On BBC partisanship

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.

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7 Comments

  1. gastro george
    Posted 7 May 2016 at 15:05 | Permalink | Reply

    Kuenssberg is a disaster area, and it’s of a pattern where the BBC is slipping away from real journalism into gotcha- and personality-driven politics. So much so that Nick Robinson, let’s not forget a former Conservative Party student leader, appears like a breathe of fresh air on the Today programme because he appears to know something of the issues and meaningful questions to ask – i.e. actual journalism. The norm is listening to, for example, John Humphrys indulge himself in a saloon bar chat with Ken Clarke, or allowing Zac Goldsmith spend what seemed like hours denying his Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan by talking endlessly about his “issues of character”.

    With reference to your previous post about Ken Livingstone, the “Labour and anti-semitism debate” would have been nothing with a little journalism to check the extent of the evidence or, for example, the historical background of Nazi “Zionism”. Instead the media were more concerned with “what people were saying about other people” than any actual facts. But that’s not the point of course. Mostly it’s about the anti-Corbyn agenda.

    It’s been interesting listening to some of the feedback from Labour party officials about the elections, where they have been reported. It seemed clear (at least to me) that the important issues that Corbyn is emphasising have some traction with the electorate. But they are fighting a headwind caused by the Westminster and media obsession with “electability”, image, and spurious campaigns aimed at him.

  2. metatone
    Posted 8 May 2016 at 18:52 | Permalink | Reply

    For me the partisanship of the press as a whole really shines through in the reporting of the Tory results in Scotland.
    2nd, miles away from 1st, as a protest Unionist party with no means to grow – well, this is ToryScotland as UKIP. Sure it’s nice to be ahead of a Labour party that has been squeezed out by the SNP, but it’s not actually a good sign. But to notice and explain that would mean explaining that Scotland is now in a very different place politically to the rest of the UK. (Perhaps NI is the right comparator?) So we’ve had none of this in the entire set of reporting on the “Ruth Davidson” phenomenon.

    • gastro george
      Posted 8 May 2016 at 19:29 | Permalink | Reply

      Scotland is important to the anti-Corbynistas because it “proves” that a more left-wing offer, as put forward by Scottish Labour, is rejected in favour of the milder SNP. But, as you say, this ignores the squeeze on Labour – and more specifically the years of neglect by the Blairites, and the asinine way they went into an alliance with the Tories for the referendum, only to get shafted the day after.

      In fact, this form of spinning only continues the way in which politics in the UK is viewed through a Westminster prism. Reasons for voting are generalised nationally, with all regional perspective ignored.

  3. Igor Belanov
    Posted 8 May 2016 at 21:40 | Permalink | Reply

    The reporting of the election results by the entire media shows their partisanship. We had a General Election last year that was genuinely historic in that there was no UK-wide pattern at all, except that the Lib Dems came off badly everywhere. Sources of party strength and weakness are extremely fragmented, and this is at least a medium term phenomenon that was observable before Blair stepped down. All the recent elections have done is repeat last year’s trends. Swings to and from Labour and the Tories in certain areas, some gains in votes for UKIP, trouble for Labour in Scotland. Yet the media just treat these elections as if it were 1994 or something, where there should be some kind of inevitable national swing against the sitting government and if it doesn’t happen, then the leader of the chief opposition party is to blame. Some reasonable analysis of actually existing British politics might be helpful.

    That said, as Phil says, some of the reporting is almost hilariously funny, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. A commenter in the Guardian yesterday seemed to think that UKIP finishing second to Labour in certain northern areas was Labour’s fault, ignoring the collapse in Tory and Lib Dem votes, and the fact that the same argument doesn’t seem to be followed in Tory south-eastern areas. Sadiq Khan’s victory had nothing to do with Corbyn, but Labour defeats in other places were entirely due to Corbyn. Corbyn missing Khan’s investiture to congratulate Bristol’s Labour Mayor was treated as a scandal by the BBC News last night. And so on. Fortunately, I don’t think the public is treating the media nearly as seriously as the media thinks they should.

  4. Posted 13 May 2016 at 14:00 | Permalink | Reply

    Gastro George: “Scotland is important to the anti-Corbynistas because it “proves” that a more left-wing offer, as put forward by Scottish Labour, is rejected in favour of the milder SNP.” I find it very hard to believe that the anti-Corbyn faction could frame Scottish Labour’s woes in this way. Scottish Labour is perceived up here as being distinctly to the right of the SNP. Kezia Dugdale’s sudden and disingenuous inclusion of left wing ideas at the last moment didn’t convince the electorate to return to Labour because of her long-standing reputation for supporting Blairite austerity. Scottish Labour is (bizarrely and incomprehensibly) markedly to the right of Corbyn, hence why the SNP dominate the political landscape. It is a complete mystery why Scottish Labour don’t choose an anti-austerity leader.

    • Phil
      Posted 13 May 2016 at 16:01 | Permalink | Reply

      Believable or not, it’s what they’re doing. Here’s the Telegraph:

      One of Labour’s few high points was Jackie Baillie holding by only 109 votes Dumbarton, the constituency that contains the Faslane naval base, after she openly criticised the Scottish party’s symbolic vote to oppose the renewal of Trident. … Thomas] Docherty, the former Dunfermline and West Fife MP, went on the attack even before the first result was announced. He said: “The hard reality the Labour Party faces is that when you stand on a platform that promises to raise taxes for everyone earning over £20,000 – an unambiguously socialist platform that calls for the scrapping of Trident amongst other things and with the UK leader we have, there is a correlation clearly with the fact that our support is going down perhaps even falling below one in five tonight and the Conservative vote at the same time going up. And someone once described – very famously – the 1983 manifesto as the longest suicide note in history and if you bring it up to date, frankly, the manifesto we stood on is self-immolation for dummies.” Asked if her rebellion over Trident had helped her keep the seat, Ms Baillie agreed, saying: “I have no doubt about the economic impact of jobs at Faslane.”

      And here’s Jonathan Freedland in the Graun:

      During last summer’s leadership campaign, Corbyn’s advocates said that shifting left – denouncing austerity, promising to raise taxes and scrap Trident – would bring back those who had defected to the SNP. Scottish Labour followed that advice to the letter, fighting on an impeccably Corbynite platform. And it was trounced.

      The Scottish results finally gave the Blairites the story they’ve been wanting to write all this time, so it’s not surprising they’re making hay with it. But it’s hellishly cynical.

    • gastro george
      Posted 16 May 2016 at 13:22 | Permalink | Reply

      @Chris – Your incredulity is both appropriate and unsurprising. I can imagine many Scottish observers have plenty of WTF moments, when it comes to the output from the Westminster bubble, of which this is an only too predictable part. The irony, of course is that it’s comments like these – only perceiving Scottish events through a narrow English prism – that have caused the downfall of Labour in Scotland, and will continue to do so.

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