Conveying what Mr Gibberish is driving at

August 30, 1996

Throw in a few spare parts of a Ferrari with those of an old Skoda and you have the vehicle for conveying economic news to the public, argues John Corner.

Nicholas Jones's "insider" account of political journalism, Soundbites and Spin Doctors, has a splendid dustjacket: a 1993 photograph showing Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo standing together in double-breasted suits and broad ties on the Treasury steps. The resemblance to period Chicago is compelling. On the back, in an even more arresting piece of photographic "commentary", Gordon Brown is seated alone at a press-conference table in front of several microphones with empty chairs either side. His face suggests the earnest delivery of information. There is only one other figure in the frame: a sound recordist squatting next to his machine, totally distracted, head bent, eyes closed.

Both photographs have an extra piquancy for me and my colleagues at Liverpool University because we are inquiring into people's perceptions of economic conditions as portrayed through the media. The overshadowing significance of political personality and the fatal capacity of the topic to collapse into the unintelligible are easily documentable. As Jones reminds us, Brown himself was attacked by the tabloids ("Meet Mr Gibberish") for offering his views on "post neoclassical endogenous growth theory".

Journalists will testify to the particular difficulties economic reporting presents. Of these, the problem of clarity/comprehension is paramount, depending on the nature of the audience addressed (fewer problems here for the Financial Times than for News at Ten). The most routine activity for economic journalists is the giving of significance, against a background of expectations, to changes in one or more factors in a complex system. The most usual "event" around which an economic story is developed is a statistical change. This is a more frequent source of news than a policy shift or policy statement. The television correspondent can attempt to render this change to the viewer by placing it in the visualised context of Westminster heavyweights, of Mr and Mrs Smith of Reading, of the packing industry in Hull, but the core meaning of the change itself (though, of course, not its consequences) remains in most cases irreducibly abstract. There really is nothing to look at and no eyewitness account to be heard.

The "difficulty" of economics is not a new phenomenon. It is why the area has developed around it such a rich metaphoric vocabulary, a vocabulary both of mechanistic precision ("lever", "valves", "pipelines" and "gears") and organic naturalness ("sickness", "tonics", "gardens" and, notoriously in the case of Norman Lamont's protracted acts of clairvoyance, "green shoots"). Journalism continues to rely extensively on these devices to seize the public imagination but the new need to be sensitive to rate of change has brought with it a whole range of words to do with motion - from "stalled" through "lumbering", "crawling" to "cruising", "accelerating" and "racing" (with the dangers of consequent "overheating"). We have virtually a new figurative model, based on a machine that appears to have been put together from the spare parts of a Ferrari and a very old Skoda.

The difficulties of "the economy" as a reportorial topic are partly to do with the terminology used by government and by economists, but they are essentially to do with the relational character of matters economic; the fact that it is in the interrelation between different components and indicators that the significance of change usually lies. In television and radio this can lead to double-leads of the "X goes up, Y comes down" variety, causing uncertainty in viewers about whether what they have heard is bad or good news.

At Liverpool we are monitoring economic news and examining just how "significant change" is reported. We are also looking at what sample audiences make of economic news. Of course, the question of public economic expectations and understandings is now a key feature of national economic policy - the self-declaredly subjective realm of the "feelgood factor".

Like many other spheres of journalism, economic news has increased its use of experts to provide analysis. On television, the sight of City analysts producing "hot" commentary to camera, with a busy dealing floor in the background, has become familiar. Undoubtedly more engaging and to the point than most politicians, the City "expert" nevertheless raises problems for the perceived neutrality of economic news. One of the things that emerges quite clearly from our work is the high degree of suspicion surrounding the function of "the City" in national economic affairs. This is reinforced by the tendency for news reports to personify the City as some kind of moody God of the Economy, prone to swinging between bouts of anxiety ("the City is very worried tonight") and elation ("the City was delighted"), without ever being subject to questioning as to its own specific interests and the ways in which these relate to other sectors. Here, it is interesting how so much coverage in all media has been given to top pay disparities, shareholder perks, insider dealing and finance sector misdemeanours (the sheer range of secondary journalism following the Baring Bank crisis deserves a study of its own).

The British economy has become newly sensitive to fluctuations in global markets. Moreover there exists no real working consensus about the distribution of wealth and the way in which different private and public sectorial interests somehow add up to an overall national interest. The provision of detailed economic news in such a context is bound to present a major challenge not only to the expositional clarity of journalism but also to its "fairness". From our sample audience we are discovering a difficulty with comprehending the statistical relationships that, placed against "targets", now serve as the main indicator of economic health; a suspicion of "released" statistics; and an anxiety about the extent to which government news management might determine the economic news agenda. Perhaps more than any other area of reporting, economic news poses questions about the relationship between journalism and citizenship and about how both will fare in the intensified market structures that now surround them.

John Corner teaches in the school of politics at Liverpool University. His book, The Art of Record, is published by Manchester University Press.

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