Nick Shaxson ■ On the historical absence of inequality and tax in the news agenda
This guest blog from Dr Jairo Lugo-Ocando comes just a couple of days after the UK commentator George Monbiot wrote a piece in The Guardian entitled Our ‘impartial’ broadcasters have become mouthpieces of the elite, mostly from a Canadian and British perspective, in which he noted the extent of political ‘capture’ by financial élites:
“It’s symptomatic of a much wider problem in journalism: those who are supposed to scrutinise the financial and political elite are embedded within it. Many belong to a service-sector aristocracy, wedded metaphorically (sometimes literally) to finance. Often unwittingly, they amplify the voices of the elite, while muffling those raised against it.”
We’d argue that this is a form of corruption. His article complements our earlier Is the BBC scared of tax havens?, and our Is the BBC afraid of the City of London, which just go to underscore the point.
Now, the guest blog:
The absence of ‘inequality’ and ‘taxation’ in the news agenda
By Dr Jairo Lugo-Ocando
Most research makes it clear that in order to address poverty, we must tackle inequality. Common sense and history tell us that there are only two ways of effectively dealing with inequality. One, by Trotsky-style bloodyworld revolutions (something that few are still insisting on, particularly after the collapse of the former USSR). Or two, by significant transfers of wealth via taxation from the richest in favour of the poorest (something that pretty much worked between 1945 and 1979).
As Anthony Read points out in ‘The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism, the fear of world revolution mobilised the whole of the Western world to create the necessary safeguards to prevent the next Soviet Union from happening on their soil. This meant, among other things, taxing the rich to develop what would eventually be the welfare state structures we have today.
Yet until very recently, inequality and tax were almost absent from the news agenda — unless it was a call for lower taxes, of course. When the Reagan-Thatcher duo took the public imagination by storm in the 1980s, the theme of inequality more or less vanished from the media. This duo channelled large amounts of government money to fund and support a vast media lobby in the US, Europe and Australia with the objective of ‘selling’ free-market ideas, deregulation and low taxation to journalists, something Richard Cockett demonstrated in his own research on think-tanks.
It was in this period that US Liberalism and European Socialism became bad words in the vocabulary of the media, when journalists switched from using scholars and intellectuals as expert sources in economics in favour of dodgy think-tanks and right-wing spokespeople who advanced deregulation narratives and sidelined redistributive voices, by presenting questionable data to the public, which remained unchallenged by journalists.
Now it seems that ‘inequality’ and ‘taxation’ are making a modest come-back in the mainstream media. Not so much because of the efforts of intrepid investigative reporters, as the romantic view might have us believe, but because disagreements among governing politicians over how to ‘fix’ the damage done by the financial crisis, the growing unpopularity of austerity measures and the political threat of left-wing parties that may come into power in places such as Spain and Greece. Even some of the US’s wealthiest have decided to speak about taxes and inequality.[iii] Moreover, the efforts of organisations like the Tax Justice Network and brave whistleblowers like Antoine Deltour have helped lay bare the realities of abusive tax arrangements by corporations and what that is costing society.
This is a true, yet still modest, window of opportunity. Let us hope more journalists working in the mainstream media will also stand up to the challenge and, for once, speak truth to power in the name of those who for too long have remained voiceless, the main argument of my book.
Dr. Jairo Lugo-Ocando is a lecturer in Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield (UK) and previously worked as a journalist in Latin America. He is author of ‘Blaming the Victim. How Global Journalism Fails Those in Poverty’ (Pluto, 2015). He is currently preparing a book on the news coverage of development. The author can be contacted at [email protected]