Context. What does it mean cover fiscal policy ‘impartially’? And is the BBC currently doing so? That was the question the BBC sought to answer last week when it published a long-awaited report examining its coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt which found that the broadcaster’s coverage of fiscal policy had at times “put impartiality at risk”. The report was published as part of a 10-point impartiality plan which includes “thematic reviews” of BBC coverage of key areas of public debate. This first thematic review, led by former Institute for Fiscal Studies Director Andrew Dilnot and journalist Michael Blastland, spoke to over 100 people from both within and outside of the BBC and reviewed 11,000 piece of relevant BBC online, TV and radio content (focusing closely on 1,000 pieces of content). Back in 2020, 24 leading economists wrote a letter to the BBC, criticising its “inappropriate” use of language in covering the 2020 Spending Review, particularly highlighting then political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s analogy of a “maxed out” “credit card” to describe public finances. It was allegedly this letter that prompted the BBC to reflect on its economic reporting, and in February 2022, the review was commissioned. In addition, there has been a long-running critique of fiscal policy coverage by Oxford Professor Simon Wren-Lewis (an economist who coined the term 'media-macro'). He has published his response here.

Findings and recommendations. 

  • Economic literacy. The review found that “too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence reporting it”. It highlighted that debt was a particular area of concern, finding that journalists often “feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realise this can be contested and contestable”.
  • Policy is political. The report warned of “the language of necessity”, arguing that the BBC sometimes fails to make it clear that policy decisions are political choices, not inevitable outcomes. It found that by presenting fiscal policy decisions as necessary measures, the BBC can at times stray “perilously close to policy endorsement”. Repeating a phrase such as “fiscal rules” without the caveat of its political roots, for instance, blurs the line between economics and political choice. A “rule” might sound necessary or even scientific, but ultimately, the report acknowledges, “fiscal rules are only rules because the government of the day chooses to call them that... they’re not rules because some natural law dictates it” and should be reported as such.
  • Beware the household metaphor. Picking up on themes from the 2020 economists’ letter, the review warned of the implications of certain metaphors and comparisons. In particular, it highlighted the danger of comparing the state and its budget to a household and how such analogies can be misleading: “states don’t tend to retire or die, or pay off their debts entirely”. Likewise, it warned of “tempting” and “pithy” phrases such as ‘pay off’ or ‘pay down’ when discussing debt which, in the case of a state’s finances, are contested concepts. ‘Headroom’, ‘wiggle room’ and asking if numbers “add up” were also examples given of potentially contested terms.
  • A little more economics, a little less politics, please. The review found that politics can “distort economic reporting” and that a heavy focus on political angles can lead journalists to “miss or misunderstand or underweight economic perspectives”. It urged the BBC to look beyond the “Westminster frame” and the “politically salient”. It also warned journalists to resist “hype”, and urged them not to “buy” that something is a “big deal” just because a politician says it is. 
  • Regional representation. Impartiality isn’t just about left vs. right. It’s also about what - and who - gets left out of the picture. The report found that by omitting coverage of particular economic topics, certain communities were underrepresented in the issues covered. The issue of VAT was given as an example: “In Wales, more VAT is paid than income tax, ditto North East England" meaning that failure to account for this means "the tax interest of the better-off gets more attention".
  • Widen the pool. The report urged the BBC to widen its pool of contributors, suggesting that at times it can “subcontract judgement about what’s reasonable or impartial to a few established names like the Bank of England, the OBR, the IFS or the Resolution Foundation, however respected”. It suggests that “recent concern” about amplifying “fringe views” is indeed a concern but that there is also a “risk the other way, of accepting too narrow a consensus and excluding reasonable opinion”. 
  • Accessibility. The review highlighted the need for the BBC to balance impartiality with accessibility, stressing the importance of making economic content engaging. Audience research used as part of the review found that most people did not know what stories meant. It found Scottish audiences to be “a little more informed” with “lower socio-economic groups” worst affected.

Implications. At the weekend, former Prime Minister Liz Truss was ridiculed from across the political spectrum for blaming “the left-wing economic establishment” for the failure of her economic programme. However, the point that there can be a reflexive economic orthodoxy which often goes unchallenged in mainstream public debate should be taken seriously, even if it stretches credulity to imagine that Truss’ brand of neoliberalism hasn’t been given a fair hearing in recent years.  

Contested language. Some of the key economic debates of recent months have hinged on potentially contested economic terms making the BBC’s reflection on its own coverage and role in setting the terms of national debate particularly timely. If the BBC takes on board the review’s recommendations, what topics may be covered differently in the future? One issue that we may see reframed is that of the so-called ‘fiscal black hole’. This phrase, used relatively uncritically by the BBC and other outlets, has been widely criticised and questioned by leading economists and journalists. Could this review see the end of ‘black hole’ metaphors, and the associated reporting of often arbitrary fiscal rules as if they are ‘natural laws’? Similarly, the review has warned journalists about using politically-charged phrases such as the ‘tax burden’ which the New Statesman’s Anoosh Chakelian has described as ‘Tuftonspeak’

Don’t swallow the line. Furthermore, ongoing strike action and high inflation has led outlets (including the BBC) to consider the possibility of a wage-price spiral, with the existence of one repeatedly asserted by the government when justifying wage restraint. However, the argument about whether this is in fact occurring has been deeply contested. With the review warning that there is an issue of journalists sometimes uncritically repeating government talking points, perhaps this is another area that will become increasingly challenged by BBC journalists in light of this review. 

Better debate. Liz Truss and the libertarian right aside, a range of experts and journalists are beginning to reconsider how we think and talk about fiscal policy. If the BBC takes on board the review’s recommendations, we may just end up with a better informed debate about fiscal policy that goes beyond just black holes, tax burdens, and the infamous government credit card. 

Weekly Updates

Climate change and tax

More raised by carbon taxes than spent on emissions reduction. The government is forecast to raise £6.5bn through the UK’s carbon tax system this year, but new analysis found that the government is only allocating £5.5bn to cutting emissions. NEF’s Margaret Welsh and Alex Chapman explain that the emissions trading scheme is expected to raise over £5bn for the Treasury every year until 2030, which they argue should be used to fund energy efficiency upgrades for 3 million homes each year.

Public services and work

Properly funding social care. NEF’s Jeevun Sandher explained that the lack of NHS bed capacity is also a manifestation of the crisis in social care, which currently has around 165,000 vacancies with high job turnover rates (30% of the workforce leave their jobs each year). NEF and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung co-published a report setting out how to tackle low pay, poor working conditions and a lack of training in the care workforce. Their report outlines the case for investing in a “fully funded care system” with carers pay at 75% of nurses wages and improved funding, bringing spending in line with Nordic countries.

Universal Basic Services and the climate crisis. NEF and the Hot or Cool Institute have co-published a report highlighting Universal Basic Services (UBS) as “an indispensable eco-social policy, vital to all efforts to build a sustainable economy and a Green New Deal”. Anna Coote explains that UBS - a range of policies to ensure everyone has access to life's essentials -  can reduce greenhouse gas emissions “by influencing public attitudes and consumption patterns; by transforming provisioning systems; and by underpinning political programmes to bring about a green transformation.”

Fiscal policy

Setting the record straight. NEF’s Head of Economics, Jeevun Sandher recent explainer, 7 things you should know about government finances, outlines why government borrowing can be responsible, including how the UK’s current debt levels are sustainable, and more.

Paradigm shift

Truss justifies free-market experiment. Former PM Liz Truss has written a 4,000 word essay for the Telegraph criticising the “left wing economics establishment” including Joe Biden, the IMF, the OBR and those within the Cconservative Pparty who were against lower taxes and deregulation. Truss noted how large swathes of the public had "become unfamiliar with key arguments about tax and economic policy and over time sentiment had shifted leftwards" and called for more “groundwork” to be done to make the political case for free market policies.


What are fossil fuel companies doing with their windfall profits? After Shell posted record profits over £32bn in 2022 (107% more than 2021), Common Wealth’s Adrienne Buller and Chris Hayes analysed the company’s profits and found £20bn was distributed to their shareholders, 7.5 times more than the company’s investment in ‘low carbon’. They also spent nearly twice more than this investment on marketing.