of money on research in economics: at the end of the day this research has less worth than a politician’s opinion. Forget we teach large numbers of students about economics in our universities. What is good enough for university students is not good enough for BBC viewers. It is an untenable position for the BBC to have, yet they will continue to hold it until it is challenged, and the only people who can challenge it are economists
The key difference between climate change and economics is that scientists have more institutional clout than economists. The Royal Society in the UK has a staff of over 150. I fear economists have a hopelessly naive and individualistic view about how public policy works. That naive view is that the better ideas will win out. Policy makers will come to economists and choose the policies that most economists think are best. They often don’t. The BBC will represent the consensus view of economists as knowledge: it didn’t.
This is not a one-off, some kind of soon to be forgotten nightmare. I have argued that the 2015 general election was very similar. What I call mediamacro continues to represent austerity as economic common sense, and it represents the government as if it was equivalent to a household. We are now having to tell our students to ignore what they hear in the media.
This is not about individual economists learning media skills. It is about having a collective voice that can, at the very least, speak up for the consensus when it exists. In the UK the Royal Economic Society (RES), rather than the Observer newspaper, could organise polls of academics on key policy issues to establish when a consensus exists. This is better than relying on the selective surveys that already exist. A few angry letters from the RES to the BBC are not enough. We need to force the BBC to defend what they did publicly. If they say they fairly represented academic opinion, we should challenge that by looking at the data. We need to start defending economics, because I do not think anyone else will do it for us.