Remember when the cut in VAT was announced? Remember the furore surrounding it? The sheer anger it generated from newspapers claiming it was a waste of money, too hard to administrate, ineffective and leading us on the road to ruin? Although the criticism was pretty widespread from across the political spectrum, it tended to separate between the left, who criticised it but supported the concept of a fiscal stimulus, and the right, who believed the entire stimulus was a dangerous waste of money.
How bizarre then, that the Telegraph, a paper that viciously opposed the VAT cut, is now running a campaign to delay VAT returning to it’s previous level of 17.5%.
The sad thing is that it doesn’t even hold a logical position on the matter. Providing quotes from people like Sirs Stuart Rose and Philip Green – people who opposed the cut in the first place – claiming it will be an ‘administrative nightmare’ to raise the VAT on 1st January, a bank holiday, at least has a certain amount of sense to it. A campaign to delay its introduction by a month to give businesses time to adjust and make the most of January sales, even if you opposed the cut in the first place, would still have some consistency.
But to also run interviews with people claiming it will ruin the green shoots of recovery flies in the face of everything they’ve been printing since the VAT cut was first announced, namely that reducing VAT will do nothing to aid recovery and instead ruin public finances.
The Telegraph has published countless articles from editorials to commentators, all rubbishing the VAT cut. Now it uses the governments own figures – figures it either ignored or chose not to believe originally – to show how people benefit up to £476 a year from the VAT cut.
Did it really take them a year to realise this? Or did it not fit their previous narrative of opposing the VAT cut, whereas it now fits their new narrative of opposing the cut ending?
Of course a cynic might suggest the real reason for the Telegraph taking the position it has, and one that would have complete consistency, is that they try whenever they can to oppose the Labour government. So when they cut VAT, they oppose it, and when it’s due to rise again, they oppose that too.
It’s funny that for all the public and the media who comment on civil liberties and make glib, tedious references to 1984 and George Orwell, it’s instances like this in the media that remind me more of the ‘doublethink’ in 1984, where the government – at war with Eurasia, suddenly tells people that actually they are at war with Eastasia and have been all along.
Here we have the Telegraph, who for so long criticised the VAT cut, now claiming it has been saving us all money and aiding economic recovery all along.
What this shows us, aside from the general unaccountability of the media in anything like the same way in which the government are held to account, is the danger and in many cases pointlessness of trying to woo the media when it comes to policies.
We can’t be naive and think this is something solely to affect our own government, or that the media don’t have a role to play in highlighting issues to the public and holding the government to account, but I’ve lost count of the number of times the government has been pressured to announce a policy on something – after intense media and public criticism – only for the media narrative to immediately switch and start publishing articles and interviews from the opposing side, which they’d withheld previously as it didn’t fit the narrative.
In this case, the government did the right thing in reducing VAT in the face of opposition, but we can all name incidents where it seems clear the government has acted to quell media ‘outrage’ rather than act in the best interests of the country.
Since the financial and expenses crises, many people have rightly taken the opportunity to rethink how we operate our politics in this country. But for the change to truly happen we need to have a less contrary and more open and honest media. Look, for instance, at the clamour on the right for public spending cuts and for the reigning in of national debt, followed by the instant outrage when David Cameron actually listed some things, such as road tolls, that might help achieve that.
We all need to assess how we approach politics and what we expect of it, otherwise governments of all colours will inevitably pay too much attention to the whims of the media and brief but intense public outrages than to the proper running of government.
Telegraph supporting the VAT cut/opposing it being raised to previous level:
Telegraph opposing the VAT cut: