I didn’t see Andrew Neil’s interview with John McDonnell which seems to have started the media’s obsession with interest on government debt, and how it would increase under Labour. But I did see the Peston interview where he was asked a similar question (see here). McDonnell’s answer was good, but the fact that Peston felt obliged to ask it told me that mediamacro was still alive and well.
But before I come to that, I need to link to the piece I wrote in the New Statesman that tries to explain why the question is a silly one (and what a much better question would be). It wasn’t the first time I had come across the power of this debt interest idea to fool people. I remember I did a debate with Oliver Kamm in Prospect, and the then editor said she thought I was getting the better of the argument but that Kamm’s point about debt interest finally swayed her. I remember thinking what!? How can you be so foolish. That was in my younger days (look at the photo) when I was still learning about mediamacro.
So why did Peston feel he had to follow up on Neil’s question? I think it is pretty simple. When McDonnell did not answer Neil’s question, the reaction of journalists was not to think maybe that was a silly question, but instead here was some weakness that the journalist had found. Journalists love catching politicians out: it means that the interview when it happens gets repeated and repeated and the journalist gets congratulated by their peers. It is just a numerical version of political gaffs. And most of the time it is just as childish.
There may be some point in doing this when there is a real issue involved. If you managed to show, for example, that a politician really didn’t know the difference or relationship between debt and the deficit, that would tell us something meaningful. (I can remember one Chancellor who did need helping through such things.) But that normally requires a knowledge most interviewers, who might talk about paying off the deficit, do not have. (Even fact checking sites can confuse rather than enlighten: in this case here. The BBC's site in the past has made similar errors.) Not being able to remember numbers is a memory test more than testing whether someone is numerically minded. I’m pretty numerically minded, but ask me what the size of UK GDP is on a bad day and I’d get it wrong.
But asking a prospective Chancellor about what the debt interest will be on any borrowing they will do for investment possibly four years ahead is a silly question, as my New Statesman article makes clear. I’m sure Peston knows this, but he nevertheless felt obliged to follow a mediamacro theme. Which is how a lot of journalism works. Attack lines dreamt up by right wing newspapers or journalists become questions of public interest that every journalist feels obliged to ask. Even when they know better, they are not going to upset their colleagues by saying I’m not going to ask that question because it is a nonsense question and instead ask something more intelligent. As a result, the mediocrity that is mediamacro persists.