Northern Ireland reporting of Alistairs Darlings autumn budget statement is still largely stuck in the old Troubles beer and fags era of budget coverage. A tiny trickle of headline reactions from business leaders whistling to keep their spirits up will always take priority over grimmer, tougher topics that need the sort of explanation and expert analysis which is largely absent form the local media, with the honourable exception of John Simpson, tucked away in Business Telegraph.. These traditional stories are the lesser part of the story of a region that relies heavily on the public sector. When you think how the BBC nationally has dominated the course of credit crunch reporting, the local BBC has performed poorly, judging at least from the website (which should be representative).
However seven out of ten to the Irish News for fleshing out agency copy with at least a few quotes that cry out for more searching reporting…..
Ulster Banks Northern Ireland economist Richard Ramsey said it was not just consumers who will benefit from the reduced VAT rate. Unlike Northern Ireland, GB government departments and public authorities will benefit from lower VAT as they pay VAT out of their public expenditure totals, he said. Conversely, Northern Ireland departments do not pay VAT and will not therefore receive the same benefit as their GB counterparts. So it remains to be seen whether Northern Ireland will receive some additional public expenditure offset beyond their Barnett Formula allocation to take account of this.
The interesting part of Nigel Dodds civil service crafted statement was all about public spending, not minor concessions on business rates :
I also note that Whitehall departments are being expected to achieve a higher value for money target to release additional resources for public services. This is something that will also need to be considered by the Executive .However, the more constrained financial position also means that there is less scope for the Treasury to provide access in subsequent years to the resources left unspent by Northern Ireland departments this year. Therefore, local departments need to take all possible steps to reduce the level of underspend.”
Editors are committing the cardinal sin of underestimating their audiences by relying on old standbys and on ringing round the politicians and business leaders, with predictable results. Nothing wrong with this as such, but its just not enough for todays complex world.
Although in this form you may find this stuff as dull as ditch water, its really about the impact of tighter spending and its impact on the quality of life – the topics that really matter but are sidelined by out of date political chatter. To be elaborately fair to the local media, there is no serious political debate for them to follow (and precious little for them to take the lead). Four months of Executive freeze don’t help and nor does the basic mindset of most politicians. Mr Dodds statement reflects the uneasy financial relationship under devolution. Westminster taxes and sets the spending limits, Stormont allocates the spend. Inexperienced local ministers are caught between taking the easy route and blaming the Westminster paymaster for alleged shortfalls and taking responsibility for setting their own priorities including cuts. Until they agree on a strategy, the economic debate will be stuck with the politics of the rattling begging bowl and foreign trips to try to encourage foreign investment. Meanwhile the local media need to leave the Troubles agenda even further behind and do much, much better.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London