The real scandal about Hackgate: the amount of attention it’s getting

With so much media attention focusing on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, the public isn't being informed on what is really important: the UK's rising debt.

Last week, Alistair Heath wrote a great piece on the deficit and the debt. He was quite rightly horrified by the fact that the public have "no idea whatsoever" about the real state of the UK's finances.

Only 9% of them understand that the cutting of the national deficit over the next four years means that the national debt will keep rising, just by slightly less than it might have otherwise. 21% think the debt will stay the same over the sameterm and a deeply depressing number 70% - have missed the point entirely and think that the "cuts" introduced this year will reduce the national debt.

They can't all be morons. I hope. So why do they know so little that they are lacking the one piece of information that would make it possible for them to understand what is going on with the UK government and the UK economy?

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Heath called it "first and foremost a massive failure of journalism". It isn't his failure he has always gone to great lengths to explain the difference. And it isn't a failure of the rest of the niche financial press (we've spent hundreds of page inches explaining it too).

But I think he is right, in that it is a failure of the wider media. The difference between the debt and the deficit is the most important thing a voter needs to know to vote today (how many of that 70% would support more cuts if they understood the debt was going up, not down), and our once great free press have failed to explain it. It isn't encouraging.

But anyone in any doubt that our press very often has its priorities very wrong indeed need only look at the papers from this weekend. I get them all (bar the red tops) and they all, on Saturday and Sunday, led with the hacking story.

And not just led with it. Filled their papers with it. The Sunday Telegraph had it on pages 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 24, and 25 while the Sunday Times took the "pointless obsession with ourselves as a media outlet" prize with a piece about Gordon Brown and his connection to the scandal (about which, lets face it, no one but The Sunday Times cares) on page one: "Brown baffles police over Sunday Times."

Flick through these and then listen to the Today programme or any other BBC news programme for more than five minutes and you will fast begin to think that if it ever had any perspective on what is important enough to dominate the newspapers and the BBC and what is not, the UK media has now lost it.

'Hackgate' is important. Obviously it's important that a free media operates legally. But the coverage of this event has lost all sense of perspective. There is no evidence David Cameron has done anything wrong - hiring Coulson was an error of judgement, but that's about it. And Ed Miliband was too junior to have anything to do with cover ups. So that's them out of the way.

All stories about who is getting the upper hand or who is under pressure are a pointless distraction, as are most of the other ones on the story. Those who have broken the law should be investigated and then prosecuted as they are being.

But let's not forget that while the BBC (and it is worth remembering as we go on about media monopolies that 70% of UK news is provided by the BBC) holds endless discussions between hacks about hackgate, the humanitarian crisis in Africa is gathering pace. Children are dying in their thousands for want of food. The crisis in Europe is also getting nastier by the day and, while it makes sense to expect a last-minute deal on debt in the US, there is a chance that a very weak global economy is about to be hit by a US debt default. We live in very uncertain times.

And what is our press doing as these astonishing stories unfold around it? Obsessing about the social connections of a group of people who live in the Cotswolds. Almost every single paper ran some kind of odd Venn diagram showing how important people in Britain all know each other. I knew that already and so does everyone else. What's more I suspect that most of us don't much care.

What we really need on the front pages is a diagram showing how the collapse of the euro will hit our banks, worsen our credit crunch and stop our nascent recovery in its tracks. Or one showing how the political failures of global leaders make famine entirely avoidable but inevitable. Or one that shows just what might happen if US politicians can't make a deal.

These things are real news. And things we need to understand. The rest? Self-referential gossip. And if we focus too much on that than on the things that really matter, next thing we know we really will be Italy.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.