Budget coverage misses the mark: What on earth is ‘relief’? – By Farooq Tirmizi


Source: Express Tribune

By Farooq Tirmizi

Published: June 6, 2011

For the journalists who cried themselves hoarse that the federal government’s budget for fiscal year 2012 contained no ‘relief’ for the masses, I have a few questions: what on earth is ‘relief’, why should the government provide it, how should they provide it and who should pay for it?

I ask these questions because, barring some notable exceptions, their editors certainly seem to have been content not to ask them anything about the nature of their stories.

At the risk of being eviscerated by my journalist colleagues, I would like to review how the budget was covered in some of the leading print outlets (which have the luxury of far more time than the electronic media) in Pakistan. The objective of this piece is to show not only that economic journalists frequently do not get answers from policymakers, but that, far too often, they do not even ask the right questions.

There were two fundamental problems with the coverage by the print media. The first was the acceptance of what can be described as the ‘narrative of relief’, where a budget is judged by the amount of ‘relief’ it provides to the public. And the second was an inability on the part of most media outlets to understand the numbers and put them in the right context.

The narrative of ‘relief’

For any student of economics or public policy issues, perhaps the most maddening part about the media’s coverage is the constant demand by journalists – and by extension, the public – for ‘relief’ from the government. Every government is then judged by the ability to provide such ‘relief’, which is the most vague and poorly defined concept in Pakistani public discourse.

In the English-language press, the two newspapers most guilty of accepting and propagating the ‘relief’ narrative were The Nation and The Daily Times.

The Nation was particularly irresponsible in its coverage by giving “Poor to get poorer” as their banner headline on the day after the budget. Daily Times had a slightly better, but still problematic, “Budget more a burden than relief”.

The first thing that I would like to ask these papers is: what on earth is ‘relief’? If by ‘relief’ they mean subsidies and salary increments for government employees, this budget contained both. If it was not enough for their liking, they are free to say so in their editorials that appear on that day. But making their opinion the focal point of their main headlines on one of the few editions where the economy is the lead story was downright irresponsible.

And for that matter, I would like to ask them: how much ‘relief’ is enough? Should food and fuel in Pakistan be completely free? If not, then how much is a fair price? How would one even determine what constitutes a fair price without a market mechanism? And why should the government subsidise consumption of any item for any citizen? And if it should, how should it pay for it?

These same newspapers cried bloody murder when the government decided to remove tax exemptions (both calling the removal a ‘burden’) from several sectors in an effort to broaden the tax net, something that every media outlet has been calling for.

So the government should raise its revenues by taxing more people, but when it actually does so, it is lambasted in the most comically obscene fashion. And the government must reduce its expenses, but when it tries to reduce its second biggest non-discretionary spending item – subsidies – the government is being unfair. So raising revenues is out of the question and cutting expenses is a bad thing but the government is still deemed incompetent for running a fiscal deficit? How does any of this make sense?

These two newspapers are not the only ones that bought into that narrative. The News marred its otherwise reasonably well-done coverage by carrying an opinion piece calling for ‘relief’ on their front page. And even The Express Tribune shamelessy called for more subsidies in its editorial on the day after the budget.

Getting the numbers wrong

More often than not, editors and reporters have a difficult time understanding the government’s numbers and the way it reports them, which are geared more for the civil service’s own purposes rather than how they should be reported to the public.

Perhaps the most embarrassing was Dawn’s front page, which had the two most irrelevant pie-charts one could imagine, based on a data table that just happens to be the first one in the handout given to journalists by the finance ministry.

Telling the reader that “current expenditure” accounts for the bulk of government spending says nothing: they need to know the breakdown between defence, development, subsidies and debt servicing, which was on subsequent pages of that same document. This was not just a mistake: it reflected incomprehension of the fundamental questions that need to be asked and answered by journalists covering the budget.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2011.



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