The real reason why BBC journalists are trying to trip up Labour on the figures

Yesterday, Labour unveiled its manifesto promising to reverse an austerity agenda that has persisted for more than three decades, accompanied by what is surely the most detailed costing analysis ever produced for a general election campaign. Yet the story — at least as far as BBC journalists are concerned — is once again defined by the Conservatives and their army of compliant supporters in the press. Instead of asking the really important questions about the potential risks, or likely impact of the policies on different demographics and stakeholders, the predominant line of attack is to suggest that Labour have either got the figures wrong, or don’t know the figures.

It’s not hard to see why this chord, relentlessly struck by some of the BBC’s most respected journalists and anchors (such as Newsnight’s Kirsty Walk) will be music to the ears of Tory campaign boss Lynton Crosby. It chimes with a deeply entrenched Tory line, supported by most of the press since 2010, that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy.

Yet it is a line that reveals much about Britain’s democratic deficit and, specifically, the routine failure of BBC journalists to apply independent scrutiny to Labour’s proposals. By independent scrutiny I mean probing and questioning Labour based on the unavoidable trade-offs in any policy proposal. Who will benefit? Who will lose? What are the risks? These are the kind of questions that journalists need to ask if they are to fulfill their democratic purpose during election campaigns. But all too often they are marginalised in favour of ‘the line’.

What is so callous and effective about this particular line is that it gives journalists themselves the false impression that they are doing their job. No one can argue with attending to the detail of any manifesto and there are few aspects of policy that carry more authoritative weight than costings. The problem is, these figures were clearly not plucked out of thin air. In fact, Labour’s tax and spending plans are partly the fruit of input and advice from some of the world’s most respected economists, including the former head of the World Bank and Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

But you don’t need to be an economist to see that the numbers game is not a ‘story’ of any real news value — at least if your benchmark for news value is not whatever is the Daily Mail lead. You don’t need to be an economist to know that any costings based on expected revenues from increased taxes can never be more than informed projections that may prove to be more or less, depending on a whole host of variables. You don’t need to be an economist to know that spending on housing, health or education is not the same as re-nationalisation, which is an investment based on value and expected return (in other words, surplus from household water bills which will go direct to taxpayers rather than shareholders).

Yet still, journalists are scrambling for a ‘black hole’ on the assumption that if the Tories or newspapers say there is one, it must be there. When they can’t find one, they try an even cheaper shot by quizzing MPs on their memory of the figures, as if being able to recall any number on the spot from such a detailed costing is a measure of policy substance.

If this election is to be anything approaching free and fair, BBC journalists must wake up and see the Fleet Street thought bubble in which they are operating. Before it’s too late.