Historians of the future may one day marvel at the fact that, in the wake of the most staggering economic crashes in recent history – at heart caused by the “jubilant public suicide” of the regulatory institutions meant to be policing the financial sector – a publicly-owned channel should give a full hour of prime-time space to a far-right libertarian polemic, extolling the virtues of free markets and talking up the shrinking of the state. Last Thursday Channel Four broadcast the extraordinary documentary “Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story”, depicting Britain’s national debt as an unmitigated nightmare – run up for no good reason by irresponsible bureaucrats and politicians, requiring redress through halving public spending, a low “flat tax” applied across the income spectrum, and a radical attack on the public sector. George Osborne’s cuts, we were told, were little more than a drop in the ocean.
Most astonishing, perhaps, is that this documentary is the work of a man with a well-known history of misleading the public. Its creator Martin Durkin has most recently enjoyed the opprobrium of the scientific community for misrepresenting graphs, data and basic factual information in 2007’s infamous “Great Global Warming Swindle” – a documentary whose conclusions were so divorced from reality that one of the climate scientists it featured subsequently denounced it as being “as close to pure propaganda as anything since World War Two” ”. Ofcom subsequently received a lengthy, detailed expert submission in the form of a peer-reviewed dissection of the scientific claims made in the programme. Yet it exonerated “Swindle” on the grounds that:
“whilst Ofcom is required by the 2003 Act to set standards to ensure that news programmes are reported with “due accuracy” there is no such requirement for other types of programming, including factual programmes of this type.”
Its sole relevant remit was simply to protect the public from “misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence”. The notion that misleading the public on climate change could cause considerable harm to the public was dismissed out of hand. It was, in effect, an open license for propagandists and fraudulent documentary film-makers.
Prior to that outing, however, Durkin had been director of a 1997 Channel Four series castigating the environment movement, “Against Nature”. When four individuals who had appeared in the series protested their treatment at Durkin’s hands, the Independent Television Commission ruled in their favour, condemning the programme for its dishonest treatment of the material: not only had the interviewees been “misled as to the content and purpose of the programmes when they agreed to take part”, but “the views of the four complainants, as made clear to the interviewer, had been distorted by selective editing”. Channel Four was subsequently forced to broadcast a primetime apology.
Another of Durkin’s programmes for Channel Four’s Equinox series in 1998 – claiming that the medical dangers of silicone breast implants had been widely exaggerated, and the supposed benefits ignored – had previously been rejected by the BBC for ignoring the body of evidence contradicting it, but was nevertheless taken up, produced and broadcast by Channel Four. The programme even had a researcher and producer – Najma Kazi – walk out in disgust while work on the documentary was ongoing. As Kazi put it:
“It’s not a joke to walk away from four or five month’s work, but my research was being ignored. The published research had been construed to give an impression that’s not the case. I don’t know how that programme got passed. The only consolation for me was that I’m really glad I didn’t put my name to it.”
As Private Eye wondered aloud in February 2000,
“What does Channel 4 do with programme makers condemned by the TV watchdog, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), for using underhand editing techniques? The answer is, er, hire them to make another programme ...”
While little would appear to have changed on this front, Durkin’s ideological position seems a good deal more malleable. The Great Global Warming Swindle evinced a none-too-subtle appeal to the politics of class warfare, espousing the ( ahistorical and unhinged) idea that Margaret Thatcher decided to endorse the politics of climate change as a means of attacking the miners. No such sympathy is evinced for Trade Unions this time round – a selectively-edited interview with TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber intended only to evoke ridicule. And the far-left politics Durkin claims formerly to have espoused now appear to have melted into thin air. In this light, the Eric Idle lyrics which play as the credits to “Horror Story” roll – “you can keep your Marxist ways, but it’s only just a phase ...” – sound like a wry wink to those in the know. It is an ideological divestment redolent down to the finest detail of those made by the corporate-friendly media entryists of the former Revolutionary Communist Party , and subsequently the magazine Living Marxism – the same that now congregate around the libertarian website spiked . Durkin naturally claims to have no connection to this clique, even though they appear to have been intimately involved in “Against Nature”’s attack on the environmental movement, which echoes their line almost to the letter.
The talking heads coming to Durkin’s assistance this time round are drawn from a host of far-right think-tanks, publications, corporate bodies and former Conservative ministerial positions. Particularly noticeable among them are the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute – both of which have clear links to the tobacco industry, and have done work promoting a public agenda friendly to the industry over the years.
Nevertheless, Durkin’s professional standards in “Horror Story” are entirely consistent with his previous work. The documentary is an expertly constructed piece of populist propaganda: clear, irreverent, entertaining, and densely packed with fundamental misrepresentations. Some of the most stark examples are worth dissecting in more detail.
• UK public spending is, er, not due to rise
Durkin claims that public spending in the UK is set to go on increasing up to 2014 – overlaying images of ever-rising bar graphs over Government rhetoric on public spending, a hysterical crescendo of swelling strings completing the overall impression of out-of-control Government spending.
It is difficult to overstate just how far this account inverts reality. As the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf – a highly influential economic commentator who has hardly been one to distance himself from the dogmas of economic libertarianism – summed up the coalition’s budget, overall “fiscal tightening will amount to the massive total of £113bn by 2014-15, 74 per cent of this in lower spending”. Wolf described this as a “dramatic fiscal tightening”; “tightening until the pips squeak”; part of a “savage budget” amounting to a “bloodbath”: a “grinding war on spending” for which “nothing in the election campaign prepared the British public”. “This”, he concludes, “is going to be brutal.”
In the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review, Wolf concluded:
“Overall, the prospective reductions in real spending are the most severe since the second world war.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies – widely regarded as the gold standard for such assessments – echoed Wolf almost to the letter:
“... the cuts to total public spending over the four years starting next April are, after economy-wide inflation, set to be the deepest since World War II and the cuts to spending on public services will be the deepest since the four years beginning in April 1975 when the then Labour Government was trying to comply with the IMF austerity plan.”
Durkin doesn’t shed any light on the source of his figures in the documentary. But the sheer disjuncture between his figures and those of more reliable sources on this question require an explanation. Assuming that his figures are not a straightforward fabrication (a big assumption), the relevant phrases would seem to be “real spending” and “after economy-wide inflation”. The only plausible way of accounting for Durkin’s fantasyland data would seem to be that he has simply declined to account for inflation – possibly the crudest, most desperate trick in the fraudulent statistician’s handbook.
• The level of Britain’s debt
In assessing the real level of Britain’s debt, Durkin provides a figure of £4.8 trillion. High-end figures like this inevitably come from sources on the hard right such as the Centre for Policy Studies or Tory MP John Redwood, and scrape the barrel to take account of any liabilities they can, generally including future pension payments (not “debt” in any conventional sense), liabilities from the banks, and the continuing costs run up as a result of introducing the private sector into the funding, management and ownership of key public services. Conventional figures , however, show that debt as a percentage of GDP only rose particularly when, in 2008-9, the state stepped in to carry the cost of its historic oversight in failing to regulate the financial sector – and even then, rose to historically unremarkable levels. This figure may be inflated by including the costs of turning public services into new markets for private companies, or of the toxic assets the Government ultimately inherited as a result of its prior failure to involve itself sufficiently in the financial sector. But this is a curious argument to make on behalf of a smaller state.
• Public services: the example of healthcare
Durkin has a few hobby-horses on the issue of public services. He predictably extols the virtues of private sector provision, advocating a tiered, predominantly private system with a safety-net for the poor. He majors on the value of “choice” (failing, oddly, to mention the added bonus for those lucky enough to have a couple of extra quid in their pocket in getting to enjoy even more of this precious commodity). He attacks the terrible inefficiency of state bureaucracies, casting the NHS in an unfavourable position among the healthcare providers of the industrialised world – again omitting to mention the adverse outcomes already brought about by the involvement of the private sector in British healthcare provision. But perhaps most pertinent is the obvious real-world comparison he scrupulously avoids in all this: the third-world country under a decades-long economic embargo enjoying state provision, renowned healthcare services and such an extraordinary performance on health outcomes it has made even the World Bank blush; and the richest country in the developed world, with the least efficient, most costly model of non-universal, marketised healthcare provision, riddled with perverse incentives to withhold treatment wherever possible by its basis in the profit motive. That is, Cuba and the United States.
• Economic history
Durkin’s economic history is framed by a guided tour between areas of the north of England and Hong Kong, run-down areas of the former contrasted with dynamic urban centres in the latter. This comparison forms the basis of a bizarre thesis: firstly, on the industrial revolution, during which, in Durkin’s terms, the absence of state intervention set the conditions for an explosion of economic development – only to be ruined by the encroachment of the state into the 20th Century, leaving many areas in the north in poverty. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is depicted as exemplifying the dynamism and success of the Asian Tiger economies, achieved through a dramatic reduction of the state.
The only problem with this account – besides its astonishing assumption that the private sector alone will somehow reverse poverty in depressed areas – is that it relies on a rewriting of economic history. As the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has shown in his book Kicking Away the Ladder and elsewhere, the now-developed countries relied on all manner of state intervention to ensure that nascent industries were insulated from the debilitating influence of the market. In the case of Britain, this included no small degree of brutality. Shashi Tharoor, in his history of India, for instance, notes
“the deliberate barbarity with which, on at least two occasions, the British ordered the thumbs of whole communities of Indian weavers chopped off so that they could not compete with the products of Lancashire”.
As Chang notes of the United States, its economic success has been underpinned by an extraordinary degree of protectionism and state intervention. Not only has the US historically enjoyed a form of “natural” protection as a result of its geographical distance from its trading partners, but has continually intervened strategically to protect domestic industries. As Chang has repeatedly pointed out, this effectively made the US the most protectionist country in the world during the period of its ascendancy. Moreover, notwithstanding Durkin’s mythological account, the biggest state monopoly in the industrialised world is not the NHS but the US military, which has continually been used to provide a stimulus to domestic industry.
As for the Asian Tigers, Chang points out that the state intervened in these countries’ economic development every step of the way – to such an extent that, according to the historian Mark Curtis, they ended up being referred to in the US internal record as “communist economies without communism”.
• Private productivity versus public vampirism?
One memorable analogy in the documentary sums up Durkin’s view of the relationship between the private and public sectors particularly concisely. He portrays a patient on a hospital bed, with blood taken out of one arm injected into another, some of it spilled in the process. Every pound spent by the Government, in other words, is simply a pound taken from you in taxation, plus some extra skimmed off in bureaucracy. Durkin continually refers to the private sector as “productive areas of the economy”, depicting the state simply as a set of pampered bureaucrats and leeches in absurd, pointless positions, frittering our money away on caviar and foie gras.
Yet it takes a moment’s thought to understand that this portrayal is the purest insanity. There are all manner of other ways money can flow into the public purse – the sale of Government bonds, or through revenue generated by its profitable assets. Governments can take on debt in order to provide an inflow of spending in the present to stimulate future growth and effectively pay off its own debts as tax revenues grow. Because of his notion that “one pound spent is more than one pound taxed”, Durkin is only able to frame debt as a burden on future generations – humorously illustrated with clips of protesting schoolchildren. According to this logic, no business would ever take on a loan, since the necessity of paying it back in the future with interest could only make it worse off.
Durkin doesn’t explain what leaving, say, the building of transport networks in the hands of these “productive areas of the economy” would be likely to do for poor countries’ economic development. He omits to explain how a credible success story can be told about the radical application of the magic of the market to post-Soviet Russia. He forgets to mention the most important innovation in the communications sector – perhaps the most important innovation outright – of the late 20th Century, or where it came from: the internet, for which “It was the American state that picked up the bills in a context of limited commercial interest”.
But perhaps the most obvious and damning example is again those huge “socially useless” areas of the financial sector – in the words of the former head of the CBI – whose “productive” activities all but sent the economy off a cliff-edge in 2008-9. Only a vast injection of spending by the supposedly vampiric public sector was able to alleviate the effects of this variety of “productivity”. Even if we were to adopt his own purely econometric logic, it is shocking to realise in just how many important respects Durkin’s account here inverts the truth.
These are just a few examples of the glaring errors and oversights that saturate Durkin’s documentary from start to finish. No doubt many more can be pointed out by anyone with the time and inclination to look. But the documentary reveals a couple of things of which it is worth taking note. Firstly, that such communications are often persuasive, particularly when corrective contextual information is not readily available – as some of the comments on Channel Four’s website seem to confirm. And secondly, the ways in which the perception of crisis that is at the heart of “shock doctrine” approaches to economic restructuring may often depend on such forms of media influence to bolster them. This is surely at the heart of Durkin’s achievement in “Horror Story”. It is unlikely a countervailing narrative will ever be broadcast: it is difficult, in fact, to think of any Channel Four documentary propounding a worldview even half as far to the left as this documentary cleaved to the right. We need to be concerned, then, by the ways in which swathes of public opinion may be being “softened up” by appeals to a neoliberal “common sense” – particularly in light of the ways this process has recently borne fruit across the Atlantic – and to argue back forcefully.
Tim Holmes has previously researched and written on climate change, media, public opinion and new social movements. He currently writes for Climate Safety.