It’s better! No it isn’t! It’s bad again! No! Maybe it’s good after all!

One happy side-effect of yer basic glerbleconmicmeldow is the sharp and unflattering relief into which it has thrown some sections of the media – perhaps the whole purpose of media itself. It’s not just that some people persist in not getting what the credit crunch was all about (pay close attention: it wasn’t ree-al mon-ey – it hasn’t “gone” anywhere). It’s that the frequent commentators’ habit of attaching emotive reaction and playground moralspeak to everything they report serves them spectacularly badly when the main substance of the news is economic.

The innate demand of the media engine is that “bad” news be trumped in some final and definitive way by “good” news. Or vice versa. They are, to give them credit, entirely unfussed about whether or not we “win” the glerbleconmicmeldow. But they do demand that someone “wins”. Or Panorama will know the reason why. It’s all totally subjective, of course. The current narrative is that Gordon Brown has won and is “back in control” on the basis that he’s taken some action in an economic emergency. You think he wasn’t taking various less exciting actions three weeks ago? You think there weren’t pictures of him smiling available for press use three weeks ago? Of course you don’t think that, you’re a bright spark who knows how to read newspapers critically, but you get my drift.

The trouble is that applying this simple goodies and baddies logic – irritating at the best of times – to an economic crisis makes the media look utterly bananas. At its height, the mad rodent school of news-making generated several successive days of headlines like this: “FTSE plunges to 21-year low as confidence wanes on world markets”, “Shares surge 7% as bank bail-out restores confidence”, “Markets no longer quite so confident three days after bank bail-out, fall again, this time to worst levels for five years”, “Market recovers slightly in totally nonsensical manner; we reckon this time it’s serious; Brown’s political comeback is complete”, “Market is slightly down again – we ask why?”

And so on. Honestly, guys, are you going to do this on the front page every single day from now on? Because, that’s kind of how markets work all the time. Actually, they’ve finally broken ranks today with David Cameron, Afghanistan and some child porn (not in the same story) but for a whole fortnight it’s been pretty much wall-to-wall angels-on-pinhead-speak. They might as well have spent their time dousing to ascertain the feelings of the wider cosmos and the Great Being. And they wonder why their circulations continue to plummet? This stuff makes no bloody coherent sense.

The other feature of commentariat behaviour that has been disastrously pinned to the wall is the demand for consistency, no matter what is happening to the economy, the world or Peter Mandelson’s hair. Makes perfect sense if the subject under discussion whether you’re for or against ID cards, makes no sense whatsoever if it’s whether you think interest rates should go up or down. Andy Hinton points to a quote from BBC headless rodent Andrew Neil, for example, who is worried – squeak, squeak! – that Vince has gone off the boil because he’s now calling for suspension of the independence of the Bank of England, having said at Lib Dem autumn conference that this would be the wrong thing to do.

Now, I (calling on my in-depth knowledge of, er, middle Anglo-Saxon burial practices) am by no means convinced of the wisdom of suspending the independence of the Bank of England. And Vince’s say-so should be questioned as much as anyone else’s. But even in my dark age ignorance I am tolerably sure that one or two things have, er, changed since the Lib Dem party conference? You know, shifting goalposts? Or pitches, in fact?

The epithet “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” was never more relevant than now, but the media insistence that everything look and sound the same from one day to the next, even from one month to the next (except when it’s Tory environmental policy under discussion, obviously), makes their reportage of a rapidly unfolding economic crisis a nonsense.

Danny Finkelstein displayed a similarly infantile grasp of political morality a week or so ago, tsking over the sad decline of Vince Cable-as-seer (I’m pretty sure he’s doctored his original post, by the way, which I remember as more damning than this; but I’m prepared to be corrected):

Three weeks ago he told the Liberal Democrat conference that:

“The Government must not compromise the independence of the Bank of England by telling it to slash interest rates and generate another dangerous inflationary ‘bubble’.”

In the same speech he contrasted Tory emptiness with the Lib Dem’s: [sic]

“more deeply rooted, more principled, alternative, a clearer analysis of why Britain faces a growing crisis; and a more honest statement of what the Government can and cannot do.”

Then on Sunday this principled, deeply rooted, more clearly analytical man said this:

“What is required is for the chancellor to write to the governor saying that on a temporary emergency basis the committee should assume a central role in countering the crisis with a large cut in interest rate.”

At least when Tony Blair did u-turns he generally moved from the wrong position to the right one. Cable’s new position does not have this merit.

And a lot of boringly clever-sounding people with – damn them – actual knowledge of the subject under discussion came along in the comments to make Fink climb down from the mast to which he had nailed his trousers:

Three weeks ago the FTSE was at 5200. Three weks ago RBS’s market capitalisation was double what it is now. Three weeks ago Ireland and Germany hadn’t unilaterally made moves to guarantee saver’s deposits. Three weeks ago Iceland hadn’t enacted legislation to prevent the country from going bankrupt. Three weeks ago HBOS hadn’t announced merger talks with Lloyds. Three weeks ago … well Danny you get my point… He made the statements at the time of the conference based on the situation at that time. Events change on a daily basis and at the present moment liquidity is the problem. Lowering interest rates, even if temporarily, could encourage LIBOR to fall and banks to lend to each other.

Tcoh. Don’t you just hate these well-informed spods with their bloody longer-than-two-minute attention spans turning up just when you’re trying to fudge together an emotionally-based partisan narrative about the economic crisis from the bits that weren’t good enough to make your main column last week? It shouldn’t happen to a highly-paid opinion former.

Between them, these two stories mark something the party needs to watch out for. Somehow, be it by osmosis or masonic meeting, the media have decided that Vince has had his day in the sun (which, make no mistake, was bestowed upon him initially because they thought it might ruffle Nick Clegg), for no better reason than that it’s in their disturbingly  primitive collective nature to build up idols and then pull them down again.

Expect more groundless finger-pointing and portentous “ummmmmm” noises to follow, and gradually form itself into delicate layers of insinuation like puff pastry, until no-one can remember how the air-filled pile of specious slop that forms the Case Against Vince Cable started, but they’re pretty sure there’s no smoke without fire, and anyway it’s on the deputy editor’s mood board this week so let’s run a story about it. Quickly though, I have to call my crystal healer about moving my car insurance.

8 Comments

  1. They do it with opinion polls too. Every rise of 1% here or fall of 2% there is credited to some arbitrary statement or policy, regardless of whether those polled have heard of it or if the change was within the margin or error.

  2. My favourite one was the Today programme when Dim Jim Naughtie asked the Chancellor if he was going to suspend Stamp Duty to stimulate the housing market and when the Chancellor refused to answer, that was the main story over the whole media. Result: completely unfounded panic based on nothing at all.

  3. As much as I’d like to be able to sign up to the “changing stance as events unfold” explanation, I was under the impression that there was already a capacity for the Bank of England to respond to the latest events, in that they have a committee of awfully clever people who get together to discuss what they ought to do in response to the latest events. It therefore seemed to me a fair question for “the media” to ask what has changed that requires any politicians to start making interventions.

    I mean, take this quote from Vince:

    I have been for the last decade a strong supporter of the independence of the Bank of England and made my maiden speech on the subject in 1997. The Bank must remain politically independent.

    “I believe, however, that it must be spelt out by the Chancellor that its mandate must include the possibility of decisive action, including a radical cut in interest rates, to head off financial and economic meltdown.

    Does Vince really believe that the MPC has never before considered “decisive action” to be part of its remit?

    You are right that it was always inevitable the media would decide that a time had come when Vince Cable was to be brought down a peg or two. But Vince does, I think, have to take a bit of the blame here. Some of what he has been saying looks, to me, like the sort of thing you write when you feel you have to say something but there isn’t really anything very important that needs saying.

  4. Good point Andy. But insofar as Vince has gone a little too far, this is only an example of the more general case of what can happen to politicians when they’re asked for their opinion on things which they are not ultimately responsible for. As an economist and opinion-former Vince is entitled to his view that the BoE should cut interest rates, and he’s far from being alone in that view (amongst economists, at least), but as a politician he is committed to the idea that there is an agreed process by which this decision must be taken, over which he has no influence.

    This kind of issue crops up fairly regularly and is always an awkward one for us. As liberals, we’re generally against the idea of the government getting involved where it shouldn’t, but as people our politicians often hold opinions that go beyond the limits of their office. For example, an MP may personally disapprove of alcohol consumption, but is constrained from banning it (we hope). Likewise, Vince (as hypothetical Chancellor) would be politically constrained from just telling the BoE what to do.

    It’s a bit of a conundrum; he obviously has an opinion about what he thinks would be the best course of action, but he has to wait for the bank to come around to that view itself. If they disagree (and they might) then they are free to do so. In a perfect world, [Shadow] Chancellors would be entitled to whatever opinion they like about interest rates, because we’d have 100% confidence in the independence of the central bank to make its own mind up, in which case Vince can say what he thinks on the subject without contradicting his political view that the Bank should take the final decision.

  5. Oh, I’d always agree it was reasonable for the media to ask why a politician needed to intervene. My point was that Andrew Neil demonstrably wasn’t asking the question for that reason. The full quote is:

    “The bloom is off Vince Cable. Once a beacon of light in grim times, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman may have devalued himself with his call to suspend the independence of the Bank of England (when he boasted to his party conference that he wouldn’t, while the stupid Tories might).”

    And that’s it. The sum total of his comment on the subject. I suggest you credit him with too much intelligence (or perhaps too good a researcher) if you want to read into that paragraph a background awareness of the BoE emergency committee and its potential usefulness at a time of crisis as an alternative to direct government intervention. It’s AN bringing up the passage-of-time since conference factor as decisive, not me.

  6. Rob: Yup.

    Alix: Since Andrew Neil studied Political Economy at uni (indeed, was taught by Vince at one point, supposedly), has spent a career attached to reasonably intelligent journalistic organs, and always seems fairly economically literate on the telly, I’m afraid I do indeed credit him with awareness of the workings of the system.

    Besides, that’s not especially central to my point: AN is questioning the change in position since conference. You suggest this is defensible by pointing to people who are saying that circumstances have changed, and this justifies a change in position. I am just questioning whether said changes are really enough to justify that change in position, since the Bank of England ought, we might hope, to be able to sensibly analyse the financial situation as well as, if not better than, Vince (or indeed, the government). Whether or not AN had that in mind at the time, I imagine if challenged on the point, in the manner in which Finkelstein was a week or so ago, AN would indeed be able to argue his way around those defences.

  7. I think Rob touched on somthing there.

    If Brown intervened in the BoE’s decision-making process then he would be showing the independence of the old lady to be a sham. So if he wishes to impose himself and force a change in interest rates then it makes sense that the independence is suspended to prevent due process and the chain of command being bypassed. We can’t have anarchy institutionalised in the system!

    In this Vince is being entirely consistent even if he isn’t being exactly clear about it.

  8. I’d like to add that Nick Clegg made a specific call for a 2% cut in interest rate (although he didn’t say whether he’d like it to be immediate) at the MIH meeting I attended yesterday.

    He said that an independent BoE shouldn’t mean that all politicians are bound by a trappist vow of silence on the matter and it is right (in order to prove that it is independent) for some difference of opinion to be allowed to be demonstrated.

    On first glance this appears to show a difference of opinion between Nick and Vince, but I demurr that even if it were on the same grounds as above that this wouldn’t be a bad thing.

    As both PM and Chancellor Brown has consistently avoided taking a view on how and how far he thinks interests should be moved (as has Darling since his appointment at number 11), which prevents him from being held accountable (ie taking any blame) while also effectively absolving him of any leadership role.

    So between them Vince and Nick are mounting a dual attack which amounts to good politics.

    The only adequate response to to the two-pronged attack from Nick and Vince (and therefore for the Bank can demonstrate independence) is to justify it’s action by publishing the minutes of MPC meetings, so if it won’t then it is perfectly acceptable to threaten to withdraw its’ independence.

    Obviously publication of minutes is dangerous for the government because it provides officially-sanctioned ammunition against them which can be used in the wider public debate, but that’s democracy – if they can’t win the argument they don’t deserve to be in charge!

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