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The BBC versus The Canary: two experts have their say

BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg. PA Images/Dominic Lipinski

The BBC versus The Canary: two experts have their say

According to the BBC’s Nick Robinson alternative news sites are waging a “guerrilla war” against the BBC in an attempt to promote their own editorial agenda. He was speaking after The Canary appeared to indulge in a “fake news” story about Laura Kuenssberg speaking at the Tory party conference. We asked two media experts for their views.

John Collins, Senior Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism

Whenever there was a fire drill at any BBC building I worked at, colleagues would joke about the discarded copies of the Guardian, half-eaten pots of hummus and hastily snatched FitBits. That was the joke because that was the narrative. We were the left-leaning, liberal staff of the BBC. We were the liberal metropolitan elite – but we were a weird form of elite where many set their alarm at 4am and earned substantially less than the average wage of a firefighter, teacher or tube driver.

The truth was, and remains, very different. BBC staff have a myriad of personal views while your local BBC radio station likely orders more copies of the Daily Mail than any other newspaper.

A section of the right has always believed it leans to the left. Parts of the left have always thought the reverse. The echo chambers of message boards and social media feeds now allow those with either opinion to join forces and allow uncorroborated repetition the same gravitas as evidence.

The BBC is not anti-Jeremy Corbyn. Nor is it anti-Theresa May. Any journalist should look to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If you wish to run for the highest office in the land, prepare for your policies, your previous and your personality to be held up to scrutiny. Laura Kuenssberg is disliked by those on the left and those on the right. Why? She’s extremely good at her job: sceptical, tenacious and occasionally abrasive.

The reputation of the Canary has surely been damaged by this situation being further inflamed by the publishing of a clear untruth. There is a certain irony in its attack on the credibility of a journalist being based on something that is so easily verified as being untrue. The attack may be considered “guerrilla tactics” but only if those guerrillas were aiming to shoot themselves in the foot.

The BBC can do more to challenge accusations of bias. It needs to better represent the communities it serves: through programming, staffing and the voices we hear. It needs to change top-down, naturally conservative (note the small “c”) programmes such as Today, Question Time and The Andrew Marr Show to better reflect the diverse, fluid views of its audiences.

A discussion is needed around the subtle but vital distinction between impartiality and balance. It’s difficult not to conclude that the BBC’s pursuit of impartiality leads to imbalance. If 96% of scientists hold one view and your debate contains one member of the 96% and one member of the 4%, your debate will be impartial – but is it a balanced reflection of current thinking?

Blame policies, question tradition – but the day a journalist needs a bodyguard at a party conference is the day you’ve lost your argument. This was the debate where The Spectator agreed with The New Statesman, with the BBC right in the middle of the two. Isn’t that exactly how a balanced media should look?

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn interviewed by Laura Kuenssberg during the Labour Party Conference in Brighton in September 2017. EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL

Tom Mills, Lecturer in Sociology

The reaction to The Canary article seems to me to have been hysterical and a newspaper such as The Sun accusing another news organisation of spreading “fake news” might be funny were it not tiresome.

If organisations like The Canary pose the problems for UK journalism that are being claimed, they are only much paler versions of problems long exhibited by an overwhelmingly right-wing and unscrupulous press. The power of these institutions is waning but they still wield considerable influence over our politics – including indirectly via the BBC – where the press oligarchies have been able to set the agenda if not the tone of reporting.

This is a much more significant political issue than insinuations made in a few articles on left-wing websites. The offending Canary article at least made mention of the overall pattern of reporting on the BBC, citing a scholarly study.

Those interested in politics, the media – and the politics of the media – would do well to follow The Canary’s lead and at least take note of the social scientific evidence. If the grave problems with our public institutions, the BBC included, continue to be conflated with the grave problems of abuse of women and minorities, then we will resolve neither.

There is a responsibility on all of us to challenge abuse in public life. This means doing our best to avoid political criticisms slipping into personal abuse – most particularly when it is directed towards those who in any case face structural disadvantages in politics and the media. Conversely though, it is for precisely this reason that political criticism, opposition and even anger are not carelessly conflated with abuse – or that the latter problem is not used as an alibi to dismiss the former.

In the case of Laura Kuenssberg, it is clear she has been the target of misogynistic abuse: a fact that will not surprise any woman with a platform in journalism or politics. This needs to be taken seriously and addressed and recognised as being symptomatic of a wider social problem.

As for the separate issue of political criticism: my own view, for what it’s worth, is that it is not helpful to focus excessively on individual reporters in discussions of political bias in media organisations (although Kuenssberg holds what is probably the most significant post in British political journalism and so is hardly personally insignificant).

The implication that Kuenssberg is personally hostile to Corbyn’s Labour may be correct, who knows? But the real issue is that the institution she represents is deeply embedded in the British Establishment. As I outline in considerable detail in my book, the BBC has always been a “small-c” conservative organisation, closely tied to the British state.

But since Thatcher it has also been integrated into the capitalist market and remodelled in accordance with the neoliberal consensus. This has been reflected in the BBC’s reporting, which has been implicitly and sometimes explicitly biased against Corbyn and his supporters, precisely because they stand opposed to this consensus.

Indeed, Kuenssberg herself was found by the now defunct BBC Trust to have violated the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality and accuracy in an early report on Corbyn. Any serious discussion of the political criticisms Kuenssberg has faced must take this context into account.

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