Issues & Ideas | 25th September 2014

The furore over Miliband's missing lines is journalism at its most pathetic

What was the most important point about Ed Miliband’s speech to the last Labour […]

Photo: Getty


What was the most important point about Ed Miliband’s speech to the last Labour party conference before the election? The UK media had no doubt. It was that he forgot to mention the deficit.

No matter that Ed Balls had spent much of his previous day’s speech laying out their policy on the deficit, which has been intelligently discussed by the IFS and others. Miliband had in his speech forgotten the paragraph where he says how important the deficit is, and he was going to be taken to the cleaners for it.

I’m not just talking about the right wing press here. Channel 4 news likes to think of itself as being a little more highbrow than other news programmes, and I’ve no doubt that conservatives would describe it as left wing.

So here is John Snow’s interview with Miliband yesterday (skip intro and question on middle east to about 3 minutes in).

He asks Miliband what the greatest issue facing the next British government is. Miliband responds that it is getting the country to work for most working people rather than be stuck with a more unequal country. Interesting answer, but inequality is not an issue mediamacro recognises. It was a trick question. Now that is twice that you have forgotten to mention the deficit, responds Snow. How could you not mention paying off this appalling deficit? Snow continues. Surely it is the most important issue of all. It is the essence of our economic crisis. And so on.

Now my point here is not about bias, and how this interview could have been scripted by George Osborne. It is about the banality of it all. If you are going to talk about the deficit, ask some real questions about the differences between Labour and Conservative plans. Ask why Labour thinks that debt should not come down more rapidly. There are lots of meaningful questions you could ask. But trying to make a great issue out of a forgotten part of a speech is just silly. It is gotcha journalism for those who get their economics from listening to political commentators. The implication that the deficit is all important, and linking it in a causal way to the recession, is mediamacro at its worst.

What is the really important thing that has happened in the UK economy over the last six years? It is not that the deficit went up and then has started coming down. It is that UK productivity has stalled, and as a result real wages are lower than when the recession began. That is what really matters. That is not a ‘political judgement’; it is what most economists and most ‘ordinary people’ will tell you. But not in mediamacro land. So when Cameron gives his speech to the Conservative party conference, and does not mention this terrible productivity performance, I doubt if one single journalist will even bother to ask why that was not in his speech. This is journalism at its most pathetic.


Simon Wren-Lewis is an economics professor at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This post was originally published on his blog mainly macro.