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February 27, 2012


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Luis Enrique

"Doing so carries a high risk that they will just spout idiotic untruths"

I'm afraid the only way to lower that risk is to take off and nuke the entire media industry from orbit


I've pretty much stopped watching any news on tv for these reasons.

What is worse is the dreadful idea that 'every argument has two sides' when most arguments have at least eleven. Presenters like Dimbleby and Paxman love the quasi-intellectualism of these games and all the 'experts' (journalists, comedians and people who have recently released a popular book) play to it (although nowadays they tend to have a few 'stats' that they've cobbled together which probably sound impressive to invertebrates). All we get is clichéd debates that have been scripted before and never move on.

Tim Johnson


I think that you are too harsh on Portillo.

You are correct that just because the top 1% pay 28% of income tax does not prove that income tax is progressive (although it is surely suggestive). You could have a scenario where the top 1% had 50% of the income and paid 28% of the tax.

However, in fact that's not the case. Looking here: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/stats/income_tax/table2-4.pdf we see that in 2010/11 the top 1% got about 13% of the pretax income and paid 28% of the tax. Similarly the top 50% got 74% of pretax income and paid 90% of the income tax. This clearly shows that income tax is progressive. Factoring in for the benefits system (see Fig 4.3.on Page 80 here: http://www.ifs.org.uk/mirrleesreview/design/ch4.pdf) shows this effect too. The top 60% or so make (net) transfers to the bottom 40%.

We can argue as to whether this is progressive enough, or indeed too progressive, but surely we cannot argue about whether or not it is progressive?

One point on which I do agree with you is about the need for experts to challenge politicians. Certainly in the area of taxation, most journalists (even otherwise apparently well informed business and economics journalists) are often woefully ignorant about the way the tax system works. This is understandable. It is complex and keeps changing - keeping up is time consuming. But the result is frequent factual errors in news reporting - and letting politicians get away with things simply because the interviewer / presenter is not well enough informed to challenge the politician.


But Table B (internaly page numbered 7) of the ONS link you serve up concludes that top earning quintiles pay more than double the rate of income tax the lowest quintile does. ONS concludes that is "progressive". It certainly meets my own definition of progressive i.e. both a higher absolute amount and relative share of income coming from high earners.

If I stopped the man on the clapham common and said "how about a system where a person earning 5 times as much as you paid 10 times as much tax as you?" I reckon I'd get good support for that as a working definition of "progressive".

What other definition of progressive tax is to be preferred?

Brian Ashcroft


Please see my post about a Scottish Nationalist Politician who, on the BBCs Good Morning Scotland last Thursday morning, sought to rubbish an evidence-based report by 3 Scottish academics. The rubbishing was via smear and seemingly spurious, unsourced, statistics. By placing a labour politician alongside the SNP guy the BBC could claim balance without any consideration of the truth. And in the process, the academics' reputation and integrity are rubbished. But this it seems is just seen as being part of the political "game".

Account Deleted

"What we want to know is the evidence - and the holes in that evidence. This requires that the BBC have experts on their shows, not politicians".

Unfortunately, the funding of bias under cover of think-tank research means that many so-called experts are just as likely to spout nonsense.

As the US conservative David Frum recently noted, "conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics". http://nymag.com/news/politics/conservatives-david-frum-2011-11/

As you say, many political issues are ones of science not values, but political parties are primarily driven (and given cohesion) by values. For example, intergenerational worklessness ("three generations of the same family who have never worked") continues to crop up in debate despite there being no evidence it actually exists. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/02/workless-families-convenient-truth-editorial?INTCMP=SRCH


@ Tim, Gary - I don't deny that the tax system is progressive. My point is just that Portillo's "evidence" that is meaningless.
It's not good enough to be merely right by accident.


We could have The Royal Academy talking about Climate Change. That would be just as much nonsense...


"I don't deny that the tax system is progressive. My point is just that Portillo's "evidence" that is meaningless.
It's not good enough to be merely right by accident."

His evidence isn't meaningless, it is inconclusive without further inspection of the detail beneath, which he may have done, but within the constraints of the TV soundbite not had time to expound. As in fact he was correct, the tax system is indeed progressive (whether its progressive enough for you is of course open to debate), is this not a rather poor example of 'lying' politicians?

I would give as a better example the constant muddling (by accident or design) of the terms 'debt' and 'deficit' by politicians from both sides of the political spectrum. Anyone who muddles the two is either a fool or a liar. If they are politicians I would suggest they are probably both.


Some time ago you (Chris) commented that few if any politicians had a post -graduate qualification in economics. I wondered if there was anything else lacking. How about maths/basic statistics? I'm not talking degree level here, just basic competence. That would explain why Portillo got himself into a mess and why there's a reluctance to rely on evidence rather than anecdote.


Isn't the main political skill one of rhetorical trickery and definitely not the use of logic or fact? Portillo et al are only interested in point-scoring.

To unwrap a real-world issue needs a long and boring analysis which will probably conclude - 'not much we can do', so lousy television so not done.

The best thing experts can do is ignore shallow programmes like QT - I do.


Watching politicians on TV helps me decide who to vote for. I'd rather see they are idiots for myself instead of trusting Polly Toynbee to tell me. Is that so wrong?


«Take some of the big political issues: could workfare work? Is there a case for reforming the NHS? Is fiscal austerity justified? Any of us could think of a few hypotheses or anecdotes to support either side of these arguments.
Having politicians do the same does not add value. What we want to know is the evidence - and the holes in that evidence.»

Perhaps you want evidence, most of the public want morality tales that confirm their biases as to their perceived interests. The demand propaganda.

«This requires that the BBC have experts on their shows, not politicians**.»

Experts that are television friendly are some of the most able and well paid propagandists around, so that would help with the public preference.

«One objection to this is that politicians matter not because they inform or educate, but because they represent popular opinion. I’m not convinced. The fact that an opinion is mainstream - and it’s questionable whether politicians do represent the mainstream - is a reason for not broadcasting it. We know what we think; what‘s the point of hearing an echo?»

There are several studies, and perhaps you mentioned some of them, that show that most of the public read those news/propaganda media that echo their own preceonceived opinions and advance their interests. If that is the case, the duty of the BBC is to supply what licence payers want.

Overall you seem to think that news media primarily role is to inform and educate. Popular news media like Fox or The Sun instead entertain and pander at best, are just conduits for propaganda.

You and I might agree with this quote from Jefferson:

«I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not take it from them, but to inform their discretion.»

but most of the public are too persuaded about their preconceptions.


I say we just use their Spitting Image puppets. Nobody will know the difference.


*You could have a scenario where the top 1% had 50% of the income and paid 28% of the tax. *

Do they use 28% of the services, or do they use 1%.

It can be argued that they pay far far more than they take.

I don't think "it is fact and logic" is true, you can argue that they pay far more than their share and that is progressive.

What does progressive even mean, how can it ever be anything other than opinion how much is considered progressive?


I am sympathise, and almost never watch Question Time or listen to Any Questions, but:
1. There's the basic democratic point that we need to hear them to decide whether they are talking rubbish or not.
2. It would be good to have properly briefed interviewers - sometimes the like of Evan Davies or Jon Snow are up to this.
3. When non-politician public figures are on discussion programmes they are often no better, sometimes even worse (Carol Vorderman on QT, anyone?!). Alleged experts all too often have a clear agenda, but still try to make out that they are neutral, disinterested commentators. At least with politicians listeners are primed to assume there's an agenda.

Another Chris

Perhaps TV stations should be banned from current affairs programmes altogether. And I mean stuff like the lightweight Panorama where they never let facts get in the way of an in-depth investigation.

Last night, for example, we had the CEO of a taxpayer-funded and industry-funded 'charity' telling us about the escalating cost of child care. And the answer, of course, was taxpayers spend even more money on his members.

What was entirely missed by this Panorama was why child care is escalating in cost. Could it be over-regulation? The cost of enhanced CRB checks? Uniform business rates? Ofsted inspections? Requirements for staff to be qualified (and hence commanding higher wages)? And a whole host of other costs foisted on the child care industry.

But you are quite right about politicians. They twist and bend statistics and tell outright damn lies - given any chance in front of a camera!


«I don't deny that the tax system is progressive.x

The UK tax system, which includes a rather heavy VAT, and all sorts of other taxes, it actually slightly regressive.

Talking about the "tax system" as if it were just income taxes is the usual trick used by conservative propagandists.

The details here:


There are more interesting links here:


Churm Rincewind

"Many political issues are ones of science rather than values." I'm sorry, but this is complete nonsense. So reform of the NHS is a question susceptible to scientific analysis, is it? Gosh, if only the "experts" (incidentally, who are they in the case of the NHS?) were to come forward then, hey, problem sorted for all time.

Yes, let's forget the views of elected politicians and indeed the public on the grounds that it's often inchoate and incoherent and uninformed, and let the analyses of social scientists and economists prevail. Because their narrow prism trumps all other considerations, doesn't it?

Judy Kuszewski

This is a timely and timeless post. In recent weeks, US-based National Public Radio has reworked its policies to seek 'truth' rather than 'balance', and to do so on behalf of its listeners, rather than on behalf of its sources, or its newsroom egos. Well worth reading about at: pressthink.org/2012/02/npr-tries-to-get-its-pressthink-right/


You make the mistake of assuming that politicians are not expert and that experts are not political. In fact, there's a lot of overlap.

For example, when workers or leaders from profession X talk about their profession, are they experts? Maybe. Are they biased and self-interested, simply talking up their own interests? Maybe. Does the fact that they aren't elected give them special legitimacy? That's an odd idea in a democracy. What if they stood for election to a union or other representative position in their profession?

What if an expert stands for election or joins a party? What if he's standing as an independent? Does he instantly lose all credibility? Seems an odd way to encourage knowledgable people to take an interest in public life.

The idea that there is a group of experts over here, and they'll give us informed, disinterested, bias-free commentary is silly. It's in defiance of everything we know about human nature.


To me, the main problem is not that opposing politicians have different views, it's that the BBC does not challenge their views and uses their lazy arguments to beat the other.

Labours "too far too fast" and "tax bankers bonuses" seem to get swallowed whole.

Too far too fast is a judgement call, and whilst I've heard labour condemn numerous cuts, I've never heard them propose anything of any significance that needs to be cut

Individual Bonuses will be taxed, presumably at 50%, so what level is Labour proposing? A question I have never heard asked, let alone answered. And I have heard them spend that money on various causes at least 5 times so far.

And what makes this all the more galling is that, leaving aside the global element, the seeds of so many of our current woes can be squarely laid at labours door - unaffordable PFI schemes must be at least one reason for having to reform the NHS.

Btw I have never voted Tory and am surviving on NMW


I tend to think that problem is not with the politicians (think of those systems where they are not allowed to express their views however stupid they may be) but with the commentators who have to keep up the pretence of neutrality. It would have been very difficult for any of them to disagree with Portillo without demonstrating a stance of their own and my guess is that Portillo knew this all too well. Far better a system where the interviewers/commentators were made to be honest about their political views (I have yet to meet anyone who is interested in politics who doesn't have them!) and then there could be open and honest dialogue and discussion that might actually shed some light on the subject.


I don't deny too the tax system is progressive. My point is just that Portillo's "evidence" that is meaningless.
It's not good enough to be merely right by accident."

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