Instead of engaging the voters, our newspapers have done their bit to turn this pivotal decision for the future of the country into a pantomime. As Snow said in his piece for Radio Times, it's no way to run a chip shop.
Decent journalism involves listening to what people have to say, taking a view on how important it is, and covering it accordingly. Sometimes it is reasonable just to report what is said, along with any counter argument, and leave the readers to decide. At other times, the claims may be so contentious that they require some debunking. This can take the form of background in the body of the story, but it is often done best in a sidebar, analysis or factbox.
That is what The Times did on Saturday with its own interview with Iain Duncan Smith. It reported his assertions in a news story separate from the interview spread, and then let Economics Editor Philip Aldrick run the ruler over his claims in a "fact check" panel.
One of the disturbing features of this campaign is the number of stories that are blatantly slanted to favour one side of the argument - almost invariably the Leave campaign.
Detailed examples of such behaviour will follow later in the week, but the treatment of one story deserves closer examination.
On Saturday the i splashed on a Treasury Select Committee report of its inquiry into the economic and financial costs and benefits of the UK's EU membership. That may sound dry, but in its assessment of the conduct of the campaign so far, it was what we journalists like to describe as a hard-hitting report that pulled no punches.
Andrew Tyrie, the committee's Conservative chairman, accused the two sides of indulging in an "arms race of lurid claims" and of a "mountain of exaggeration".
The introduction to the report states:
The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims. Members of both the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps are making such claims.
Other claims questioned by the MPs included:
- George Osborne's statement in the foreword to a Treasury paper that "families would be £4,300 worse off" as a result of Brexit;
- that 3 million jobs were dependent on membership of the EU;
- that the cost of imports would rise by at least £11bn after a Brexit,
- that the CAP costs every household £400 a year in higher food bills,
- that EU regulations cost businesses £600m a week,
- that households benefit by £3,000 per year from EU membership.
The report - which makes the point that economics are only part of a debate that is really all about how the country (and Europe) should be governed - goes on to sift through the evidence presented by various witnesses and to emphasise the many imponderables in trying to picture the economic landscape after June 24.
Right at the start it states:
Both Leave and Remain campaign groups have made claims about the economic impact of EU membership and Brexit. These claims, which are often described as ‘facts’, have been made in campaign literature, in speeches by prominent spokespersons, and in evidence before the committee...
Many of these claims sound factual because they use numbers. They are not, however, facts, but claims underpinned by judgments and assumptions. Rarely have those judgments and assumptions been made adequately explicit.
After all, as Jon Snow says, the negativity, bickering, foul-mouthing and wholesale abuse of the facts by both sides had seen off most attempts to make the vote interesting.
Yet the Guardian, Telegraph, Express and Star ignored it.
The Guardian's only "news" coverage of the day was Delia's front-page rant.
The Telegraph was more interested in comparing the countryside credentials of David Cameron (pictured bottle feeding a lamb) and Boris Johnson (pictured driving a tractor).
The Express was extolling the virtues of "Boris and Farage, the Brexit dream team" and worrying about a woman who'd spoken up on television about migrants jumping the queue for a council house.
The Sun and Mirror each gave the story a couple of pars.
That left the i's splash, which ran to 15 pars as the lead on its spread, and a little ragged-right jobbie on the Times's EU spread (rather tastelessly illustrated with a mushroom cloud explosion, presumably on the back of the "arms race" allusion). And the Mail.
The Mail was mostly focused on rubbishing Treasury projections on the threat to pensions, but it led the third page of its referendum coverage on the select committee report. Under this heading:
A very large sub-head qualifies this by saying "Treasury panel savages In AND Out campaigns over misleading stats". But it is not until the fifth par of the text that we get the first mention of the £350m windfall claim.
Ten of the sixteen paragraphs are devoted to questioning Leave campaign claims about household income and jobs; two are concerned with the £350m, including Tyrie's description of it as "by far the most serious offence".
So, if challenged, the Mail can legitimately say that the facts are there. It's just that - like the notes in Eric Morecambe's rendition of Grieg's piano concerto - they are not necessarily in the right order.
Naturally, long reports such as this have to be filleted to make them digestible for newspaper readers, but the end result should reflect the message of the original material. Especially when it comes from an independent source.
SubScribe commends the full report to anyone interested in making their own judgments about the possible risks and benefits of Brexit, but in the meantime, please bear with me as I quote some chunks of what it says about the claims and counter-claims that the MPs found most egregious:
The £350m 'windfall'
At the heart of Vote Leave’s presentation of its case is the claim that, on leaving the EU, the UK Government would receive a windfall of £350m per week, available to be spent in other ways, “like the NHS and schools”. This, and the other figures used by Vote Leave for the UK’s EU budget contributions..are highly misleading to the electorate for a number of reasons.
First, Vote Leave’s £350m figure does not account for the budget rebate, which amounts to £85m per week. Leaving the EU could not make this money available to spend on schools and hospitals because it is not ‘sent’ to Brussels in the first place. The rebate does not leave the UK or cross the exchanges.
This is repeated in other ways. A ‘counter’ is prominently displayed on Vote Leave’s website. This purports to show that the UK has historically contributed £511bn to the EU since joining in 1973 and excludes the rebate. The UK rebate is indeed controversial in other member states. It may be raised in future negotiations over the EU’s financial framework. However, it can only be changed with the UK Government’s consent.
Secondly, the extent to which money that the UK receives from the EU budget (a further £88m per week to the public sector and £79m per week to the private sector and non-governmental organisations) would be available for spending on other priorities, would depend on the policy choices of the democratically-elected Government of the day. Vote Leave has stated that “There will [ … ] be financial protection for all groups that now get money from Brussels”. If that policy were implemented, the money available to fund other priorities after Brexit, such as schools and hospitals, would be much lower, and probably closer to the UK’s net contribution of £110 million per week than it is to £350 million. This would be true even if, as has been widely argued, efficiencies could be made in the way that money the UK currently receives from the EU budget is spent.
Finally, it is not impossible that the UK may continue to make contributions to the EU budget after Brexit, either on a transitional or permanent basis, in return for continued access to parts of the single market, or because it considers mutual co-operation in certain areas, such as science research, to be desirable. This too would reduce the supposed fiscal windfall arising from leaving the EU.
Vote Leave has said that £350m a week is “the core number”, and that it is using the number “again and again”. It is very unfortunate that they have chosen to place this figure at the heart of their campaign. This has been done in the face of overwhelming evidence...demonstrating that it is misleading.
Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.
The effect of Brexit on household incomes
Figures purporting to measure the overall impact of EU membership or Brexit on GDP and household incomes are only meaningful if the counterfactual – the assumed alternative to EU membership – is clearly spelled out...This is not the case for the £3,000 figure used by the Stronger In campaign, or indeed any number that combines the findings of different studies with different counterfactuals.
Most recent studies support remaining in the EU and find that Brexit decreases the UK’s openness to trade with the EU, which, other things being equal, causes a decline in investment and productivity. The key question is how far these negative effects are offset by the scope for increased openness to trade with the rest of the world, productivity gains from deregulation, and lower contributions to the EU budget...
Those who favour leaving the EU would argue that these studies are insufficiently optimistic or imaginative about how the UK would fare outside the EU. They could be right...
Even if the assumptions underpinning it are considered to be reasonable, the Treasury’s £4,300 figure is the result of two economic modelling exercises and a further assumption about the relationship between trade and economic productivity. Each of these three stages introduces uncertainty. Any specific numbers emerging from such an analysis should be subject to caveats and seen within the context of the forecast range presented by the Treasury...
Presenting the figures on the impact of Brexit on a per household basis, as the Stronger In campaign has done, is likely to be misconstrued by readers, especially in the heat of a campaign, and probably has confused them. It may have left many readers thinking that the figures refer to the effect of leaving the EU on household disposable income, which they do not. The Remain campaign should have been alert to this risk...
The Treasury’s analysis contains a foreword from the Chancellor suggesting that “families would be £4,300 worse off” as a result of Brexit. But this is not what the main Treasury analysis found; the average impact on household disposable incomes would be considerably smaller than this number, which refers to the impact on GDP per household. Neither government departments nor other spokespeople for the remain side should repeat the mistaken assertion that household disposable income would be £4,300 lower than if we were to remain in the EU...to persist with this claim would be to misrepresent the Treasury’s own work...
It is disappointing that the Treasury and the Chancellor place so much emphasis on a single figure. Any single number that purports to encapsulate the effects of Brexit can be misunderstood...Using the range around this estimate — £3,200 to £5,400 — as well as a central forecast, and looking at average household income would both be useful ways of presenting the Treasury’s results.
The Stronger In campaign’s claim that the cost of imports could rise by “at least” £11bn as a result of Brexit – and associated claims that leaving the EU would raise household bills – assumes that the UK will place the same tariffs on imports as does the EU currently. Given that the pursuit of an independent trade policy is at the heart of the case for leaving, this seems to be an implausible assumption. The figure of £11bn is therefore unhelpful and tendentious and should not be used without extensive explanation.
CAP and food bills
The figures used by some leave campaigners that the CAP costs £400 per household per year is based on out-of-date research. Using more up-to-date sources gives a figure that is much less than £300.
In any case, to suggest that this money would be “saved by Brexit” requires two assumptions to be made: that the Government would unilaterally eliminate all tariffs on agricultural goods on leaving the EU; and that it would not replace any of the subsidies and price support currently provided to UK farmers under the CAP.
This is inconsistent with Vote Leave’s stated position that farmers will be paid “at least as much as they get now” and Leave.EU’s position that farmers will not lose the money they currently receive from the EU. It is true that the UK is effectively a net contributor to the CAP. It is widely acknowledged, even by Lord Rose [head of the Stronger In campaign], that the money currently distributed to UK farmers through the CAP could be spent more efficiently. Nonetheless, the overall saving would fall short – perhaps well short – of £300 per household.
It is misleading to claim, as some campaign groups continue to do, that 3 million jobs are dependent on EU membership. Britain Stronger in Europe, the lead remain campaign group, has at least made clear in evidence to this committee, if not in some of its literature, that its use of the 3 million figure should not be taken to represent the number of jobs dependent on EU membership, but the number associated with trade with the EU.
Without an estimate of how much trade would be lost as a result of Brexit, the impact on job losses cannot readily be estimated. The wider public might form the mistaken impression that all these jobs would be lost or at risk if the UK left the EU. Campaigners should be clear that 3 million jobs may be associated with, but would not necessarily be dependent on, our membership of the EU.
A reduction in exports to the EU following Brexit would lead to a loss of jobs unless there were compensating effects from faster growth in trade with non-EU countries or to the extent that the UK’s relatively flexible labour markets meant that any impact from lower trade may be felt through lower wages than otherwise and a reduction in hours worked, rather than through the unemployment rate.
Withdrawing from the EU would give the UK an opportunity to alter the way its economy is regulated in some areas...It may save firms and consumers some money in the process. Open Europe itself considers that the maximum feasible regulatory savings from Brexit are £12.8bn per year, although achieving even these might involve political controversy.
Examples that Open Europe have counted under this category to reach this figure include: relaxing rules protecting workers’ entitlement to time off; holidays and redundancy protection; abandoning the current target for increasing the share of energy generated from renewable sources; and abandoning financial regulations such as emergency bans on “short-selling”, reporting and disclosure requirements and a cap on bankers’ bonuses.
In some cases, such as maternity rights and bank capital requirements, the UK currently regulates beyond the minimum EU standards.
Realising gains from deregulation would require the Government of the day to muster support for a new domestic approach. However, a future government would undoubtedly judge that the compliance costs of some, perhaps many, EU regulations are more than offset by the benefits.
In evidence to the committee, Vote Leave pointed out that what counts is not so much the cost, but the principle of having control over such regulations. This is reasonable. It may be a compelling political argument.
But if they wish to make a case on economic grounds, and use as they have done, figures purporting to measure the economic cost of EU regulation, it is incumbent on the leave campaigns to give at least some indication of which parts of the regulatory framework they would alter or scrap...
£33.3bn, or £600m per week, is an estimate of the total cost to firms of complying with the top 100 most "burdensome" EU regulations. It is not the net economic cost of regulation, nor is it a measure of the savings that would accrue to businesses as a result of Brexit. To assert this is misleading.
To persist with such a claim, as both Vote Leave and Leave.eu have done, is a tendentious representation of the research on which it is based.
You can read the full report here