On going viral and BBC bias

On Thursday I clicked on a link on Reddit which was supposedly a blog about how the BBC had arranged for Shadow Foreign Office minister Stephen Doughty to resign live on its Daily Politics programme just before Prime Minister’s Questions (or to be completely accurate, 4 minutes after he had resigned by email). I got a 404 error, so found a cached version via Google. I thought the contents of the blog were interesting enough to share on my blog, which I did here. Being honest, I did think a lot of people would be annoyed by the story as I was, but I never expected the reaction it got. Pretty quickly, people starting retweeting the blog and in 24 hours, this blog got more page views than it got in the whole of last year. The story was reported on the websites of most of the newspapers and it has now ultimately resulted in the Labour Party putting into a complaint to the BBC about the way it reported Doughty’s resignation.

Reaction to the story was quite mixed. Again, being honest, it was mostly divided along the lines of whether or not you support Jeremy Corbyn or not. If you don’t support Corbyn, you probably didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

One observation I would make is that political journalists in particular thought this was a total non-story. Their basic reation was “So what? That’s just good journalism”. I think the main reason for that is that they have inside knowledge about how journalism works, particularly in politics. Those of us who aren’t journalists, although we may suspect this is how things are done, don’t know for sure, and so this episode was a certain drawing back of the curtain, and what we saw, we didn’t like.

I think my settled view on this now is that if any other news organisation had reported Doughty’s resignation in this way, I would be annoyed, but accept that they had the right to report it in that way and concede it was a good scoop. In general, I think the closeness between political journalists and politicians is too close. They seem to feed off each other and it often seems to result in reporters collaborating with politicians to make the news rather than just reporting it. Perhaps this is the way it has to be, but I don’t like it. In this instance though, it was the BBC who engineered the ‘scoop’ and I – and it seems many others – believe the BBC should be held to a higher standard than other media who have no duty of impartiality. For this reason, I think it was a mistake for them to collude with Doughty over the timing of his resignation.

But does this episode demonstrate the BBC has a pro-Tory, or right wing bias? A lot of people point out that the BBC’s leading political staff are sympathetic to the Conservative Party, but I’m not sure that’s enough to demonstrate bias to one party. To me it seems to have a pro-establishment bias, backing a very narrow set of agreed ‘moderate’ ideas and policies, and being unable to cover anything outside of that very narrow range objectively. Ultimately, this seems to mean they cover whoever is in government more favourably – at least when New Labour was up against the Conservative Party.

The problem now though is that Jeremy Corbyn falls outside of the narrow range considered ‘moderate’ (as do UKIP, the SNP and Eurosceptic Tories), and so we see the BBC taking a clear line of giving so called ‘moderates’ within the Labour Party plenty of opportunity to say uncomplimentary things about their leader. In the same way, their coverage favoured the ‘No’ campaign during the Indy Referendum and when the EU referendum gets under way, the BBC will put its weight fully behind the ‘remain’ campaign. That’s just what the BBC is, and while Labour’s recent complaint may have an impact on the BBC’s output, it will never give Corbyn a fair hearing.

That’s the last I’m planning to say on this subject here. Normal service will resume shortly both in terms of content, and, I strongly suspect, in terms of page views!


Some more thoughts on the Stephen Doughty resignation

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:

Good enough?

The BBC admits it co-ordinated in advance the on-air resignation of Stephen Doughty

Yesterday, three Labour front-benchers resigned in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s minor reshuffle. One of them – the previously unheard of Stephen Doughty – did so live on the Daily Politics just 5 minutes before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions, giving David Cameron the opportunity to bring it up in the chamber.

Today, the ‘output editor’ for the Daily Politics, wrote a – now taken down – blog on the BBC website’s ‘Academy’ section*, explaining how it all came about. You can read a cached version of the blog here.

Apparently, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg set it all up. From the blog post:

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.

I think this this is quite interesting because, while it could be argued that a live on air resignation is a great coup, I’m not sure it’s the job of the BBC’s political editor to actively assist disgruntled shadow cabinet members attempt to inflict maximum damage upon their party leader. I imagine if she had assisted a junior government minister do the same, there’d be a fearful row about BBC impartiality. What do you think?

*I found this via a posting on Reddit.

For the hard of thinking

Labour lost another giant from its front bench today after shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn. If you followed the news today, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was sacked for his views on terrorism and security. That’s certainly what his pal Chris Leslie pretended he thought anyway:

Can this possibly be true? Some background first. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, Corbyn was interviewed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and answered a question about shoot to kill policy in a way which was spun into him saying he wouldn’t want police to shoot-to-kill terrorists about to murder people on the streets of London. The very next day, David Cameron gave a statement in the House of Commons about the Paris attacks.

One after another, Labour MPs used this as an excuse to either distance themselves from Corbyn by praising Cameron, or to make thinly veiled attacks both directly on Corbyn (without naming him) and by proxy, on the Stop the War Coalition. The aforementioned Chris Leslie went first:

“The Prime Minister is right that the police and the security services need our full support at this time. Should it not be immediately obvious to everyone—to everyone—that the police need the full and necessary powers, including the proportionate use of lethal force if needs be, to keep our communities safe?”

Next up, Emma Reynolds:

“Does the Prime Minister agree that full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists and that any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the west or France’s military intervention in Syria is not only wrong and disgraceful, but should be condemned?”

Quickly followed up by now sacked Pat McFadden:

“May I ask the Prime Minister to reject the view that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the west do? Does he agree that such an approach risks infantilising the terrorists and treating them like children, when the truth is that they are adults who are entirely responsible for what they do? No one forces them to kill innocent people in Paris or Beirut. Unless we are clear about that, we will fail even to understand the threat we face, let alone confront it and ultimately overcome it.”

Here’s Mike Gapes:

“The content and tone of the Prime Minister’s statement spoke not just for the Government, but for the country.”

Finally Ian Austin:

“I agree with everything the Prime Minister said about Syria and terrorism. Does he agree with me that those who say that Paris is reaping the whirlwind of western policy or that Britain’s foreign policy has increased, not diminished, the threats to our national security not only absolve the terrorists of responsibility, but risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment that can develop into extremism and terrorism?”

Most of these comments are rather uncontroversial taken at face value. They are phrased in the style of an obsequious back bencher’s softball opening question at PMQs – a nice easy lob for Cameron to smash back into the open court. Cameron actually answered with a straight bat to these questions, but he was obviously in his element. Why would opposition MPs want to ask softball questions to the opposition phrased in a way to cause embarrassment to the party leader? Obviously to undermine Corbyn who they never accepted as leader. These are questions that go without saying. Except perhaps Austin’s dumb question, everybody agrees with them, Corbyn included, but by asking them, they strongly imply otherwise.

All but one of the questioners above though were back benchers, free to speak as they wish. The one who wasn’t though, was Pat McFadden. Which other leader would have taken that and not sacked the person in question?

Pat McFadden took his seat on the back benches this morning. Who was he sitting with for support?


So farewell Michael Dugher, the People’s Shadow Culture Secretary

Michael Dugher was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn today.

Michael Dugher, they liked him, they loved him, they regarded him as one of the people. He was the People’s Shadow Culture Secretary and that is how he will stay, how he will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.

That’s every bit as sincere as Tony Blair’s original version. Despite being an avid politics-watcher, I confess my knowledge of Dugher up until now went no further than recognising the name, but it turns out he was the driving force behind Andy Burnham’s leadership campaign in which he achieved an impressive second place result behind Jeremy Corbyn. He’s also apparently someone who understands “the North”. He is certainly well thought of by his former shadow cabinet colleagues who lined up – totally spontaneously – to eulogise this great man:

So there you have it, obviously a man of great stature. A shame then that he rather spoilt things with his rather petulant reaction to his sacking. If you read some of the (on-the-record) comments about Corbyn and people associated with Corbyn, it explains why Corbyn didn’t have much option but to sack him. No leader would tolerate that level of disloyalty.

At the time of writing, no other changes have been announced on what is normally a fairly routine process – the reshuffle. It’s being treated as anything but routine by the media and it’s driving them mad. No leaks and no news and yet for two days there have numerous live blogs, and scores of journalists filling empty space with rumour, speculation and outright bullshit. It’s actually quite sad.

Could Donald Trump become the next US President?

Betteridge’s law of headlines says that any headline that ends with a question mark can be answered with the word ‘no’. This law nearly always holds, but in this case, I think we have to consider the possibility that the answer might be yes.

A lot of people still react with incredulity to this suggestion, particularly after some of the very public statements he has made. There was the time he branded Mexican immigrants rapists. Or the time he said John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he got captured by the North Vietnamese. Then there was his apparent mocking of a journalist’s disability. And then the biggy, when he recently called for a temporary ban on Muslims travelling to the US.

If most people running for office had said or done just one of these things, their campaign would be over, but Trump has actually been improving in the polls and his lead over his Republican rivals is now in double digits. Has the world gone mad? What is going on?

Conventional wisdom to now has been that Trump is not serious about running, he will drop out early, or that the latest controversy will finish him off. None of these predictions has so far been borne out. One person has consistently been making correct predictions about the Trump campaign, and his reasons for making these predictions are rather interesting. That person is the creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip, Scott Adams. He has written a series of blogs arguing that rather that committing heinous blunders, everything Donald Trump is doing is pre-planned. Trump, Adams argues is using ‘persusion’ skills to convince the American electorate that he is the only candidate that has answers to America’s great problems (Trump often uses the word problem), and that he’s actually just saying what everyone’s already thinking. It does seem to be working.

This video is quite a good explanation of how Trump communicates when answering a question:

A recent study looked at the campaign speeches of all the candidates for President and compared them against reading ages. While you needed a high school level of English to understand the speeches of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Trump’s speeches could be comprehended by anyone with a reading age of above grade 4 (when kids are around 9 years old). This makes him accessible to nearly all US citizens. Being able to communicate your ideas at that level might seem over-simplified, but if you want to reach the widest possible audience, it can be a really smart move.

Trump also has an uncanny knack of swatting away rivals with a simple put-down that seems to stick. Jeb Bush was the front-runner 6 months ago, but is now polling less than 5%. Trump had labelled him “low energy”, and he hasn’t seemed able to shake that off. Trump seems to be setting his sights on Hilary Clinton next. He has also said she lacks stamina and recently said “women don’t like Hilary”. We’ll see if any of that sticks.

At the moment then, I’m quite taken with Scott Adams’ hypothesis about what Trump’s strategy may be, but being a Brit, and not really plugged in to what’s going on in the States, I can’t be sure if he’s right. He is certainly bullish about Trump’s chances, predicting a landslide victory.

What do you think? From this side of the Atlantic, it seems unbelievable that Trump could get anywhere near the Presidency, but there are signs it may not be as fanciful as many think.

Happy New Year

Just a short blog to say Happy New Year to all readers of this blog. I got a new job in September, and since then haven’t found quite as much time for blogging. December in particular was not a productive month blogwise, but I hope to pick things up a bit over the next few weeks.

Hope everyone had a good Christmas, and that 2016 is a good year for all.

Why we shouldn’t be bombing Syria

I just came across this piece from Private Eye, and it explains pretty well one reason why we shouldn’t be bombing Syria. It’s also the reason why I am against it. This may be a different reason to the reason Jeremy Corbyn was opposed, but I think it’s as good as any. It’s not as simple as the emotional proponents like Hilary Benn had us believe.

The reality of Labour MP deselection campaigns

Labour MPs seem to be spending a lot of time talking about deselections at the moment. We are being told that Labour MPs who voted to bomb Syria will be ‘targeted’ for deselection by ‘entryists’ and the Corbyn leadership campaign spin-off group with a ‘The Apprentice’ team name – Momentum. Names that have been mentioned in connection with deselection include Chuka Umunna and Stella Creasy. But is there any substance behind these stories?

On Channel 4 News last night, Michael Crick thought he had uncovered a plot in Stella Creasy’s Walthamstow constituency. He had found a leaflet that had been distributed in the constituency inviting people to attend a meeting to discuss the deselection issue. Crick did what he is known for and turned up at the meeting, where he discovered a grand total of 12 people, 8 of the school kids. Here is the vid:

For all the noise around deselections, the truth is, the only evidence of people campaigning for them are a miniscule number of people outside the Labour Party who have no power to deselect anyone.

It would seem to me fairly clear that some Labour MPs dislike groups like Momentum because it will place more scrutiny on what they are doing. They particularly don’t like to be reminded that the decisions they make have real life consequences that they will bear some responsibility for.

Until the boundary review is concluded in 3 years time, no deselections can take place anyway. The noise around Momentum is simply a continuation of the strategy used during the Labour leadership campaign. Guilt by association and the smearing of – on the whole I would guess – young people newly enthused by politics for the first time who want to find a way to organise and help Labour win the next election. Labour MPs should be embracing these new members rather than viewing them with suspicion.

Britain doesn’t like nuance or shades of grey

The reaction to recent statements made in the media by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has sunk to a new low. If you ever doubt a consensus exists between the two main parties and most of our media (print and TV), just observe the aftermath of any great tragedy. All actors in the Westminster farce come together around a single idea or set of ideas, beyond which no one is permitted to stray. Should they dare to do so, they face being roundly denounced. The person to do that has rarely been the leader of the opposition (at least in my life time), and so the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s straying from the agreed lines is particularly vitriolic – not least from within his own party.

A little background first for those who may not have been following developments in Westminster this week. Following the terrible attacks in Paris on Friday, several in Westminster saw it as a chance to hasten through move to increase the powers of the security services and realise their long-held desire to bomb Syria. At times like these, the official opposition is expected to fall into line and pledge full support for whatever the government want to do. Earlier in the week, the so-called ‘Jihadi John’ had (probably) been killed by a US drone strike. This news was greeted with jubilation by the British Government, a sentiment that was supposed to be shared by the Labour Party.

Cameron’s government has faithfully played its part in events, but the fly in the ointment has been Jeremy Corbyn’s response. This is simply unforgivable in the eyes of many. So what crimes has Corbyn committed in the last 7 days?

First off he dared to question whether the drone strike that reportedly killed Mohammed Emwazi were an altogether good thing. His comments saying it would have been better if he could have been put on trial, rather than being treated as a perfectly reasonable – if rather obvious – statement were met with ridicule.

Next up, following the Paris attacks, Corbyn re-iterated his doubts that joining the French in bombing Syria was the right way for the UK to act. Many Labour MPs seem to really want the chance to vote to bomb Syria, and are hopping mad they may not immediately get the chance to do so.

The final straw seems to have been Corbyn responding in the negative when asked if he supported a policy of ‘shoot to kill’. Corbyn’s position on this is rather nuanced. He wants police and security services to try to stop those engaging in armed attacks with non-lethal force if at all possible, but to retain the option to use lethal force if there is no other option. This is pretty much what happens now, so his response was actually pretty reasonable. This really caused Labour MPs to lose the plot though, and the print media have had a field day. Ben Bradshaw Tweeted:

Happy to tell you Ben that it is not true (although you already knew that and just want everyone to think that’s what he said).

Corbyn also had the audacity to suggest that British (and the West’s more generally) foreign policy towards the Middle East might not on the whole have made us any safer and may in fact have made things worse. To most people this should be a statement of the bleeding obvious. Not to Labour MP Ian Austin though it seems. He used the occasion of David Cameron’s statement to Parliament today to ask this question:

I agree with everything the prime minister said about Syria and about terrorism. But does he agree with me that those that say that Paris is reaping the whirwind of Western policy  or who want to say that Britain’s foreign policy has increased not diminished the threats to our own nation security are not just absolving the terrorists of responsibility, but risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment which can develop into extremism and terrorism.

So apparently, in the post-Paris world, anyone who dares to suggest Britain’s foreign policy makes us less safe is “absolving the terrorists”. If this is not the madness of groupthink, I don’t know what is. Austin wasn’t the only one either, Labour MPs seemed to be queuing up to praise the Prime Minister and distance themselves for their own party leader.

Corbyn’s style does often work against him and makes him easy to misrepresent however. If you watch Cameron in interviews, it’s obvious he has prepped for hours, run through all the possible questions he could be asked, rehearsed his answers and had someone write him some soundbites to unveil at an opportune moment, knowing these are what journalists will pick up on. He is incredibly good at it. Many politicians are.

Corbyn though does not appear to do this. He doesn’t have a lot of time for the media and seems to give answers off the cuff and without having anticipated the questions in advance. This has the advantage of being authentic and at times interesting, but it also means if he says something out of the ordinary (judged by the turgid standards of Westminster) – which is frequently – he doesn’t explain his position comprehensively, so people unexposed to that opinion, or those with an interest in misrepresentation, can find their own meaning in Corbyn’s remarks. He needs to understand that this will happen and find his own way to set out his position in a way that leaves no room for doubt or misrepresentation.

Nuance and shades of grey are not welcome in Westminster. We are now at a stage where someone can write this with a straight face. This is the sort of reporting we used to laugh at if it came from Fox News in the States, thankful that that sort of bullshit wasn’t tolerated here. Not any more it seems.

Many people in the public at large fall into the “string em up, hang em high” way of thinking. Politicians know this and at times like this queue up to look tough, and simply appear to be doing something, anything. I find it hard to believe that they all believe in private the things they say in public. The opinions of the likes of Corbyn are always unwelcome in situations like this, but to seek to marginalise those views seems to me rather dangerous, and smacks of repeating the same mistakes we have made in the very recent past.