Friday, 10 July 2009

The Media and the Recession

Television programs go on and on about the recession. Sometimes I wonder if one of the many reasons that the recovery from it is slow is because the media will not let go of it as a story. Every day in every newspaper, magazine, on the radio and on the television are the words recession, recovery, credit crunch, etc. The recession, as a topic, is pervading every genre. Even dramas are being made about it. (Please bear in mind I am talking about in the UK; I sometimes forget that my blog is read outside the UK.)

So where is the relief? I do not mean money; I mean emotional relief from a harsh reality. When do we get a break from being constantly reminded that we should be miserable and worried? In the past, during hard times, parts of the media industry (film, television, radio, books) aimed its efforts at raising the morale of a nation. There seems to be no such effort at present.

However, the need for such a change is becoming apparent. The doom-mongers on the television have highlighted how much the general public have turned to bargain shops for their shopping. I know this to be true. My parents were penny-pinching tight fists and thus so am I. Long before the recession I was buying whatever was needed from bargain shops rather than high street shops. When I would visit a bargain shop I saw the usual faces or I would be one of a few lone people in a quiet shop. Now when I visit one, it is as busy as a Tube Station in London. What I have noticed most of all is that the stock of such shops has changed. The majority of it used to be household goods. Now, an equal amount of space is given to leisure items.

A further change is in the choice in those leisure items. I would always glance at the books, videos and DVDs in case, by some miracle, there was one that did not have a storyline that was a complete turkey and a waste of the very cheap price it would cost to buy (that is how bad they could be and why they were on sale in a bargain shop). Now it is getting difficult to find a bad, unpopular film or book in such shops. Customer demand for leisure items, including alternatives to scheduled programs on television and radio (CDs, videos, DVDs and books), has funded a better quality range of stock in bargain shops. Is this not a sign of people spending money during a recession?

People are spending money on leisure items, just not as often in the familiar high street names. They have gone elsewhere. The recovery from the recession does not necessarily mean that all the famous shop names we know now will survive. Nor is the possible demise of some of them a sign that the recession is getting worse. Quite simply, other types of shops, some of the underdogs, are slowly rising to be the ‘top dogs’ in retail. It has happened before. We easily forget that some of the famous names that the news stories fixate about started out as bargain shops during hard times. Those famous names now have competitors who are giving them serious competition.

Going back to my underlying point about the media, CDs, videos, DVDs and books - if people are listening, watching or reading these, then how much less are they watching scheduled programs on television and radio? And why? If someone is trying to save money during a recession and since it uses more electricity to watch a DVD than it does to watch yet another television program reiterating financial doom and gloom, what motivates them to watch a DVD instead of the television program?

Perhaps it is what is on television that is the motivation. Even some of the comedy programs, which should lift our spirits and give us a break from whatever troubles we have in our daily lives, include so much about the recession as a topic that they might as well change their program name to Doomwatch. The recent series of Bremner, Bird & Fortune lost its lustre somewhat in being an overly long and laboured ‘I told you so’.

On the other hand, The One Show on BBC1 has been highlighting positive stories regarding the recession but regrettably only as a novelty and their presentation can be slightly tongue in cheek.

The questions to ask about programs that seem to merely exist for the subject of the recession are ‘What do these programs achieve?’ and ‘Do we really need them?’ It has become difficult to imagine watching just one news program that does not find some way to include the recession as a topic. If the recession were to officially end on Monday, the media would still be peddling it as a story on the following Friday and the next week and the next week and so on. Why? Some stories, some topics, are a news editors wet dream because they make his or her life so much easier. War, the death of celebrities, scandals, and the recession can be mercilessly milked to fill empty spaces on newspaper pages or dead minutes in a news program. And there are always empty spaces to be filled in newspapers every day, just as there are dead minutes to be filled in every news program.

One problem is that there is little left that is actually ‘news’ about the recession. When there is something that is actually ‘news’, another problem comes into play which is that the media seem to only consider the negative topics of the recession as newsworthy. They will highlight famous shops or brands as doing badly due to the recession, they will suggest that people are not spending money; what they will not do is mention that one of the reasons that famous shops or brands are doing badly is because other shops and brands are stealing their customers by being more competitive in these hard times – and therefore people are spending money. Perhaps not enough to speed up a recovery but the image of the general public holding onto an ever increasing pile of cash in their bank accounts is a false one. If we all had those kinds of savings in our accounts then the banks would have nothing to worry about in regards to the recession.

So when will people start spending money in amounts that will help the recovery from the recession? Well, it is unlikely to be while the media indulge in exploiting the subject as a lazy way of filling news space in print or on the television. Let us not underestimate the influence of the media on the economy of anything.

Remember Gerald Ratner and his jewellery shops? He made a light hearted joke about his products being ‘crap’ and the media made that into a story and milked it for all they could. The result was that sales and share prices plummeted, 300 shops closed, hundreds of people were made unemployed and the company nearly went bankrupt. Not simply because Ratner said his products were ‘crap’, he said that in a humorous speech at a business gathering where he joked that some of his jewellery was ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but wouldn’t last as long’, but because of how the media reported the story in order to fill empty news space, in print and in broadcasting. The how contributed to the motivation of people to stop spending and investing in Ratners.

Some business people say that the worst of the recession is over in the UK but the media, still peddling the pessimist angle and choosing to confuse the words ‘worst of’ and ‘over’ with ‘recovery’, give their statistical reasons why the ‘recovery’ has not begun (read the story). Others in the media, who are not putting up much of a fight against the idea of the recovery having begun, are simply finding something else to be gloomy about: the recovery itself (read the story).

As unflattering as it sounds, we the British public might only go back to spending significant sums of money when the media encourages or tells us to do so. It will probably be out of step with the actual economic situation because the decision may be made by an editor somewhere whose reasoning is that pessimism and recession are ‘old hat’ as far as news stories go, the new angle is to be optimism and recession.

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