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The Kuenssberg Consequence

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The BBC Daily Politics contained a live resignation. (Edited: BBC)

Live on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, Stephen Doughty MP (Cardiff South and Penarth, Labour and Co-operative) resigned from his position as a Shadow Foreign Office Minister. Labour have made a complaint against the BBC, with their spokesperson stating [1]:

By the BBC’s own account, BBC journalists and presenters proposed and secured the resignation of a shadow minister on air in the immediate run-up to Prime Minister’s Question, apparently to ensure maximum news and political impact. That was evidently done before any notice of resignation was sent to the Labour leader.

Such orchestration of political controversy is an unacceptable breach of the BBC’s role and statutory obligations.

Trust in the impartiality and independence of the BBC is essential. The BBC’s role is to report the news impartially, rather than seek to influence events or promote a particular political narrative.

(Video: BBC News)

The complaint obliquely references the removed post from Andrew Alexander, who is an output editor for the Daily and Sunday Politics series.

According to Robbie Gibb, the editor of BBC Live Political Programmes, this article was meant for internal uses only, and so “no other inference should be drawn from our decision to delete the blog”.

“Make an impact”

Mr Alexander’s article contains the following passage [2]:

When the programme editor phoned in we agreed that in addition to covering other major stories, including the junior doctors’ strike, fallout from the reshuffle was likely to continue throughout the morning and this was a story where we could make an impact.

When the producers arrived at 8am they began putting out texts and calls to Labour MPs we thought were likely to react strongly to the sacking of several shadow ministers for “disloyalty”.

Just before 9am we learned from Laura Kuenssberg, who comes on the programme every Wednesday ahead of PMQs, that she was speaking to one junior shadow minister who was considering resigning. I wonder, mused our presenter Andrew Neil, if they would consider doing it live on the show?

The question was put to Laura, who thought it was a great idea. Considering it a long shot we carried on the usual work of building the show, and continued speaking to Labour MPs who were confirming reports of a string of shadow ministers considering their positions.

Within the hour we heard that Laura had sealed the deal: the shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty would resign live in the studio.

Although he himself would probably acknowledge he isn’t a household name, we knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact. We took the presenters aside to brief them on the interview while our colleagues on the news desk arranged for a camera crew to film him and Laura arriving in the studio for the TV news packages.

Some parts of Mr Alexander’s article are discordant with Mr Doughty’s statements about his own resignation.

“Beyond ridiculous”

Mr Doughty made a statement about Labour’s complaint:

To suggest that the BBC coerced me to resign is beyond ridiculous.

As I have already made repeatedly clear – I had already made my own mind up to resign because of the appalling reason for Pat McFadden’s sacking over his comments on terrorism, and because of his subsequent smearing by spin doctors who have spent weeks briefing proposed sackings of other senior Labour figures to journalists across the media.

The insinuation of Labour’s complaint — the BBC “proposed and secured” an “orchestration of political controversy” — is that either the BBC Daily Politics team, or Ms Kuenssberg herself, was directly involved in Mr Doughty’s decision to resign.

Mr Alexander’s post provides no evidence for this assertion: the “deal” was Mr Doughty’s resignation would take place on the programme. Moreover, this claim is directly denied by Mr Doughty himself.

The dissonance between the accounts — that Mr Doughty was “considering resigning” or had already made that decision — has more reasonable, alternate explanations than a BBC journalist convinced a shadow minister to resign. It could be that Mr Doughty failed to convey his certainty to Ms Kuenssberg, the BBC Political Editor managed the expectations of her colleague, the output editor misunderstood what she had said, or some combination of all three.

A journalist convincing a minister or shadow minister to resign would be an outrageous interference in political events. However, the support of such a belief in this case would be to infer Ms Kuenssberg talked to Mr Doughty about whether he wanted to resign, which cannot be drawn from Mr Alexander’s post and stands in contradiction to Mr Doughty’s own statements on the matter.

“A dramatic moment”

The next part of Labour’s complaint is that this resignation was made “to ensure maximum news and political impact”. This, again, cannot be inferred from the output editor’s words: “we knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact” means the programme-makers recognised the impact it would have, not that they organised it to be so.

On Wednesday, the Daily Politics begins at 11:30am, prior to PMQs. The story of Mr Doughty’s confirmed resignation belonged to Ms Kuenssberg, who is almost always in attendance on that programme. The question became whether or not Mr Doughty wanted to declare his own resignation on live televsion, alongside Ms Kuenssberg.

After speaking to the BBC Political Editor — the “senior journalist” in his own account — Mr Doughty decided to do so. The Daily Politics programme was an opportune time to break this story, since viewers interested in politics will be watching. It is incumbent on news organisations to attempt to reach as many people as they can with their stories, and to make those stories relevant to their readers, listeners and viewers. If the programme’s presenters or producers were to include what impact this story would have on the Labour leadership in the decision on their timing, then that would show a bias favouring a single party.

It has been suggested by Jon Trickett MP (Hemsworth, Labour) that the timing gave “advantage” to the Prime Minister. A similar line is also present with the Labour complaint: it “was evidently done before any notice of resignation was sent to the Labour leader”. Firstly, it is a matter for Mr Doughty to ensure he sends his resignation first, and not for journalists. Secondly, if Mr Corbyn’s team had not received the resignation by the start of PMQs, then they would have learned of it at the same time, and by the same means, as Mr Cameron’s team: through watching the Daily Politics.

Out of the ether

News does not arise out of the ether. The purpose of Mr Alexander’s post, as an output editor of a popular political programme, was to highlight the work behind a major political moment. That part of the programme was initially being formulated as a discussion between a Shadow Cabinet Minister, Lisa Nandy (Wigan, Labour), and a dissenting Labour MP, on the matter of the Labour reshuffle.

The programme could break the story of a shadow minister resigning, with the BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg introducing that item. Programmes of this kind can break stories, as well as report on them. That requires further work, since segments have to be filmed for television, articles written for the website, and videos captured for cross-media synergy.

At best, Labour’s complaint betrays a worrying misunderstanding of how news organisations operate, and of the preparation necessary to conduct live broadcasts, no matter their content. At worst, it speaks to an embedded culture of conspiracism, seeing any event that negatively affects their leader as part of a sinister plot.

Moreover, it diverts energy away from offering an effective alternate government and harnessing their prospective vision, which is the purpose of an official opposition.

References

[1] Labour List, 2016. Labour vs the BBC: Official complaint lodged over Doughty’s on-air resignation. Available from: http://labourlist.org/2016/01/labour-vs-the-bbc-official-complaint-lodged-over-doughtys-on-air-resignation/ [Accessed: 10th January 2016]]

[2] Alexander, A., 2016. Resignation! Making the news on the Daily Politics. BBC [Cached]. Available from: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:tCufUeYIpA4J:www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/collegeofjournalism/entries/82a00c77-c0cc-4e79-99ca-25e9c21d01a7+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk [Accessed: 10th January 2016]

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , , , , , , .
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