The new Con-Lib coalition government in the UK released its ‘austerity budget’ last week. Reporting this was a sensitive issue for broadcasters given the regulatory requirement for impartiality. Less so for newspapers with their freedom to publish ‘comment’ perhaps, but still an issue.
The main issue for government is to spin the most positive angle on what is inevitably bad news. The budget is about cuts – huge cuts of up to 25% in public spending. Everyone knows there will be pain, so how do the Tories (who dominate the coalition) to play it? Their aim is to create a ‘positive’ atmosphere and disguise the pain. PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne are notoriously smooth and sleek. (Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell now shows Cameron as an overfilled condom, tight and smooth – see his video from the last election in which Bell discusses this image.)
Cameron worked in PR and his ministers continually use phrases like “We’re all in it together” to disguise the gross inequalities of their policies. Still, I was surprised that BBC Radio fell into the trap of using what I assumed to be Cameron-speak when it reported that one of the measures in the new budget would see a ‘relaxing’ of the previous government’s requirement that patients must be seen by a GP within 48 hours of seeking an appointment (and scrapping the right to a hospital appointment within 18 weeks of referral by a GP). See this report in the (Tory-leaning) Daily Telegraph for the use of language.
‘Relax’ is such a soothing, ‘easy’ word. It’s accompanied by the ubiquitous ‘free/freeing’ to be found everywhere in Cameron-speak. So, this isn’t a cut, instead it frees the NHS to be more efficient. Hmm! Well it is a cut if it means that most ordinary people seeking medical help find themselves waiting longer – they will feel it as a cut and I think that the BBC should have questioned whether using the term was appropriate. To be fair, this use of ‘relax’ has a long history with government spinners – Blair’s administration weren’t averse to using it when they thought it appropriate. (This is my attempt to be balanced!)
A different but connected example was in another radio report which quoted the new Tory Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. He had just announced that he was going to restrict the publication of free newspapers by local councils because they may be being used for propaganda purposes and because they represented unfair competition for local commercial publishing ventures. The report was supported by a statement from the Newspaper Society – the ‘voice’ of the local newspaper industry proprietors. Unsurprisingly this supported Pickles. Not surprising really since they have lobbied the Tories to do this. So, where was the balance, the statement by local councils about why they ventured into publishing?
Well, I didn’t hear it on the radio, but on the BBC website it’s tucked in at the bottom of the report with a brief statement from the Local Government Association. Is this sufficient to balance Pickles’ wild claims about ‘town hall Pravdas’ (Pravda was the major government newspaper in the former Soviet Union)? The issue here isn’t so much about how useful local council publications are for residents – no doubt some are and many aren’t. It’s more about the agenda for news – how in this case broadcasters are led into stories via press releases and then how reports are constructed around provocative soundbites. The LGA in this case no doubt finds it difficult to respond as it represents a diverse range of councils. I suspect we will return to this. It also applies to far larger political questions such as the spin sustained over decades by the Israeli Government on its treatment of Palestinians. But that’s another story . . .
(See Chapter 12 in The Media Student’s Book on News)