Yesterday I attended a seminar on “The Eurocrisis in the News”, organized by the Finnish Union of Radio and Television Journalists with support from the Finnish Journalist’s Union and the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE). This was a very interesting seminar on a topic which I am rather interested in. The seminar was too long and too diverse to summarize it properly, but some interesting points and highlights:
– according to a research by one of the organizers, there is a big skewedness in which economists get asked to comment on news related to the eurocrisis. There are a few which are asked all the time and there are many which are asked a few times at most. The period of time investigated was from the crash of Lehman Brothers until the 15th of September 2014 and focused on the daily news of YLE as well as the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat.
– perhaps this skewedness is a result of who is famous and who is available, but a much more worrying bias is that there were hardly any women represented in the sample studied. Nonetheless, in Finland there are many talented female economists, both in banks and research institutes.This is a big problem, as the eurocrisis in any case has an asymmetric gender impact (i.e. given the kind of jobs and sectors women are predominantly present in, they suffer from the crisis to a greater degree than men.)
– As Sveriges Radio economic reporter Staffan Sonning stated, bank economists are paid to do work for the bank, so one should not listen too much to their policy advice.
– Research journalist Elina Grundström launched a new concept: the Triple-H credit rating, referring to the works of (journalist) Jan Hurri, researcher Timo Harakka and economist Lauri Holappa (of the Raha&Talous -blog). The question discussed in this section of the seminar was whether these kinds of ‘alternative’ analyses were less represented in the media and whether it has been more difficult for these to gain visibility in the Finnish media. The answer was yes and no. The majority of analysis (of the Eurocrisis) followed the ‘German good – South profligate’ model apparently (which I also have criticized in a column in Turun Sanomat, regarding a specific part of this discussion). The no-part is reflected in the finding that actually there were more critical analyses than may have seemed. While this may be true, I would like to see this over a period of time (Jan Hurri has been on this topic for a long time, but Harakka’s and Holappa’s books came out this Spring – but they were very active in the internet). Also it would be interesting what the substance of the various articles was, how e.g. the ‘alternative explanation’ was categorized etc. Another question is whether the inclusion of ‘alternative explanations’ or criticism led to more media presence for those economists. Given the statements by the Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb on the issue of public finances and economic policy, it doesn’t look like any of the criticism had any effect. But then again, nowhere in Europe this seems to be the case.
– The director of EVA (a Finnish pro-market think tank) Matti Apunen had a presentation which defies summarization. This was caused by his use of rethorical devices and he also frequently seemed to contradict something which he just said. Regardless of the feeling of ‘what did he actually say, did he say something sensible at all?’ I think he had a couple of things worth mentioning. First, he had a good point that the news media should have a Eurocrisis ‘task force’ to report on these issues and be able to have a kind of strategy regarding longer term investigative journalism etc. This is ultimately a resource question, which e.g. websites such as NakedCapitalism also face. Apunen asked who is the Finnish Martin Wolf or Wolfgang Munchau, and I think there is no answer (yet). Another thing he mentioned which is a good point is, what is our/the media’s next blind spot? He claimed that the current eurocrisis is like that (or I think he claimed that) but that is obviously not true – maybe for some actors and some media but there have been plenty of warning signs and scholars who were right on top of it. But although there is plenty to say about the past and past mistakes, it IS important to think about blind spots. Sixten Korkman mentioned Donald Rumsfeld’s Unknown unknowns, which (although I think he is a politician of the worst sort) is one of the smartest things any politician has said, in a kind of philosophical sense.
These blind spots are of course by definition hard to conceive, but some in the audience mentioned France and Italy. Well, these are obvious and not blind spots anymore. Also Germany is not a blind spot, as Bill Mitchell and Jörg Bibow show. What I think is a blind spot is the link between the eurocrisis and the narrowing of democracy. This is an issue about which has been written before, but the media could be more interested in it. After all, a democracy cannot work without the media to report on good or bad things, and without critical voices. I think right now we can very clearly see that the EMU, and to a great extent also the EU as a whole, has turned into one great neo-liberal project. Seen from that perspective, everything makes sense – austerity, saving the banks, pumping the liquidity, the demands for labour market flexibilization etc. And here we have the blind spot: news media have to be much more in contact with social scientists (yes, I know I am advertising myself here) – economists discuss outcomes, social scientists are able to say sensible things about policy making and power struggles, not to mention legal issues, that lead to these outcomes. Where are the political scientists discussing Brussels policy making? Where are the sociologists and demographs that focus on the ill effects on austerity policies on the fabric of society? Where are the legal scholars that discuss the hollowing out of the rule of law (anyone remember Greece and Italy and how the European Commission installed puppet-governments?)
The eurocrisis involves so much more than just economy; at the very least we have to talk about political economy – what decisions are in whose interests and why? We can’t let this be discussed by economists alone.