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!

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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?