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Framing the cuts: An analysis of the BBC's discursive framing of the ConDem cuts agenda

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Abstract

This study analyses the discursive framing of the British government’s economic policies by BBC News Online. Specifically, it focuses on the coverage of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, in which the details of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s broader ‘austerity’ agenda were released. Using frame analysis informed by critical theory, we analyse three online BBC features and compare their framing of the economic crisis – and the range of possible policy responses to it – with that of the government’s. In addition, we analyse editorial blogs and training materials associated with the BBC’s special ‘Spending Review season’; we also situate the analysis in the historical context of the BBC’s relationship with previous governments at moments of political and economic crisis. Contrary to dominant ideas that the BBC is biased to the left, our findings suggest that its economic journalism discursively normalises neoliberal economics, not necessarily as desirable, but certainly as inevitable.
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DOI: 10.1177/1464884913501835
published online 10 October 2013Journalism
Jilly Boyce Kay and Lee Salter
ConDem cuts agenda
Framing the cuts: An analysis of the BBC's discursive framing of the
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DOI: 10.1177/1464884913501835
jou.sagepub.com
Framing the cuts: An
analysis of the BBC’s
discursive framing of the
ConDem cuts agenda
Jilly Boyce Kay
De Montfort University, Leicester, UK
Lee Salter
University of Sussex, UK
Abstract
This study analyses the discursive framing of the British government’s economic policies
by BBC News Online. Specifically, it focuses on the coverage of the government’s
Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, in which the details of the Chancellor of the
Exchequer’s broader ‘austerity’ agenda were released. Using frame analysis informed
by critical theory, we analyse three online BBC features and compare their framing of
the economic crisis – and the range of possible policy responses to it – with that of the
government’s.
In addition, we analyse editorial blogs and training materials associated with the
BBC’s special ‘Spending Review season’; we also situate the analysis in the historical
context of the BBC’s relationship with previous governments at moments of political
and economic crisis.
Contrary to dominant ideas that the BBC is biased to the left, our findings suggest that
its economic journalism discursively normalises neoliberal economics, not necessarily as
desirable, but certainly as inevitable.
Keywords
BBC news, Comprehensive Spending Review, critical theory, cuts, debt crisis, framing
Corresponding author:
Lee Salter, School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex, Silverstone Building, Arts Road, Falmer,
East Sussex BN1 9RG, UK.
Email: salter.lee@googlemail.com
501835JOU0010.1177/1464884913501835JournalismKay and Salter
research-article2013
Article
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Introduction
This article analyses the BBC’s online coverage of the British Conservative-Liberal
Democrat (ConDem) coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR)
of 2010. The Spending Review formed part of the government’s response to the eco-
nomic crisis that began in 2007/8. In the CSR, the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined
the details of his ‘austerity’ programme, amounting at that point to £81 billion in cuts to
public spending. Here, we analyse the extent to which the BBC facilitated clear under-
standing of available political options, and scrutiny of and challenge towards govern-
ment economic policy in accordance with its democratic duties.
Performing a close analysis of three key features that form part of the BBC’s online
CSR coverage, we draw on Entman’s (1993, 2004, 2007) frame analysis to understand
how ‘some aspects of a perceived reality [were made] more salient in a communicating
text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation,
moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation’ (1993: 52); in this case, how the
economic crisis was defined, interpreted, and evaluated by BBC News Online, and which
‘treatments’ were promoted as legitimate and credible.
We consider how the framing of the “debate” afforded the possibility of deliberation
among and between citizens. In addition, we are interested in which and how “questions”
are posed to citizens, and the degree to which debate around economic and political
alternatives is facilitated.
The analysis explores the specific institutional context of the BBC, in terms of its
public service remit, its editorial guidelines, and its stated intentions for its CSR cover-
age. We also analyse the government’s own framing of the CSR, specifically its ‘Spending
Challenge’; we consider the extent to which the BBC challenged or reproduced this
government framing.
By situating the three BBC texts in their institutional, historical, political and discur-
sive contexts, we hope to demonstrate how qualitative analysis of these texts can provide
insights into the processes by which the hegemony of neoliberalism is discursively sus-
tained. It is neither the remit nor the intention of this article to determine the extent to
which audiences uncritically accepted the dominant frames in these features; rather, our
interest is in how a powerful institution such as the BBC – which is ostensibly protected
from market forces – delineates the boundaries for “legitimate” political debate.
Theoretical framework: Instrumental rationality and the
closure of democratic space
Frankfurt School scholars, such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and later
Jurgen Habermas, developed their research projects to understand the expansion of
bureaucratic modernism in different states. The present was, for the early Frankfurt
School, distorted by the ‘iron cage of modernity’, in which the notions of understanding
and evaluation are supplanted by bureaucratic, or instrumental rationality, in which a
technical form of cost-benefit analysis underpins all decision-making. In this respect, the
immediately given is hypostatised; it freezes the status quo as an inevitable and neces-
sary truth. For the Frankfurt School, such positivism led to the ‘loss of the category of
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Kay and Salter 3
potentiality and possibility – the existing order is taken to exhaust all possible alterna-
tives’ (Adorno, cited in Held, 1980: 169, emphasis added).
On Habermas’s (1987) analysis, modernity brought about not only the totalising
bureaucracy that so concerned his predecessors, but also the potential for the liberation
of reason from the binds of tradition on the one hand, and from the repressive character-
istics of instrumentalisation of reason brought about by the state and capital.
The release of reason from traditionally bound worldviews allows for self-determina-
tion through democracy based on ‘communicative rationality’, which is released at the
moments in which systemic control is curtailed, during crises. It is this process that
Habermas explains as commencing in his much touted but rarely understood Structural
Transformation of the Public Sphere, for it was at this point that crises in political orders
bought about by economic revolution in England, and elsewhere, opened up public
spheres in which the political system was radically challenged.
For Habermas, bureaucratic capitalism colonises the lifeworld of ordinary people to
the extent that the latter loses control over its environment (which becomes an instru-
ment of state and capital). In the process, the very means of understanding and expres-
sion outside the language of instrumental rationality become marginalised. The ‘steering
media’ of money and power ‘encode a purposive rational attitude … and make it possible
to exert generalised strategic influence on the decisions of other participants while
bypassing processes of consensus-oriented communication … the lifeworld is no longer
needed for the coordination of action’ (Habermas, 1987: 183). In the political domain, a
fake public sphere is used by the state to legitimise decision-making, so that ‘discussion
… becomes formalised; the presentation of positions and counter positions is bound to
contained pre-arranged rules of the game’ (Habermas, 1989: 164). For decisions to be
legitimised the state thus has to ‘maintain the institutionalised fiction of a public opinion’
(1989: 236), in which the ‘criteria of rationality are completely lacking in a consensus
created by sophisticated opinion-moulding services under the aegis of a sham public
interest’ (1989: 214–215). This being the case, human wellbeing is understood as the
wellbeing of the capitalist economy, and democracy is understood as the management of
the public. Thus arise economic management and propaganda and public relations to
control these two respective domains.
Within this theoretical framework, we now move to consider the political and eco-
nomic context of the 2010 CSR – that is, a systemic crisis that threatened to significantly
challenge political and economic taken-for-granteds. Following Habermas, we argue that
during systemic crises, oppositional public spheres are more likely to emerge and thrive.
In this case, the economic policies of the coalition government were met with a diverse
anti-cuts movement, spearheaded and facilitated by trade unions, feminist groups, stu-
dent protests, economists and disability groups, as well as campaign groups such as
Coalition of Resistance, False Economy, 38 Degrees, and many others. In this context of
a strengthening civil society and the articulation of radical alternatives to the coalition’s
and the Labour party’s (substantially similar) economic policies, we argue that the news
media’s coverage ought to have reflected this ‘shaking’ of the status quo, especially
given the 2009 ‘Parliamentary Expenses Scandal’. Taken together, we argue, these crises
presented an opportunity for mainstream media – in their capacity as a forum for demo-
cratic debate – to provide a critical analysis of the very systems from which the crises
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emerged. At a time when Britain’s particular systems of advanced capitalism and parlia-
mentary democracy are in crisis, it follows that the media’s coverage ought to put under
scrutiny the systems themselves. We are not seeking to arrive at a definitive explanation
of the economic crisis, for it is precisely the point that there is no fixed account.
Economics, like politics, is inescapably ideological; there are competing epistemological
frameworks through which it is understood.
The political and economic context
The United Kingdom has the sixth largest economy in the world, but some of the highest
rates of income inequality among developed nations. The 2010 National Equality Panel
report found that in the UK, the richest 10 per cent of the population are one hundred
times richer than the poorest 10 per cent (Government Equalities Office, 2010). A report
by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2010) showed how
Britain had the strongest link between an individual’s earnings and that of their parents
of any other western country; in other words, social mobility is very poor in Britain.
There is £9 trillion of private wealth in Great Britain (Office for National Statistics,
2009). The richest 10 per cent of the population owns £4 trillion of this wealth (Glasgow
University Media Group, 2010).
In May 2010, two years after the crisis hit the UK, the Conservative-Liberal government
came to power. After an inconclusive electoral result, in which no one party won the man-
date to govern, five days of negotiations followed between the Liberal Democrats, with
Labour and the Conservatives respectively. Under their leader Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems
chose to form a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservative party. The coa-
lition published an initial policy document, touted as the ‘Coalition Agreement’ on 12 May,
in which they set out all the policy areas on which they agreed. The first ‘agreement’
between the parties was stipulated as ‘Deficit Reduction’ (Conservative Party, 2010a):
The parties agree that deficit reduction and continuing to ensure economic recovery is the most
urgent issue facing Britain. We have therefore agreed that there will need to be … a significantly
accelerated reduction in the structural deficit over the course of a Parliament, with the main
burden of deficit reduction borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes.
The second agreement between the parties was that ‘a full Spending Review should be held,
reporting this Autumn, following a fully consultative process involving all tiers of govern-
ment and the private sector’. The CSR was delivered on 20 October, following an Emergency
Budget in June. The cuts to public investment – and the scale of those cuts – were not, there-
fore, unexpected when they were announced in October. However, as we shall see, the cuts
were constructed by the BBC as ‘inevitable’ in a much broader and deeply ideological sense,
one dependent on the exclusion of political and economic alternatives.
Method
Frame analysis has been employed as an analytical tool in a wide range of media studies.
For example, Ashley and Olson (1998) use this approach in their analysis of print media’s
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Kay and Salter 5
framing of the US women’s movement; Cooper (2002) analyses the relationship between
media framing and social movement mobilisation; and Andsager (2000) analyses interest
groups and their attempts to influence news frames. Whilst Entman has described fram-
ing as a ‘fractured paradigm’ (1993), his formulation of the four functions of framing has
proved enormously influential within this field:
Frames … define problems – determine what a causal agent is doing with what costs and
benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; diagnose causes – identify the
forces creating the problem; make moral judgments – evaluate causal agents and their effects;
and suggest remedies – offer and justify treatments for the problems and predict their likely
effects. (1993: 2, original emphasis)
Following an analysis of the government’s Spending Challenge, we apply Entman’s
frame analysis to three online BBC news features covering the CSR: ‘What would you
cut?’, ‘What is the Spending Review?’ and ‘What would you cut and what would you
save?’ Incorporating a Habermasian critique of technical rationality into our frame anal-
ysis, our specific concerns are:
1 Whether the economic ‘problem’ was framed as technical or political in nature.
2 How the debate around the CSR was framed; which political responses were
legitimised by their inclusion in the debate and which were not.
3 How citizens were engaged; what questions they were asked; and how their
power to influence or change policy was framed.
4 How the framing of the CSR differed (or not) between the government and the
BBC.
Findings
Government framing: The Comprehensive Spending Review and the
Spending Challenge
In 2010, the government’s Spending Challenge website was promoted as a forum to
engage citizens in the democratic processes of policy formation. It was billed as a consul-
tation, in which citizens, and particularly public sector workers, were encouraged to ‘share
ideas to cut the deficit and eliminate waste’ (HM Treasury, 2010). David Cameron referred
to it in these terms: ‘There’s enormous civic spirit in this country where people want to
take control and do things in a different way’ (cited in Mulholland, 2010). Mark
Zuckerburg, the Facebook founder, whose social networking site provided an additional
forum for this initiative, agreed: ‘It’s really innovative to open up policy making and
engage the public in this way to try and create more social change’ (in Mulholland, 2010).
The first ‘consultation’ with public sector workers had apparently resulted in 63,000
suggestions, of which 35,000 were described as ‘compliant (HM Treasury, 2010, our
emphasis). A second ‘consultation’ with the wider public resulted in 48,000 suggestions
– those that were ‘compliant’ were published and subjected to ranking by other users.
This ‘consultative’ process was claimed to have contributed to the decision to ‘reform’
the Educational Maintenance Allowance (Mulholland, 2010), among other cuts. The
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CSR, then, was framed as a democratic exercise in which ‘reasonable’ (‘compliant’)
members of the public sector workforce participated consensually, readily, and with tan-
gible democratic effect.
However, civic participation in policy making was here possible only in exceptionally
narrow terms; the possibility of influencing government decision-making was only real-
isable when it was ‘compliant’ – i.e. when it fitted with the pre-established narrative of
the need for severe cuts, as in Habermas’s ‘pre-arranged rules of the game’. The public
was invited to send in ideas to ‘help us get more for less’ (HM Treasury, 2010); other
possibilities – such as gathering ideas to help the government get more tax from the rich
– simply could not gain traction within this discursive framework, no matter how persua-
sive the proposal.
The government hailed the consultation period a success, stating that ‘this has been
the most collaborative Spending Review ever with an extended period of engagement
over the summer between Government, experts, the public sector and the general public’
(HM Treasury, 2010).
However, the Spending Challenge was something of a public relations disaster. The
website had been inundated with racist and xenophobic comments, along with calls to
reinstate capital punishment. The propagandistic nature of the Spending Challenge was
clear. More problematic, we suggest, was the way in which the news media reproduced,
reinforced and amplified this discourse of citizen ‘choice’ – that is, its framing was sub-
stantially similar to the government’s in important and problematic ways.
The BBC’s framing
Here we closely analyse the framing in three online feature articles that formed part of
the BBC’s special ‘season’ on the CSR. They are considered in chronological order of
their publication. The features were chosen for the ways in which they seek to engage
and represent citizens: the first is an ‘interactive’ feature that invited its audience to make
‘decisions’ about the economy; the second provided contextual information about the
CSR and sought to act as a ‘guide’ for the citizen, providing simple and ‘impartial’ infor-
mation in order to make the jargon and economic complexity of the CSR comprehensible
to ordinary people; and the third sought to represent a range of different citizen voices
responding to the CSR, and so to capture public opinion.
What would you cut? A feature entitled ‘What would you cut?’(BBC, 2010a), hereafter
‘Feature 1’, invited the audience to choose which government department budgets they
would cut, and by how much. This feature was in the ‘Business’ section of the BBC news
webpages. Using a sliding scale, users could ‘decide’ whether to cut a department’s
budget (for example, defence, housing, welfare) and by how much.
The maximum possible to cut from each budget was 30 per cent. The ‘consequences’
of each decision taken were shown; for example, if you ‘trim[med]’ the housing budget
by 25 per cent, you were informed that this is the equivalent of 115,700 fewer affordable
houses being built. Simple graphics were used to symbolise each budget – a piggy bank
was used to illustrate the ‘Welfare’ budget, and so on. Significantly, this feature was
published in June 2010, nearly four months before the CSR in October. It was part of the
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BBC’s Emergency Budget coverage rather than its CSR coverage but it explicitly antici-
pated the review that was to come later that year.
The fact that it was published a significant period of time before the CSR has particu-
lar implications. Aditya Chakrabortty (2010), economics lead-writer for The Guardian,
described the BBC’s coverage as a ‘six-week long series of programmes softening up the
public for [Cameron’s] government’s spending cuts’. By running this feature in June it
arguably functioned to “prime” audiences for the inevitability of cuts, and, by extension,
implied that citizens lacked any power to change the government’s course.
Users were given advice as to how to use the feature:
The June 2010 Budget said that departmental spending would have to be cut by £50bn a year
by 2014–15, compared with 2010–11 levels. See if you can make those cuts in the deficit by
using the sliders below to trim spending in various departments … Concentrate on ‘amount
saved’ to meet the target and try to reach £50bn. (BBC, 2010a)
The instruction to ‘concentrate’ and to ‘try to reach £50bn’ implies that the task is chal-
lenging in the same way that a brain-teaser puzzle is – requiring technical skill but not
any engagement with questions pertaining to politics and democracy.
The only tax – as opposed to budget cut – included in Feature 1 was VAT (widely
accepted as being the most regressive form of taxation). Users were invited to set VAT at
between 17.5 per cent and 30 per cent (which, significantly, does not allow for setting it
below what was the current rate of 17.5%).
The BBC News Twitter account (@BBCNews) alerted people to this feature by invit-
ing them to ‘Cut the deficit from the comfort of your computer’ and providing a link to
it. A link to the feature from the BBC’s main webpage of the 2010 Emergency Budget
coverage is entitled ‘I, Chancellor’ (BBC, 2010b). In this regard the feature is itself
framed as an opportunity to exercise power, but of a specific and highly constrained type:
that of the individualised consumer, choosing options from a limited, pre-defined
selection.
Responses to this feature from the conservative media reproduced the notion that the
BBC is a left-wing propaganda machine. Such arguments about whether the BBC is
“biased” in favour of either Labour or the Conservatives are not useful, largely because
they assume that there is a substantial difference between the parties on economic policy.
Similarly, an analysis of whether the cuts are framed as either “positive” or “negative”
does not take us very far. On a simplistic reading, the BBC’s CSR coverage emphasises
that the cuts will be “painful”, and this might therefore be taken as a “negative” represen-
tation of the government’s strategy. However, this corresponds with the oft-repeated gov-
ernment rhetoric that the cuts are “painful but necessary”. The question of where cuts
should fall (rather than “whether”) is presented as the debate – closing down the space
beyond the status quo that provides Adorno’s ‘possibility and potentiality’ of
alternatives.
What is the Spending Review? The second feature for analysis, entitled ‘What is the Spend-
ing Review’, was an embedded slideshow (BBC, 2010c), hereafter referred to as ‘Fea-
ture 2’. It claimed to be a ‘guide’ to the Spending Review, and to explain to us ‘why it
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matters’. It was published on 12 October, just over a week before the CSR. A link to the
feature appeared on the ‘Background’ section of the main Spending Review Special
Report webpage, signalling that its main function was to provide contextual information.
As with the previous feature, the piece appears under the red BBC banner of NEWS:
BUSINESS.
The title slide was headed ‘Scaling back spending’. The title slide depicted a set of
old-fashioned weighing scales under the title text. The subtitle read: ‘Follow this guide
to find out more about the Spending Review and why it matters.’ The image and the idea
of scales have particular and powerful connotations, implying fairness, balance, impar-
tiality and justice. This is of particular interest here, especially in light of reports that the
BBC was pressured by the government into dropping a giant scissors logo from its CSR
coverage (discussed later). If a pair of scissors was considered to be excessively politi-
cised by the incumbent government, then the values connoted by the image of scales
would perhaps have been welcomed.
The second slide, again featuring the image of scales, read: ‘The financial crisis
reduced the amount the government made in taxes and increased spending on things like
bail-outs and benefits.’ This assumes that a ‘bail-out’ of the banks was an inevitable
response to the crash, when rather it was a political choice (interestingly, the banks are
not explicitly named here, but we can safely assume that the bail-out refers to them). It
was the ‘financial crisis’ that ‘increased spending on things like bail-outs’, rather than the
government making a political intervention to save the system.
The shared treatment of banking bail-outs with welfare benefits in Feature 2 is of
interest, especially when the government’s handling of each was so markedly different;
the banks were rescued by public money, whilst it became clear very quickly that welfare
budgets were set to be reduced. However, this framing of banks and welfare recipients in
terms of public expenditure paints them as something like equals. In March 2010, the
total outstanding support explicitly pledged to the banks by the Treasury was £612.58
billion (National Audit Office, 2011). Welfare spending at that time stood at around £87
billion over a year.
Both the third and fourth slides repeated the image of scales as a frame within which
to consider that: ‘In the June Budget, the Chancellor said how he planned to raise more
money through taxes’ and that now he would now ‘announce how he plans to reduce
spending in the Spending Review’.
Feature 2 then went on to speculate how much each department’s budget might be cut,
illustrated with simple graphics. The tenth and final slide considered possible alterna-
tives to this government policy – or rather, one alternative: ‘The opposition would prefer
to raise taxes more and cut spending less. They are worried cutting too soon might trigger
another recession.’ At this point, the Labour party was committed to a ratio of about 67
per cent cuts to 33 per cent tax rises; the policy position taken by the Labour party did
not present a significant ‘alternative’ to the cuts agenda, but rather a moderated endorse-
ment of it. However, here it was posited as the alternative.
What would you cut and what would you save? The third feature (BBC, 2010d) was pub-
lished on 15 October, hereafter referred to as ‘Feature 3’. A video montage contained 27
vox pops, all less than one minute long, some as short as 16 seconds, filmed and
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Kay and Salter 9
submitted directly by BBC website users as well as gathered by BBC journalists. Each
video was a response to the title question: ‘What would you save and cut?’
Little introduction is given for the videos beyond the posing of the question. The
question is thus assumed to be transparent, legitimate and immediately comprehensible,
whereas we suggest that it is framed in such a way as to encourage certain responses and
to powerfully discourage alternatives. The question precludes consideration of alterna-
tives such as increased taxes for the wealthy or an examination of the nature of deregu-
lated capitalism itself. Addressed to atomised individuals and to individual preferences
and interests, it removes the possibility of communicative rationality and deliberation.
‘Public opinion’, then, becomes merely an aggregation of these interests and prefer-
ences, rather than a consensus arrived at through collective will-formation.
Titles of some vox pops include:
‘I’d tackle the scroungers’
‘I would tackle the issue of teen mums’
‘No cutbacks, that’s what we want’ (significantly, no alternative solution is offered)
‘I wouldn’t cut library services’
‘I don’t agree with cuts for the disabled’
‘Benefit cuts really worry me’
‘I wouldn’t cut child benefit’
‘We must ensure value for money’
‘CCTV cameras are a waste of time’
‘Stop turning schools into academies’
‘An awful lot of money has been wasted’
In the videos, there are many criticisms of government policies. However, even those
that disagree with government cuts – many are opposed to one cut or another – do not
draw on the alternative idea that the cuts might not be necessary at all. There is only
one vox pop in which a genuine alternative is mentioned: the 23rd contribution states
that ‘Rich people should be taxed more’. For only one suggestion in 27 to include this
possibility indicates the power of neoliberal hegemony. The BBC has here constructed
a space in which neoliberalism is normalised not necessarily as desirable, but certainly
as inevitable.
Findings: Frames used in the coverage
To address the four functions of frames proposed by Entman, we suggest that the BBC’s
CSR coverage:
1 Defined the problem of the economic crisis as being technical, rather than politi-
cal, in nature.
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2 Diagnosed the problem as a “debt crisis” rather than a “crisis of capitalism”. This
is not to suggest that the reverse should have been the case – but rather the con-
tested nature of its very definition should have been explicitly foregrounded.
3 Compartmentalised social, political and economic problems and removed the
moral–-ethical dimension, so that the only ‘moral’ dimension discernable was the
wellbeing of capitalism.
4 Suggested a technical remedy to the technical “problem”, thereby excluding the
possibility of addressing the system of deregulated financial markets and neolib-
eral governance.
We suggest, therefore, that news media are part of a communicative structure that
steers people not only in terms of ‘what to think about’ and ‘what to think’, but also how
to think (cf. Habermas, 1987; Marcuse, 1964). As such, the news media’s framing of
‘problems’ as being technical (rather than political) in nature seeks to mobilise a techni-
cally oriented response in the citizen-audience. The dominance of technocratic approaches
to ‘problems’ radically limits the extent to which problems can be understood and tack-
led, as well as delimiting the proper role of citizens in decision-making.
Explaining relations: The BBC and the state
There have been numerous examples in the BBC’s history of high-profile challenges by
successive governments against “controversial” editorial decisions. A dedicated BBC
webpage entitled ‘The BBC and Government’ (BBC, 2011b) lists such incidences, with
relevant archive footage provided: ‘From the General Strike in 1926 to the Hutton
Inquiry in 2003–4, the history of the BBC is littered with rows over editorial policy and
standards that made headline news.’ Links are provided to detailed descriptions of 14
such episodes. The feature seeks to frame the relationship between the BBC and the state
as adversarial, thus emphasising the BBC’s journalistic integrity and independence.
Many journalists and writers – mostly in the right-wing press but also some elite BBC
journalists – have claimed that the BBC is, or historically has been, structurally biased to
the left and staffed overwhelmingly by leftist journalists (e.g. Marr, 2004; Sissons, 2011;
Thompson cited in interview with Macintyre, 2010). On the other hand, Mehdi Hasan
(2009), political editor at the New Statesman, argues that ‘from top to bottom, in struc-
ture and staffing, in history and ideology, [the BBC] is a conservative organisation, com-
mitted to upholding Establishment values and protecting them from challenge’. In terms
of its reporting of economics, Daniel Dorling in his book Injustice: Why Social Inequality
Persists, argues that ‘the BBC … is an example of an institution that, for all its “bal-
ance”, subtly promotes greed as good through the style of its economic coverage’ (2010:
210). Greg Dyke, the former Director-General of the BBC, has suggested that the BBC
helps maintain an unequal political system by being part of a ‘Westminster conspiracy.
They don’t want anything to change. It’s not in their interests’ (cited in Wheeler, 2009).
Following Billig (1995) and Salter and Weltman (2012), we argue that as an institu-
tion, the BBC is ingrained into the cultural fabric of the British state and is structured
through the constitutional framework of liberal capitalism, and a class-based liberal
nationalism upon which the former rests. During the General Strike of 1926, John Reith,
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Kay and Salter 11
the then Director-General of the BBC, announced: ‘Assuming the BBC is for the people,
and that the government is for the people, then the BBC must be for the government in
this crisis’ (in Williams, 1998: 100). Again, during the strikes of the 1970s, the BBC
showed its understanding of the ‘national interest’:
No obligation of impartiality could absolve the broadcasting services from exercising their
editorial judgement … within the context of the values and objectives of the society they are
there to serve. The BBC have as trustees for the public to judge not only what is best in news
terms, but what is in the national interest. (cited in Garnham, 1978: 19)
The implication in both cases is that the interests of different institutions, groups and
classes are subsumed and aligned in the ‘national interest’. The discourse of “putting aside
differences” and submitting to “universally” held ‘values and objectives’ in order to resolve
a crisis assumes that an outcome is possible that serves the whole of society best. It is this
discourse that connects with the government’s pronouncement in 2010 that ‘we are all in
this together’ (cited by Conservative Party, 2010b). This obscures the radically divergent
interests that different groups necessarily have in a country as materially unequal as the
UK.
In turn, the BBC’s online coverage of the CSR reproduced in important ways the
assumption of a “consensus” which was, in fact, predicated on the marginalisation of
alternatives. These alternatives do have powerful and persuasive academic and activist
voices to speak upon their behalf. However, because they exist outside of the “centre-
ground” – which is not reflected by parliamentary politics and mainstream media but
rather constructed by them – these voices are marked as ‘extremist’ or ‘hardline’ when
they are permitted to speak within the official public sphere.
The BBC’s editorial guidelines state that:
There are some issues which may seem to be without controversy, appearing to be backed by
a broad or even unanimous consensus of opinion. Nevertheless, they may present a significant
risk to the BBC’s impartiality. In such cases, we should continue to report where the consensus
lies and give it due weight. However, even if it may be neither necessary nor appropriate to
seek out voices of opposition, our reporting should resist the temptation to use language and
tone which appear to accept consensus or received wisdom as fact or self-evident. (BBC,
2011a)
We contend that in this instance, the ‘received wisdom’ of free market capitalism as
inevitable was reproduced as ‘self-evident’. The ‘voices of opposition’ included in the
BBC’s coverage did more to affirm the economic ‘consensus’ than to problematise it.
The editorial guidelines additionally read: ‘Due impartiality is often more than a
simple matter of “balance” between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require
absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic prin-
ciples’ (BBC, 2011c). The ‘fundamental democratic principles’ are here assumed to
be self-evident and non-negotiable – they are the “common sense” that is nowhere
offered up for scrutiny. It is this assumption that a legitimate or inarguable “consen-
sus” exists, or that certain principles are devoid of ideology, which we seek to
problematise.
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12 Journalism 0(0)
Specific instances of government pressure on the BBC in its coverage of the CSR
were reported in the national press. In September 2010 The Guardian reported that Mark
Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC:
… was photographed carrying an internal email from Helen Boaden, the BBC News director,
saying that she had had lunch with Andy Coulson, the coalition government’s director of
communications, at which he had expressed concern ‘that we give context to our Spending
Review Season’. (Deans, 2010)
Additionally, The Telegraph reported that, on finding out that the BBC were planning to
use an image of a giant pair of scissors in its CSR coverage, the government pressured
the corporation into dispensing with the idea – and the BBC capitulated (Blake, 2010).
The decision to scrap the scissors logo, it was reported, was taken on the same day that
Boaden had lunched with Coulson.
Clearly the BBC’s coverage of the CSR was not defined straightforwardly according
to government diktat. Whilst there were clearly sustained government attempts to manip-
ulate the nature of CSR coverage, the successes of these interventions were only made
possible by the wider discursive context in which particular ideas about politics and the
economy have become hegemonic. The broader cultural and political normalisation of
neoliberalism makes this particular kind of coverage seem commonsensical; but the BBC
also participates in this ongoing process of normalisation. In its coverage of the CSR and
the crisis more generally, the BBC, we submit, did not fulfil its duty to act impartially
between competing policy options, and to furnish citizens with a range of views, ideas,
facts and policies that could form the basis of democratic will-formation in a public
sphere.
The BBC’s intentions for its coverage
In a BBC editorial blog, Mark Byford (2010) set out the intention of the BBC Spending
Review season:
During critical times such as now, for the United Kingdom, the BBC has an important role to
play to clarify the issues for our audiences – to help them make sense of different ideas and
points of view. The Spending Review is one of those times and our aim is to provide insightful,
objective programmes and expert analysis to help people understand the context and the
potential options. We’ll look at where and at what level the cuts may be made and why they are
happening now, ask what the key issues are, how the Government is dealing with them and
what the implications of the cuts are.
The BBC’s College of Journalism website – ‘a learning site for BBC journalists, by BBC
journalists’ (BBC, 2011d) – provides some specific guidance for journalists reporting the
CSR. Kevin Marsh (2010) posted a blog in November 2010 with an embedded video
briefing on ‘Opinion and the Spending Review’. Introducing the video briefing, Marsh
wrote that ‘the public’s view is that the deficit should come down’, but that ‘the elector-
ate is split. Reduce the deficit slowly, or go for quick, deep cuts? Which areas should be
exempt? And do people think the cuts will be fair?’
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Kay and Salter 13
The video briefing – intended for BBC journalists – was presented by David Cowling
(2010), the BBC’s editor of Political Research. In one clip entitled ‘Reporting Division’,
Cowling repeats the idea that the public is unanimous in its desire to reduce the deficit,
but that division exists on how best to do this:
There is the Government way, and, if you like, the Opposition way, and the country’s split down
the middle. And I think we have the responsibility of reflecting the British public in both those
aspects: they want the thing done, they’re not sure about how fast it should be done … a lot of
them want services preserved. (emphasis added)
The ‘public’ are here understood to be a perfect mirror of parliamentary politics, finding
expression of their political convictions in the ‘choice’ between the coalition govern-
ment’s and the Labour party’s economic policies. Three problems should be flagged up
here. First, the idea that the public is ‘split down the middle’ is not merely a simplifica-
tion, but a distortion, of politics. It ignores the articulation of an active anti-cuts agenda;
it legitimises only two positions and expels others from the official public sphere.
‘Politics’ is reduced to (what is an already reductive version of) ‘parliamentary politics’;
the structural constraints of that particular system are naturalised and accepted as actu-
ally and unproblematically representative of the electorate. Second, the claim that this
‘split’ in public opinion constitutes a profound disagreement over policy is misleading,
in the obvious sense that it marginalises those positions that take a more substantially
different position. Cross-bench peer Robert Skidelsky (2011) points out that the:
… [former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the previous Labour government] Darling’s last
budget, in March 2010, aimed to halve the structural deficit by 2013–2014 in a series of yearly
steps. In practice, George Osborne’s commitment in his first budget to eliminate it entirely by
2014–2015 was not much different, except for the relish with which it was undertaken.
As such, the ‘official’ debate was constructed around two positions, both of which were
predicated upon a shared neoliberal assumption: the point of difference became whether
cuts to public services chimed gleefully with your existing political position or whether
you saw them as painful but inevitable. Third, the maxim of ‘what the people think’
requires critical attention – on what basis did the people think this? If the media had col-
lectively failed to provide a debate in which alternatives were properly included and
addressed, then ‘what the public think’ is necessarily compromised, ill-informed and
politically dubious. That being so, ‘public opinion’ should not be something to be treated
reverentially as a democratic ‘voice of the people’, but rather as a manipulable construct
requiring critical analysis.
Whilst the CSR coverage had its own dedicated section on the BBC website, many
features were also published on the ‘Business’ section of the website, within which
‘Economy’ was a subsection. By offering news on the economy through the prism of
‘business’, the political dimensions of the economic sphere are displaced. Citizens’
power is thus not only reduced; within the discourse of business, citizen engagement is
not even appropriate. As Croteau and Hoynes (2000: 169) argue: ‘By equating economic
health with the fortunes of investors, news tips its ideological hand. Such definitions fail
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14 Journalism 0(0)
to recognise that different groups of people can have different economic interests.’ That
is to say, the economic interests of most citizens as workers or recipients of welfare are
precisely at odds with the interests of investors, whose interests equate to ‘Business’.
Framing citizens: How the ‘public’ was engaged
The extent to which audiences are engaged in, by and through news discourse has been
of interest to many scholars within the study of journalism, public communication and
media. Specific attention has been paid to whether news discourse positions people as
‘citizens’ or ‘consumers’, and the implications for democratic participation that these
positionings necessarily entail. For example, Lewis (2006: 160) has argued that whilst
‘citizens’ are frequently referred to in news discourse, generally ‘they do not propose,
initiate, debate or engage’ and as such the possibility of them exercising any actual
power is severely constrained. We argue that these BBC features, whilst superficially
‘engaging’ with citizens, provided a model for political participation that was structured
according to the logic of consumerism. The emphasis on ‘choice’ and ‘interactivity’ was
fetishised at the same time as the possibility of more radical alternatives was hidden from
view.
The particular configurations of the BBC’s ‘interactive’ services here constrained
choices, admitting only those that, much like the categorisation of submissions to the
government’s Spending Challenge, were ‘compliant’ or ‘non-compliant’. The public’s
role here was necessarily reactive and after-the-fact; they responded to policy rather than
helped formulate it. Their response was taken as evidence of democratic vigour, whereas
really it was an obfuscation of its lack.
This constraint on thinking reflects Marcuse’s concerns for modern society expressed
in One-Dimensional Man. For Marcuse (1964: 1–3):
Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of
their basic critical function … Such a society may justly demand acceptance of its principles
and institutions, and reduce the opposition to the discussion and promotion of alternative
policies within the status quo.
This one-dimensionality is totalitarian as an ‘economic-technical coordination which
operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the
emergence of an effective opposition against the whole.’ Ultimately, the ‘more rational,
productive, technical, and total the repressive administration of society becomes, the
more unimaginable the means and ways by which the administered individuals might
break their servitude and seize their own liberation’ (Marcuse, 1964: 6). At the same
time, the greater the threat to this system, the more carefully and thoroughly that admin-
istration is undertaken.
At a moment when the systemic flaws of neoliberalism are exposed, its representation
within the media and political mainstream as unassailable and inevitable seems increas-
ingly assured. A reading of the BBC’s coverage in this respect perhaps suggests a deep
anxiety about the potential collapse of neoliberal hegemony. It also hints at the power of
counterpublics to influence debate, even if this influence is reflected negatively through
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Kay and Salter 15
their exclusion, and only identifiable through the redoubling of efforts to normalise neo-
liberalism against the backdrop of its crisis.
Whilst Feature 3 did contain individual instances of resistance to government cuts,
this was only with regard to individual budget cuts, rather than to the broader principle
of cutting back the welfare state. The effect was therefore to divide and individualise
resistance. Moreover, it pitted groups against one another – pleading their case for the
“scarce” resource of funding – whilst framing resistance as either self-interested or nar-
rowly conceived.
Crucially, the discursive atomisation of individuals here also prevented the possibility
of another process occurring. Deliberation within a properly functioning public sphere
can lead to citizens changing their preferences and positions in the light of new evidence
and arguments; but it can also lead to the raising of consciousness around shared inter-
ests. This possibility was conspicuously absent here.
Rather than an ‘impartial’ capturing of public opinion, this amounts to the construc-
tion of a fake public sphere, in which the ‘criteria of rationality are completely lacking in
a consensus created by sophisticated opinion-moulding services under the aegis of a
sham public interest’ (Habermas, 1989: 214–215).
Conclusion
There is no quick fix to the problems articulated here. The BBC cannot change this mis-
representation, as they tried in response to the Glasgow Media Group’s research into
their reporting on Palestine and Israel (Philo and Berry, 2004), by merely adding a para-
graph for “context”. In both cases, the problems are structural. In the case of the CSR, the
problems have to do not least with the division of the newsroom so that economics has
become a special interest section – economics affects business rather than people, despite
the significance of the Greek origins of the term. Thus “economics”, understood as
“business” is relevant to business people only, and is articulated only in the systemic, and
one may say inhumane, language of their world. It is this ideological underpinning of the
BBC’s reporting that creates the most significant barrier to adequate reporting.
We have shown how the BBC substantially reproduced the government’s neoliberal
economic arguments in the case of the CSR. This process of reproduction has been three-
fold, made possible by specific instances of government pressure; the ongoing vulnera-
bility of the BBC in respect of the state; and, perhaps most importantly, by the broader
mainstream media and political context in which neoliberalism is conflated with eco-
nomic ‘common sense’.
We do not wish to argue that the BBC’s coverage of the CSR is directly and perfectly
equated with the peddling of government propaganda. Certainly there was an attempt at
“balance” in a way that was absent from the Spending Challenge. Thus, whilst the BBC’s
coverage did include instances of resistance, opposition and contradiction, we argue that
the overriding frame was that cuts to public spending/investment are inevitable and nec-
essary. Consequently, the question of whether the cuts were framed as either “positive”
or “negative” becomes marginal.
Debates on other BBC platforms, particularly live television and radio debates, did
have within them the potential to (at least partly) challenge the dominant framing of cuts,
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16 Journalism 0(0)
even though, we suggest, they were mostly framed in substantially similar terms. The
online platform is particularly interesting, however, as it outlives the ephemeral nature of
live broadcast and can be used more readily as a resource for education and learning.
It is important to note that the BBC was not alone in its normalisation of neoliberalism
in this context. There was predictable legitimisation of the CSR from the right-wing
daily press. Even The Guardian (2010), an ostensibly left-liberal newspaper, had an
online feature entitled ‘Comprehensive Spending Review: You make the cuts’. Most
other corporate media, including Channel 4, provided similar features. The BBC was
thus operating within a wider media and political context in which the inevitability of
cuts to public investment was continuously constructed and reaffirmed.
It must also be noted that the government framing of cuts has clearly been rejected by
many citizens, as apparent in student and public sector strikes and protests (including
some of the biggest demonstrations the UK has ever seen). We argue that a properly
functioning public sphere would incorporate the radical debates that were taking place
– not just in the sense that they would be mentioned (which they were), but in the sense
that they would be properly engaged, tested and debated.
The problem that we identify with the BBC’s coverage is not that it represents the
CSR in the “wrong” way, but that it assumes that there is one right way. We submit that
the coverage of the CSR represents a continuation of BBC political and economic jour-
nalism’s collusive relationship with the state. We suggest that the BBC must stand firm
in the face of pressure from the state, but it must also break down barriers between its
news departments, and crucially seek out and communicate the knowledge and ideas of
the groups and movements that offer analyses and responses beyond the bounds of the
ideological order.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
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Author biographies
Jilly Boyce Kay is a PhD student at De Montfort University, Leicester. Jilly is researching a history
of political discussion programmes on British television, with a specific interest in gender analysis.
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Kay and Salter 19
Her previous research includes a study of the UWE Occupation published in Social Movement
Studies in 2011
Lee Salter is Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Sussex. He is the co-
author of Digital Journalism and the writer of the documentary film Secret City. His research over
the past few years has focused on mediations of the economic crisis and protests against it. His
previous work has included analyses of reporting in Iraq and Venezuela as well as work on tech-
nology and politics and on the relations between journalism and PR.
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... Valtavirtainen yhdysvaltalaisjournalismi puolestaan käsitteli vuosien 2009 ja 2010 aikana Kreikan kriisiä kreikkalaisten kansallisena epäonnistumisena, johon kuri oli arkijärkinen vastaus (Tracy 2012). Samaan tyyliin Britannian yleisradioyhtiö BBC esitti maan hallituksen leikkaukset tekniseksi ratkaisuksi velkakriisiin (Kay & Salter 2014), ja irlantilaisen uutismedian käsittelyssä maan pankkikriisistä tuli julkisen velan ongelma, joka edellytti leikkauksia julkiseen sektoriin (Preston & Silke 2014). Kaikkiaan euroop palainen sanomalehdistö suosi eurokriisiuutisoinnissaan vuosina 2010-2012 tulkintaa, joka nosti mantereen poliittisen eliitin strategian -leikkaukset ja rakenteelliset uudis tukset -kriisin ensisijaiseksi ratkaisuksi (Ojala & Harjuniemi 2016). ...
... Artikkelin tulokset tukevat kriittisten journalismin tutkijoiden analyyseja, joiden mukaan journalismi on finanssikriisin jälkeen esittänyt talouskurin kipeänä mutta välttämättömänä reaktiona kriisiin (Tracy 2012;Mylonas 2012;Kay & Salter 2014;Pres ton & Silke 2014;Doudaki ym. 2016;Basu 2017). ...
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Tarkastelen tässä artikkelissa, miten journalismissa on historiallisesti tulkittu talouskuria, talouspoliittista ideaa, josta on tullut erityisen kiistelty finanssikriisin ja eurokriisin vanavedessä. Pohdin artikkelissa kysymystä journalismin historiallisten ammatti-ihanteiden valossa ja käytän aineistona brittiläisen talouslehden The Economistin talouskuria koskevaa kirjoittelua vuosilta 1947–2012. Tukeudun artikkelissa genealogiseen luentaan, jonka avulla tulkitsen lehden talouskurikirjoittelua journalismin historiallisia ihanteita ja tavoitteita vasten. Artikkelissa väitän, että The Economistissa talouskuri saa oikeutuksensa markkinoiden vaatimuksista ja talouden tosiasioista. Talouskuria haastavat ideat näyttäytyvät usein järjettömyytenä, jota ajavat eteenpäin poliittiset paineet tai ideologiset pyrkimykset. Väitän, että lehden tapa käsitellä talouskurin kaltaista poliittista ideaa on ominainen liberaalille ammattijournalismille, joka on historiallisesti pyrkinyt toimimaan julkisena järjen ja yhteisen hyvän äänenä. Talouspolitiikkaan liittyvässä kirjoittelussa journalismin muut arvot, kuten demokratia ja kansan palvelu, joutuvat paikoin törmäyskurssille markkinoiden ja taloudellisten pakkojen vaatimuksia korostavan järjen kanssa. Näitä ristiriitoja käsitellessään journalismi joutuu kasvotusten liberalismin demokraattisten rajojen kanssa.
... Most of the research on the use of news sources in the crisis is related to the research on the role of media covering austerity policies. Several studies found that the media's crisis coverage was captured in neoliberal frames and that the media did not provide the public with alternative interpretations or proposals about the crisis and the political responses to it (Arrese, 2018;Cawley, 2012;Doudaki, 2015;Doudaki et al., 2016Doudaki et al., , 2019Kay & Salter, 2014;Mazzoni & Barbieri, 2014;Mercille, 2014;Mylonas, 2012Mylonas, , 2014Mylonas, , 2015Preston & Silke, 2014;Rios-Rodríguez, 2019;Robertson, 2010;Silke, 2015). The predominance of elite sources in the crisis coverage is pointed out as one of the main reasons for this lack of plurality, insofar as these sources would have enjoyed a privileged platform to establish the pro-austerity discourses or frames to which they were prone (Tracy, 2012). ...
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ABSTRACT – Is economic journalism always dependent on elitist news sources or are there particular situations that can mitigate this pattern? The economic crisis of 2008 has specific characteristics that distinguish it from the issues usually covered by economic journalism, so a different pattern in the use of sources could be expected, especially if we consider the changing economic and political circumstances throughout the crisis. To explore this question, we conducted a content analysis of the crisis coverage of representative Spanish newspapers between 2008 and 2015. The results show that the political and economic elites were the dominant sources, meanwhile, other non-elite agents had little presence. This imbalance is not modified by the ideological and geographical profiles of the newspapers, or by the different phases of the crisis. However, we found intra-elite alterations over time: the actors with more decision-making power at each period had more presence as sources. RESUMO – Será o jornalismo econômico sempre dependente das fontes de elite ou existem determinadas situações que podem mitigar este padrão? A crise econômica de 2008 tem caraterísticas específicas que a distinguem dos assuntos habitualmente tratados pelo jornalismo econômico, pelo que poderia ser esperado um padrão diferente no uso de fontes de notícias, especialmente se considerarmos as diferentes circunstâncias econômicas e políticas ao longo da crise. Para explorar esta questão, realizamos uma análise de conteúdo da cobertura da crise de jornais representativos do caso espanhol entre 2008 e 2015. Os resultados mostram que as elites políticas e econômicas foram as fontes dominantes, enquanto outros agentes não elitistas tiveram escassa presença. Este desequilíbrio não é alterado pelos diferentes perfis ideológicos e geográficos dos jornais, nem pelas diferentes etapas da crise. No entanto, encontramos alterações intra-elite ao longo do tempo: os atores com maior poder de tomada de decisões em cada período, tiveram mais presença como fontes. RESUMEN – ¿Es el periodismo económico siempre dependiente de las fuentes elitistas o existen determinadas situaciones que pueden mitigar este patrón? La crisis económica de 2008 tiene características específicas que la distinguen de los asuntos habitualmente tratados por el periodismo económico, lo que permitiría esperar un patrón diferente en el uso de fuentes, especialmente si consideramos las diferentes circunstancias económicas y políticas durante la crisis. Para explorar esta cuestión, realizamos un análisis de contenido de la cobertura de la crisis de periódicos españoles representativos entre 2008 y 2015. Los resultados muestran que las élites políticas y económicas fueron las fuentes dominantes, mientras otros agentes no elitistas tuvieron escasa presencia. Este desequilibrio no es alterado por los diferentes perfiles ideológicos y geográficos de los periódicos, ni por las diferentes etapas de la crisis. Sin embargo, encontramos alteraciones intra-élite a lo largo del tiempo: aquellos actores con mayor poder de decisión en cada período tuvieron más presencia como fuentes.
... The media contributed to legitimise this response to the crisis, providing an ideological explanation that would coherently fit the new material reality. In line with the patterns observed in other countries (Arrese 2018;Basu 2019;Cawley 2012;Spyridou 2016, 2019;Kay and Salter 2014;Mercille 2014;Mullen 2018;Preston and Silke 2014;Robertson 2010;Silke 2015;Tracy 2012), our results show that the discourse of the Spanish media was structured through frames that presented austerity as the only possible alternative to address the crisis, which was not contradictory with the existence of criticism towards the negative or painful effects caused by this policy (confirming H1). This discourse is dominant in both the conservative and progressive newspapers, and in both regional and national, without statistically significant differences between the frequencies at which each newspaper reproduced the frames that legitimise austerity (confirming H2). ...
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... Different studies have analysed how austerity measures have been represented in the media as a fairly unilateral and hegemonic crisis discourse, through ideological mechanisms of language and discourse (Vaara, 2014;Kelsey et al., 2016;Szabo, 2016). There have also been recent investigations of the uncritical coverage of austerity, and of the persuasive strategies which have characterised the news about the implementation of concrete austerity policies such as budget deficit cuts or fiscal consolidation measures (Mercille, 2014;Boyce and Salter, 2014;Fairclough, 2015;Berry, 2016aBerry, , 2016bHarkins and Lugo-Ocando, 2016). ...
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