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City held a panel discussion on the media coverage of austerity
Politics & Law Series: Expert Comment

UK media have failed in their scrutiny of austerity, experts tell City event

Panelists included Professor Simon Wren-Lewis, Larry Elliott and Professor Anastasia Nesvetailova

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

Pound coinThe UK media failed to question whether austerity was an effective government policy following the financial crisis, according to experts at a City University London event.

The panel was asked whether the media were too hasty to embrace large cuts to public spending, which many economists have since criticised for having a negative effect on the economy.

Professor Simon Wren-Lewis, of the University of Oxford, accused the media of helping to create the political consensus that cuts were the best response to the financial crisis, and claimed journalists ignored the widely-held concerns of academic economists about the appropriateness of this response.

“There’s a fairly general consensus within the academic macroeconomic community, both in the UK and in the US, that austerity was a mistake,” he said. “This view is not one which is familiarly expressed in the media.”

Economics Editor of the Guardian Larry Elliott said the media had been hampered by the failure of the Labour Party to develop a credible alternative to austerity, but agreed that journalists generally did not offer “much of a challenge” to the wisdom behind austerity and “the bulk of the UK media went along with it”.

He told the meeting: “This was mad economics, bad economics, but it became a very powerful argument for the government and Labour didn’t really ever manage to shift that throughout the 2010 parliament. And by the end of it, support for austerity was about as strong as it was at the beginning.”

Professor Anastasia Nesvetailova, of the Department of International Politics at City, said the media had “completely disengaged” with a debate about alternatives to cuts in public spending and had also ignored the dangers that still lurked in the financial sector.

The event, Beyond the Crisis: The Media and Austerity, was jointly organised by the Department of Journalism at City and the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

Steve Schifferes, Marjorie Deane Professor of Financial Journalism, who chaired the session, suggested that after seven years of austerity there were some signs that the narrative was shifting, with further cuts to welfare spending under political attack from within the Conservative Party and the debate about Brexit putting forward a different set of explanations for declining living standards and growing pressure on public services.

Larry Elliott agreed that there had been some movement because the government had not reached its deficit-reduction targets, but it would be a challenge to change public opinion due to the complexity of the subject.

However, Professor Wren-Lewis said he was “pessimistic” about whether there would be any change in the way media represent the views of economists.

Professor Nesvetailova added she could not currently see any debate in the media about whether austerity was an appropriate economic approach, but pointed to the coverage of the European Union referendum as evidence that journalists were prepared to speak to experts from different fields with differing views on complex subjects.

“The media can try if it wants… if there is a political will or a high-risk threat,” she said.

The event was the culmination of a day-long academic symposium on the media and austerity, which drew leading academics from the UK and Europe to City to discuss these issues.

Download an audio recording of the panel discussion, Beyond the Crisis: The Media and Austerity

Image (right): Valeri Potapova / Shutterstock.com

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