Why journalists and politicians should get out more

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2006

John Harris – a likeable left-winger who recently managed, through painful contortions and with multiple nose-pegs, to square his conscience with re-joining the Labour Party – yesterday railed against the complacent assumptions of the liberal media. (That he did so in, of all places, thegrauniad has its own internal irony.)

Still, it’s a well-written, well-argued and well-timed piece:

Just before this year’s local elections, I spent time in Stoke-on-Trent … where the BNP were snapping at the heels of a broken-down Labour party, sending round leaflets that read less like the Potteries’ take on Mein Kampf than something put out by the Socialist Workers’ party (“Labour betray the working man and woman – potteries, mining steel … all destroyed”). The regenerated urban wonders of Manchester were less than an hour away, yet here were scenes that are actually more common than some people would like to believe: walled-up factories, Poundstretcher shops, low-paid service-sector jobs, and the abiding sense that the good life was happening somewhere else. A couple of days later I ended up discussing all this with a former editor of a tabloid newspaper, who looked at me as if I was slightly mad. His counterargument was based on the usual mirage of limitless affluence and what used to be known as embourgeoisement: “Britain is booming,” he snapped back. And there it was, the predictable sound of a cloistered elite that either misinterprets macroeconomic statistics or fails to see much beyond the end of its own metropolitan nose.

Much of what Mr Harris writes is true – both that there is huge poverty (relative and absolute) in the UK, and that this is largely ignored by the national media, cosily ensconced in their latté-sealed designer-metropolises.

There is a real and growing disconnect between what is reported – whether by the media or government – and what is actually the case.

Unemployment today may stand at 1.7 million – but there are another 2.7m folk claiming incapacity benefit, many of whom would once have been regarded as unemployed before the Government ‘adjusted the figures’.

And though the CPI inflation rate stands at 2.4%, we all know that actual inflation is much higher than this because the Government excludes those things which might be considered inflationary (where I work we factor in 5% as the real increase in annual costs).

Mr Harris and I would disagree on how you solve the appalling inequalities that still exist: I believe you can best help people by giving them access to those markets which those of us who are comfortably off unthinkingly take advantage of each day; he would argue for a state-sponsored solution that requires people to come cap-in-hand to government to have their poverty date-stamped. Where we can agree is that the scale of the problem has to be acknowledged, and that the media’s self-reinforcing and panglossian attitude is stifling debate.

Sure, parts of Britain are booming. Mostly they’re the parts where journalists and politicians live. They, we, should get out more.