What Peter Oborne doesn’t get

Maybe Oborne didn’t notice that the whole basis for the Chancellor’s economic strategy – stemming from work by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff – has been shown to be ruined by spreadsheet errors.

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‘‘Economics in the end trumps politics,” said Peter Oborne on Newsnight in his infamous 2011 “that idiot in Brussels” interview. At the time, Jeremy Paxman accused him of being gratuitously offensive – and it seems to be his modus operandi. The mouthy buffoon (MB) was similarly offensive again the other day in a delusional Telegraph column, “The left talks gibberish while David Cameron racks up successes”, in which he argued that after three years the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s daring reforms are “starting to pay dividends”. No mention, naturally, of the 50-odd U-turns such as the pasty tax, the joint strike fighter and minimum alcohol pricing.
 
The MB accused me of being a “cod-Keynesian”, which is rather surprising, given that I’ve never expressed any view whatsoever about the fishing industry.
 
Let’s plaice his comments in context. The MB apparently spoke with Tony Travers, who, he argued, is from the “respectable” part of the London School of Economics, even though he is not a member of the permanent faculty. I am wondering whether he thinks my distinguished friends Tim Besley, John Van Reenen, the Nobel laureate Christopher Pissarides, Nick Stern and John Hills are from the “respectable” bit. Or Richard Layard, or David Metcalf?
 
Let’s go through a couple of other bits of nonsense. First: “. . . the government’s audacious and thoughtful strategy for economic and social reform is holding up very well”. You could have fooled me. Unemployment is 2.5 million and still rising – the last six monthly observations were 7.8 per cent, 8.1 per cent, 8.0 per cent, 7.4 per cent, 8.0 per cent and 8.0 per cent, and the employment rate is falling. Youth unemployment is still around a million, long-term unemployment is rising and real wages continue to fall. “Thoughtful” the strategy is not. Indeed, it is hard to find a single economist who supports it.
 
Maybe Oborne didn’t notice that the whole basis for the Chancellor’s economic strategy – stemming from work by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff – has been shown to be ruined by spreadsheet errors. Recall that in 2010 the Chancellor argued in his Mais Lecture that: “The latest research suggests that once debt reaches more than about 90 per cent of GDP, the risks of a large negative impact on long-term growth become highly significant.” We now know it doesn’t.
 
The underlying picture for the public finances is one of stalled progress in deficit reduction. As the independent consultancy Capital Economics notes, “stripping out various temporary factors, the fiscal position remains fragile”.
 
Then there’s this from Oborne: “Economic growth, though weak, has not been entirely extinguished in a weak international environment. Anyone who predicted such an outcome three years ago would have been labelled mad.”
 
In his Budget statement of 22 June 2010 the Chancellor said as follows: “Growth in the UK economy for the coming five years is estimated to be: 1.2 per cent this year and 2.3 per cent next year; then 2.8 per cent in 2012 followed by 2.9 per cent in 2013.” We got 1.7 per cent, then 1.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent and perhaps 1 per cent for 2013. Great success – growth was a quarter of what was predicted by the coalition.
 
Oborne is right about one thing: economics in the end trumps politics. Given the worst lack of recovery in a century, the only sensible conclusion is that Cameron has established a track record of economic failure. No dividends.
 
David Blanchflower is the New Statesman’s economics editor 
George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder