I don’t expect an unbiased BBC. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an unbiased standpoint (see rule 1, previous post); everyone has interests and sees the world in the light of those interests, and this is true of institutions as well as individuals. Clarity is bliss, but bias is what we are. So I expect the BBC, as a solid and well-established institution, to have a bias towards the status quo, and to defend it staunchly against threats from both Right and Left; I’m generally not disappointed.
But if bias is something that can’t be avoided, partisanship is something else. If you ask me whether I believe in social class, my answer will be imprinted with all the bias of the person I am, the life I’ve lived and (among other things) the life my father lived; it will also be a faithful representation of how I see the world. The two, I think, are ultimately the same thing. If you ask me whether I think Jeremy Corbyn would make a good Prime Minister, on the other hand, I’ll answer you as a Labour Party member of eight months’ standing, and as somebody who joined the party after having put down £3 so as to vote for Jeremy. My answer won’t be any less truthful, but it will be imprinted much more strongly and immediately with my belief in the Corbyn project; the truth it will express will be partly the truth of my beliefs and aspirations.
Everyone is biased, but not everyone is partisan – certainly not all the time. Bias can’t be overcome, but partisanship can – at the very least you can politely decline to offer an impartial comment on an issue on which you know you can only give a partisan answer. If you’re a journalist and you fail that test, you fail hard – you cease to be a reporter or a commentator in any broad sense and become a ranter, an opinion-monger, a polemicist. This is not just in the sense that the interpretive content of your work becomes unreliably slanted, but also in that your work itself will suffer.
For an example of how this works, consider BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and her ‘gotcha’ moment with John McDonnell on Thursday night. Everyone knows that there are many different contexts within which this round of elections can be framed: council elections one year into a Tory government, six years into a Tory-led government, eight months after a Labour leadership election, four years after the same seats were last contested, and so on. Everyone knows that there are different ways to frame the figures themselves – change in vote share compared to four years ago, change in vote share compared to the last general election, vote share compared to the last comparable round of elections, change in actual seats, change in councils controlled, and so on. And – to complete the Politics tutorial – everyone knows that political parties (a) are aware of these possibilities (b) will tend to pick the one that makes them look best on the night and (c) will prepare a line, or multiple alternative lines, beforehand. Everyone also knows that politicians being interviewed will be treated as if they’re plucking everything they say from the sincerest and most spontaneous depths of their being, but nobody actually believes they do any such thing; politicians who actually think on the hoof and answer the question they’ve been asked are very rare and not very popular.
So, you’re the BBC political editor, and somebody passes you a copy of Labour’s internal crib sheet on how to respond to questions about the results. What do you say to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (for it is he)?
A.“Thankyou, Mr McDonnell. That is actually just what I thought you were going to say – persons unknown have leaked a copy of your notes to the BBC. No, I don’t know why they would want to do that either – maybe you should investigate.”
B. “Somebody in the Labour HQ has leaked a copy of your own notes to the BBC. Not very loyal, is it? Do you think there are elements of the party that are just trying to make mischief?”
C. “Somebody in the Labour camp has given the BBC what appears to be a copy of your own notes. Are you concerned at all about this lack of discipline within the party? Doesn’t look as if you’re running a very tight ship, does it?”
D. “Somebody in the Labour HQ has leaked a copy of your own notes to the BBC. You’ve said that you want to unite the party – is this a sign of unity? It looks to me as if Labour is so disunited, some of your own team actually want to show you up on national TV.”
E. “Well, we have been sent something rather interesting … it explains, crucially, that they won’t be looking at the 2012 elections, which normally, in this kind of elections, is what we would be looking at for accurate comparisons, but instead, they’ll be looking to compare the share of the vote at the General Election last year with what happens tonight … what this shows very clearly is that the Labour Party has had to basically prepare its excuses very, very carefully to explain away any criticisms from what we’d traditionally expect their performance to be on a night like this.”
E is of course a transcript of Kuenssberg’s actual remarks, with some editing for brevity. The video‘s worth watching, if you can bear it. The transcript doesn’t convey the real passion Kuenssberg put into phrases like “accurate comparisons” and “explain away” – this was clearly someone who’d smelt blood. Which is just why it was such bad reporting. Any one of approaches B to D would have focused on the important questions – who is passing the BBC internal Labour Party documents, and what does this tell us? (And D might have been quite hard for McDonnell to handle.) But Kuenssberg’s partisanship when it comes to Labour, at least under Corbyn, is so strong that all she could see was the chance to score a point, by catching an opponent choosing the best figures to compare a bad performance with – forgetting in the heat of the moment that any politician anywhere would do the same thing, not to mention that choosing a different frame of reference is perfectly legitimate.
This is why the partisanship of the BBC political team, Kuenssberg above all, is so disastrous. It’s not because it makes for anti-Labour political reporting, but because it makes the political reporting short-sighted, one-dimensional and predictable; in a word, it makes it stupid. McDonnell’s response to being challenged over the notes was to say “I think I wrote them” and burst out laughing, as well he might: the idea that having notes advising which set of figures to use was somehow shameful, or that their discovery was some sort of journalistic coup, is ridiculous. Even then Kuenssberg didn’t let it go, following up on Twitter with “McDonnell tries to laugh off leaked document that shows how Labour planned to explain likely council losses”. “Tries to”? You can be the judge, when you’ve had a look at the video – as far as I could see he did laugh it off. But then, I’m biased.