Why lefties don't buy newspapers

The tech savvy left don't buy papers.

Ever since Rupert Murdoch ousted the saintly Harold Evans from the editorship of The Times in defiance of his own pledges to safeguard the title's editorial independence 30 years ago - the Australian media magnate has been a bogeyman for the British left.

But while the left-wing media - led by The Guardian - has won a series of historic battles with the News Corp empire, it will lose the long war because young, tech-savvy lefties on the whole don't buy newspapers.

Lefties' hatred of Rupe was fuelled by his cheerleading support for Margaret Thatcher through the eighties, his brutal suppression of the unions when he moved News International to Wapping in 1986 and his continuing apparent use of media power to further his own political objectives.

Revenge has been sweet since The Guardian's Nick Davies and Amelia Hill lobbed the journalistic equivalent of a hand grenade into the boardroom of News International by breaking the news in July last year that the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered.

Since then many on the left have rejoiced at each new woe to face Murdoch and the News Corp family:

The closure of Murdoch's market leading Sunday daily, the News of the World. The collapse of Murdoch's bid to cement his hold on the UK media by taking over BSkyB. The decapitation of his newspaper interests on both sides of the atlantic with the resignations of  Rebekah Wade and Les Hinton (with the former facing criminal charges). Dozens of former Sun and News of the World journalists arrested and facing possible trial over allegations of bribery and phone-hacking Rupert's own heir-apparent James, stepping down from his role as News Corp Europe and Asia boss, sent back to the US with his tail between his legs.

Rupert himself subject to lengthy public interrogations - first from MPs on the Culture Committee (remember the custard pie) and then by the Leveson Inquiry.

Murdoch's political power in the UK forever neutered. Just a year ago, James Murdoch exchanged matey text messages with an eager to please UK Culture Secretary. Today, I suspect most UK MPs would rather pick up a rabid squirrel then a mobile phone with text messages  which have emanated from News Corp.

The Guardian phone-hacking investigation was on the whole a journalistic tour de force. But unlike the Telegraph's MPs' Expenses investigation of 2009, there has been no corresponding uplift in sales. Whereas the Telegraph kept its MPs' Expenses scoops for print, The Guardian released all its biggest hacking scoops online at around 4pm on the eve of print publication in line with its digital-first strategy.

The Guardian's web traffic has continued to go through the roof over the last year. But like everyone else, The Guardian is largely so far replacing print pounds with online pennies.

The left-of-centre press has always been in a minority in the UK - but it is becoming even more so, possibly because young lefties are less like to buy a paper than older, more conservative readers.

Looking at the three left of centre dailies: The Guardian sold 367,000 copies a day five years ago, it now stands at 214,128; The Independent 249,536 versus 98,636 today; the Daily Mirror 1,537,243 versus 1,084,355.

Collectively that is a sales decline of 35 per cent.

Looking at the main right of centre dailies, the Daily Mail was selling 2,300,420 copies a day five years ago versus 1,991,275 today; the Daily Express 760,086 versus 568,628; the Daily Telegraph 898,817 versus 576,790; The Times 629,157 versus 393, 187 and The Sun 3,047,527 versus 2,624,008.

That's collectively a drop of 19.4 per cent. Even if you lump the 200,000 odd daily sales of politically neutral ‘i’ in with the left-wing press it doesn't move the dial much. You are looking at around 1.5m daily sales for left-wing papers versus more than four times that for the right-wing dailies.

And don't forget paid-for digital subscriptions to The Times and Sunday Times now stand at around 250,000.

On the left only The Guardian has journalistic fire power to match the Mail and assembled forces of News International. But its trust-fund millions (in the form of holdings in the likes of Emap and Autotrader) won’t last forever.

So the message for left-wingers who care about the media is this. Enjoy your moment of schadenfreude by all means and cheer on The Guardian and Nick Davies from the sidelines. But if you want to support the sort of campaigning journalism which brought this historic realignment of media power about - you need to take your smug grin down to the newsagents and buy a newspaper (or a magazine for that matter!).

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?