At Coffee House, we occasionally criticise George Osborne for stretching the truth when describing the deficit — but when it comes to hoodwinking broadcasters and deceiving voters, Ed Balls is the master. Three times on the radio today he lied about Labour’s plans, saying that he intends to have the national debt falling. He has no such plans: what he means is that he plans for the national debt to rise, but to rise more slowly than the economy is growing. What he means is that his plan is not for the debt to fall, but for a ratio to fall: the debt/GDP ratio. And it isn’t very ambitious, because that ratio already is falling.
Even on Osborne’s plans, actual debt is rising (see picture, above) in real terms and nominal terms.
If challenged, as he is all too rarely, Balls argues that economists think primarily of ‘debt’ as meaning ‘debt/GDP’ ratio. Even if that were true, ordinary listeners will not. They’ll think of ‘debt falling’ means, em, the debt falling, and will not be familiar with Balls’s longstanding truth-stretching exercise. Throughout his career, he has been conflating debt with debt/GDP ratio – and he has done so because broadcasters have allowed him to get away with it. This has become the acceptable lie.
But it is worth a broadcaster insisting on clear language on the debt and deficit for three reasons:
a.) A broadcast interviewer who does not challenge an untruth is allowing their subject to mislead their viewers (a print journalist can refuse to print the spin or put it in context; broadcasters have to intercept everything live.)
b.) Britain does not have any other forms of fact-checking. Sadly, George Osborne has not allowed the Office for Budget Responsibility to scrutinise Labour plans. If they did, then the OBR would announce to the world that Labour plans for debt to rise – and Balls would not try to mislead people by suggesting otherwise.
c.) And who’s repaying this debt? The very people watching the TV or listening to the radio: when national debt rises, it’s a burden that government places on the public. That’s why broadcasters, especially those with a public service mandate, need to insist on plain-speaking when it comes to debt – no matter how it may interrupt the flow of the interview.
Britain now has, quite rightly, very strict standards on what insurers and bankers can say about their product: they are not allowed a word of exaggeration. It’s against the law. The ministers and politicians aspiring to get their hands on government and raise far greater sums in debt, with far bigger consequences, should be held to at least as high a standard.
There are no regulators watching what politicians say in election time; no OBR to give a verdict. Just journalists. That’s why, even if it’s boring, those conducting live broadcast interviews can’t let debt deception go unchallenged.