The Media Today

Q&A: Jem Bartholomew on Britain’s ‘cost of living crisis’ and the press

February 15, 2023
Photo via Adobe Stock.

The high cost of essential goods and services is a major story in many countries right now, but each country’s press covers it in their own way. In the UK, what has come to be known, ubiquitously, as the “cost of living crisis” has become a dominant storyline right across the country’s notoriously partisan and polarized media landscape. BBC News has a dedicated “cost of living” bookmark high up on its homepage, to the left of those for the war in Ukraine and COVID. Another network, ITV, tapped Martin Lewis, a consumer-affairs expert, to serve as an occasional guest host on its morning show (filling the seat that Piers Morgan flounced out of in 2021). Last year, during an interview, Lewis urged a senior minister to protect people who rely on electronic health equipment against rising energy costs. “Forgive me if I just broke the rules,” Lewis said, referring to British regulations that limit campaigning on news shows.

Everywhere, the rising cost of living, however you want to refer to it, has entrenched people in poverty, and tipped others into it. Each country’s press has covered this differently, too. Recently, Jem Bartholomew—a British journalist who now works in New York for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a capacity in which he writes regularly for CJR—reported and wrote two chapters for Broke, a book on Britain’s poverty crisis that will come out on March 30. For this week’s Q&A newsletter, I spoke to Bartholomew (from my home in London) about the “cost of living crisis” framing, how poverty coverage differs in the UK and the US, and the radicalization of Martin Lewis.

JA: A major storyline in UK media in recent months has been the “cost of living crisis,” a phrase you don’t really hear in US media. What does it mean and how have different parts of the British press been covering it?

JB: The “cost of living crisis” framing is currently being deployed by outlets of very different political persuasions in the UK, from right-wing newspapers like the Telegraph to left-leaning titles like the Guardian. It emerged in response to estimates of the biggest drop in living standards since the fifties, intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing spike in energy prices. And it has exacerbated a whole host of other problems.

The context is important here. The UK, like the US, has seen inflation soar over ten percent over the past year, hitting four-decade highs. And the Bank of England has raised interest rates, which helped push up housing costs for renters and mortgage-holders. But, crucially, it also follows stagnant growth in British wages over almost two decades and the drastic stripping back of the social safety net in the early 2010s. This longer legacy is not always reflected in the coverage.

What about US and other foreign media operating out of the UK, how are they reporting this back to readers in their countries? I’ve noticed that the New York Times, for instance, has really expanded its coverage of British social issues in recent times…

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I’ve read some stellar coverage coming out of American bureaus in London recently. The New York Times, which now has a significant footprint in the UK, has devoted a lot of attention to poverty—food insecurity, living costs, energy-poor households, etc.—with brilliant, human-driven coverage. (The Times has really annoyed some prominent figures in British media, particularly on the right; Andrew Neil, formerly of the BBC and GB News, wrote a screed against the paper’s coverage of the UK last year.) What’s so strong about much of this reporting is that it outlines how longer-term, structural shifts—like the cutting back of the welfare state—have played a pivotal role in today’s crisis, in ways that British outlets often leave out of the picture.

What do you think about the “cost of living crisis” as a framing? Is it flawed?

It’s an interesting question. At times I’ve been exasperated by British media coverage that characterizes the current moment as an acute “crisis,” ignoring over a decade of public policy defined by austerity and cuts. Not only that, but the “cost of living” section on the BBC’s homepage, at the time of writing, featured several articles about ways to cut your bills—“showering at the gym” or “batch cooking” or “going sober in your 20s,” for example—which seem to individualize the problem and ignore the policies that helped create this crisis.

Having reported on poverty for years, long before this framing was established, I’ve seen how many families were struggling to put food on the table after working forty hours a week. There were around thirty food pantries (food banks to UK readers) in the UK in 2009; by 2020 there were more than two thousand, which is more than the number of branches of McDonald’s in the UK.

If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that the cost of living became a “crisis” when it grew big enough to touch the sort of people we expect to be comfortable, well-off professionals, and that the people affected beforehand weren’t considered sufficiently newsworthy. But that’s probably a little unfair on the media. There’s been a lot of quality reporting—broadcasters like Channel 4 News and the BBC, and newspapers such as the Guardian, the FT, and The i have documented this moment excellently. In fact, newspapers across the political divide have held the government to account on this. So as an energizing principle—something that editors can’t ignore—there are positives.

I’d perhaps argue that the “cost of living,” for all its flaws, is a better framing than the US media has commonly adopted recently when covering poverty. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been some very good recent coverage of struggling people, but often this sort of discussion is refracted through the limiting prism of “inflation,” which, in my view, communicates even less than “cost of living crisis” as a phrase—it sounds bloodless and technocratic—and is also often covered more as a political issue than a poverty one…

I think that’s a good point. I’ve had conversations about this with some media critics in the UK who think that the “cost of living crisis” framing is fatally flawed. They see it as accepting of the current Conservative government’s narrative that this is just a storm to be weathered before society goes “back to normal,” and so reporters shouldn’t use the phrase.

I don’t think I’d go that far. My concern is more one of connecting the present to the past, and avoiding the sort of historical amnesia that some reporting—when deadlines must be hit, and space is tight—can fall victim to.

You’re British but based in New York now. What are the main differences that you’ve noticed between the coverage of poverty in British and American media, both at this specific moment and generally?

I’ve found that reporters in the US are more likely to take a single human story, or a handful of people’s stories, and hang the wider themes on their personal experiences. Using human narratives as flashlights to illuminate the wider issue, in a sense. Of course, this happens in British journalism, too, but I think you’re also more likely, in UK national outlets, to get simply stats-driven stories than can feel divorced from what we’re actually talking about: the struggle of many families to get by and make a living in modern Britain.

Martin Lewis has become a major media figure in the UK who doesn’t really have a US analog. Can you explain who he is and his significance?

So Martin Lewis has been around for a number of years as a sort of apolitical consumer guru. He often appears on TV and his site,, has long been a place where many Brits go to find helpful advice about where to get the best travel insurance, for example, or which savings accounts offer the best sign-up bonuses. His style of communication is very frank, much like a doctor’s. He’s often seen, in polls, as a very trustworthy figure. (Daniel Cohen wrote a fantastic longform profile of Lewis for The Guardian in 2019, if you want to know more about him.)

What’s interesting in this moment is that Lewis’s typical, apolitical stance has melted away. He’s claimed to be “out of tools” to help people navigate the cost of living crisis on their own, and has urged government ministers to step in. He has argued that the current situation “is not something money management can fix, it’s not something that, for those on the lowest incomes, telling them to cut their belts will work. We need political intervention.” It’s significant because it represents a shifting of the political center toward state support to deal with this moment.

Finally, in addition to your work at Columbia’s Tow Center, you’ve written two chapters for a forthcoming book on poverty in Britain. Can you tell me a bit more about that? What was it like reporting that out?

Yes, I’ve written two chapters for the forthcoming book, Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis, which will be published on March 30. The book aims to take a temperature check on Britain’s social problems. A collection of other excellent journalists have contributed, alongside some powerful social photography. The principle behind the book is that it’s always been human stories—whether that be the reporting of George Orwell or Henry Mayhew, or the fiction of Charles Dickens—that have animated the case for reform.

My first chapter looks at the dysfunction in Britain’s housing and homelessness system through the experiences of three women—who I’ve been following for months—of eviction and displacement. My second chapter, looks at the struggle of delivery drivers to get by, and their fight to gain political representation by unionizing against companies like Uber. Reporting these chapters out was shocking and emotionally taxing at times, confronting what families falling through the gaps are experiencing, but it’s always felt like such an important, urgent project.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.