Wednesday 16 May 2018

Into the bubble

The "gaffe" by Ben Broadbent, a deputy governor at the Bank of England, sprang out of comments in a Telegraph interview:
According to Broadbent, the UK hasn’t seen such a slump since the late Victorian era. In the 1880s, economic historians have noted that there was what is termed a “climacteric” effect when “productivity growth suddenly slowed pretty much to a halt”. 
It was similarly severe to the sluggish improvements seen in the last decade, Broadbent believes.

This term, used by economic historians, is borrowed from biology, he says. It essentially means “menopausal, but can apply to both genders”. Put simply, “you’ve passed your productive peak”.
An in-depth explanation of the term had the central bank’s policymakers squirming, Broadbent says.
“I once got an economist into the MPC to explain the origins of the word ‘climacteric’. As soon as he started talking to all these middle aged men – about [how] it means you’re past your peak and you’re no longer so potent – they all said: ‘We understand’.”
You might find nothing objectionable in that, but then you're a reasonable person. Others, however, as is the way of the world these days, 'took offence' and the BBC, naturally, made the resulting row top headline news.

Not everyone shares the BBC's sense of news priorities though - or, for that matter, the Corporation's take on this particular story. Here's Telegraph business writer Juliet Samuel for example:
Insane that this confected “row” is BBC’s second headline, with KamalAhmed editorialising that there are now “questions” about Ben Broadbent being bank governor. Makes me despair for this country. 
Here are some stories that could instead have graced slot 2 in the headlines: 
1. North Korea says it won’t denuclearise and Kim might not attend Trump meeting
2. Italy seemingly on cusp of forming revolutionary new government
3. Trump threatens EU w tariffs
4. Turkey struggling to stabilise its currency
5. May cladding pledge
A Twitter exchange ensued, with Kamal Ahmed himself chipping in (before quickly exiting pursued by a bear):
Mark Watson: It was a really stupid thing to say IMO, raises questions about his rationality and judgement. There are much better phrases that he could have used. Just my opinion of course!
Juliet Samuel: Everyone ought to read the interview. He didn’t say it was menopausal. He said it was “climacteric”, realised that was jargon and then said, effectively, “climacteric means menopause but for both sexes”. I just can’t understand how that’s offensive or inappropriate in any way.
Kamal Ahmed: Bank and Ben Broadbent don't appear to agree with you. Say language was "poor" and caused offence. I did say on #WATO is was important to keep it in perspective, but clear communication is an important part of the job. Even more important if you ever want to be Governor.
Juliet Samuel: Did you read original interview & context? How can it possibly be top news that he tried to explain jargon “climacteric”? Yes Bank apologised to neutralise it precisely because of coverage like this, which legitimises online mobs who would tear Broadbent’s head off for no reason.
Two thoughts on this (1) there’s now an epidemic of BBC journalists giving their opinions rather than simply reporting and (2) Juliet’s thread of alternative news headlines suggests she gets what public service broadcasting could and should still be. 
The World at One even had Jane Garvey, one of the BBC’s own journalists, as a pundit to judge the “menopausal” row.

It's really worth listening to that The World at One to get a sense of what Juliet Samuel and Tim Montgomerie are objecting to.

The discussion about the story consisted of BBC presenter Sarah Montague interviewing the BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed and then chairing a discussion between BBC Woman's Hour presenter Jane Garvey and a single non-BBC guest - writer Celia Walden. 

Kamal came first, editorialising that it matters because "I think language matters" and going on to say:
You've got to modernise how you talk about things and using 'menopausal' in a pejorative sense like this - i.e. not a very good thing - something that half the population go through perfectly naturally - shows that the Bank has a bigger issue here....
"It is important" he insisted.

His BBC colleague Jane Garvey was of the same mind, calling Mr Broadbent's words "thoughtless", "dismissive" and "hurtful" and insisting that the "language of economics" would have to change if what Mr Broadbent said is typical. She took it personally. Both she and Mr Broadbent are 53, she noted. "I'm a useless old hag but he's a thrusting silver fox", she huffed.  

It was left to the one non-BBC guest, Celia Walden, to break out of this BBC consensus and to bring a little reasonableness into the proceedings. She pronounced herself to be "not remotely offended" and, though calling it "an odd metaphor", was far more put out by people "deliberately working themselves up into states of offence all the time" about frankly nothing. 

When Jane resumed her rant against Mr Broadbent, saying his comment "puts women very much in their place", she drew in Kamal to back herself up, saying "and, as Kamal's already said, their place at the moment is not at the very top of the Bank of England".

And when Kamal was brought back in, he took up Jane's cudgels and re-insisted that "I think it does matter though" and deployed feminist arguments about power relationships and language to answer a point about how using derogatory language about men in such circumstances could be seen as as bad as using derogatory language about men in such circumstances. ("Men of a certain age don't have prejudice working against them. Women do," he said. "So, therefore, you have to use language differently for men and for women.")

The BBC does feel very much like a bubble at times like this.

P.S. Here's BBC Scotland Editor & Sunday Politics presenter Sarah Smith leading the charge much earlier. She's offended!:


  1. I didn't mind the simile, but I did mind its import: that the Bank of England is talking down the economy...again. The Remainiacs are in charge there and need to be cleared out.

  2. The strangest part is that he explicitly linked it to impotence in middle-aged men as well as the menopause, and yet somehow he's anti-women.


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