I put a post up yesterday about the BBC’s role in the resignation of Labour front-bencher Stephen Doughty. It’s the first instance of something I’ve written ‘going viral’. The post was based on another blog post written by someone who works on the Daily Politics show, which was then quickly removed from the BBC website. When I read it, I thought it was an interesting story worth highlighting. I had my own initial thoughts about how I felt about it, but was interested in finding out what other people thought. Now I’ve had a bit more time to think about it and seen other people’s reactions, I thought I’d write this as a kind of update to the original post.
It’s not too much of an over-reaction to say that opinion was split into two groups, on one side journalists, and people who used to be more influential in the Labour Party who thought it was barely worth mentioning and just an example of good journalism, and everyone else on the other side quite angry about the tactics used. As social media leans heavily towards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, this is perhaps not surprising.
I am a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn myself, so disliked the idea of a journalist apparently colluding with one of his front-benchers to inflict maximum damage upon Corbyn. But did the BBC actually do anything wrong here? It was certainly a good scoop, and isn’t that a journalist’s job?
To answer this I am going to take the words of the Daily Politics team member at face value. This may not be fair if his blog post was taken down because it was not an accurate description of what happened. So I’m just writing on the assumption that it is accurate.
In the original blog post, the author wrote:
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.
So at 9am that morning, it seems Stephen Doughty had not made up his mind about resigning. He is not someone who anyone has heard of so he may have thought his resignation would not achieve what he wanted. The blog then goes on to say:
Within the hour we heard that Laura had sealed the deal: the shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty would resign live in the studio.
This suggests that there was some influencing going on to encourage Doughty not only to resign, but to do so on air. It did not take long though seemingly, which could suggest Doughty didn’t take much convincing. The next line is:
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.
They were under no illusions about what they were doing then. In the event, the resignation announcement went out 5 minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions, which probably meant Jeremy Corbyn was unaware of it until David Cameron brought it up in the Commons Chamber. Some people wondered how David Cameron knew, but the answer to that is that he has a very savvy team and he is very good at crow-barring in breaking news. Someone passed him a note basically.
So that’s what seems to have happened. Did the BBC do anything wrong? I think there is a distinction between print and other broadcast media and the BBC here. If the Guardian or the Telegraph had encouraged Doughty to resign and give the exclusive to them, I wouldn’t particularly like it, but would accept they had got a good story and were doing what a journalist does. Because this happened on BBC TV though, it becomes more problematic.
With its duty to be impartial, and the full knowledge of the impact their actions could have, is it appropriate for a BBC political editor to act in this way? I think it comes fairly close to making the news rather than just breaking the news. Without Laura Kuenssberg’s intervention, would Doughty have resigned? He is not a household name, so if he’d given an exclusive to print media, or simply issued a press release, it almost certainly would not have received the coverage it subsequently did. I really don’t think the BBC should be getting involved in internal party machinations.
Those who didn’t see a problem with the reporting said it would only be an issue of impartiality if they would not run the story if it was a Tory Minister thinking of resigning. There doesn’t seem to be any precedent for this though, so it’s impossible to say if they would or not. They certainly don’t seem to have made much of Cameron’s decision to allow his Cabinet members to campaign freely to leave the EU, which is arguably a much bigger story than a minor Labour reshuffle. If they did ever allow a Tory government minister to resign on air in this manner, the reaction would be similar to the Twitter reaction to this, but the people complaining would be much higher up in terms of influence than those complaining about this.
The BBC released a brief statement in response to this story, saying: