Fake News

BBC gifts Brexit economists too much credibility

by Luke Lythgoe | 21.08.2017

‘Hard’ Brexit offers ‘£135bn annual boost’ to economy”. So read the main headline on the BBC News homepage for much of Sunday. A summary of the story went: “Removing all trade tariffs would be ‘economically superior’, pro-Brexit economists argue.”

Pro-Brexit economists may very well argue this, but it is not a popular argument. The £135 billion figure comes from a report authored by Patrick Minford, chair of Economists for Free Trade – a group of 16 economists formerly known as Economists for Brexit. Minford wants the UK to use hard Brexit to unilaterally end all tariffs and regulations on imports coming into the country. The overwhelming majority of Minford’s economist peers reject his theory. They warn that this would not only threaten safety standards, jobs and workers’ rights through a “race to the bottom”, it would also cause substantial losses to the UK economy. Minford himself has also readily acknowledged in the past that his vision would “mostly eliminate manufacturing” in the UK.

And yet the BBC was content to present Minford’s theory as one side of a viable economic debate, handing it prominence on a par with that in the Express and Sun. The backlash on social media was vociferous, with the FT’s economics editor, Chris Giles, tweeting: “Strange @BBCNews did not check the accuracy of Minford’s past Brexit forecasts before leading its news site with this.”

Only later did the BBC add the opposing, mainstream viewpoint to its article, quoting economist Monique Ebell from the National Institute of Social and Economic Research (NIESR) as saying Minford “ignores decades of evidence on how trade actually works”.

But, as in the referendum itself, the BBC seemed content to present a widely discredited pro-Brexit theory with very few advocates as one side (indeed, the dominant side) of a finely balanced economic debate.

On Monday the BBC followed up the article, inviting both Minford and Ebell to argue it out on Radio 4’s Today programme. Even then it was pitched as battle royale between two well-matched sides, with presenter John Humphrys challenging Minford to “convince her!”.

Ebell explained the arguments against Minford’s unilateral free trade position, saying the economics were “a little more complicated”. Adopting the Brexiters’ own vocabulary, she argued that removing regulations from imports was actually a “detriment to our sovereignty” because the UK has “decided certain goods and products are not safe”.

Minford countered that “of course we’re going to adhere to international standards”, citing anti-dumping tariffs and bans on chlorinated American chickens as examples. But such get-outs undermine Minford’s ideal of pure free trade, and thus eat into his predicted economic gains. Furthermore, how does Minford define “international standards”?

The views of Economists for Brexit / Free Trade have repeatedly been rebuffed elsewhere, for example in a report by a group of economists at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance. They predict a 2.3% economic loss from Minford’s policy, rather than the 4% gain he claims. They argue Minford “misunderstands the nature of regulations and product standards”, seeing harmonisation across the EU as a “pernicious plot by vested interests to raise prices” rather than a proven way to increase trade and competition in a modern economy. They also reject Minford’s assumptions that countries will buy only from the lowest-cost supplier and not consider other factors such as geographic proximity, transport costs and quality. The economists conclude that “theories need grounding in facts, not ideology”.

Humphrys wrapped up the Radio 4 interview: “I expect we could keep this going for at least an hour.” Wrong. Minford’s argument should never have got this much airtime in the first place.

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    This article was amended after publication to correct the spelling of John Humphrys’ name.

    Edited by Alan Wheatley