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Making the news or breaking it: a unique problem for the BBC

The argument over whether the BBC 'orchestrated' the resignation of a Labour shadow minister for political effect is more than it seems.

Cameron looking pleased in PMQ's after Doughty's live resignation

It’s a storm in a tea-cup, they say. It’s just a bunch of barmy Corbynistas blaming the failures of their hero on some massive right-wing media conspiracy. Move on. Grow up. This is how the media work. 

The ‘on air’ resignation of a relatively unknown shadow business minister, Stephen Doughty, on the BBC’s Daily Politics last Tuesday may not rate very highly on the political agenda, but the brief searchlight it shone into the nation’s public broadcaster at a time of parliamentary turmoil and institutional crisis is instructive.

First full disclosure: I know and like the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, who replaced Nick Robinson after the general election. I think Andrew Neil does an admirable job as an impartial questioner and presenter, making both the BBC’s Daily and Sunday Politics programmes entertaining and informative to watch. (It should also go without saying I do not support any ludicrous petitions demanding that either of them resign.)

I also am not a cheerleader for Jeremy Corbyn, and have no time for most of the foreign policy stances I’ve read from his chief spokesman, Guardian journalist Seamus Milne, who probably should be focusing on wider issues than one BBC interview.

That said, the reply of Daily Politics editor Robbie Gibb to Milne’s claims of promoting a “particular political narrative", raises more questions than it answers.

Normal Journalistic Practices

The weakest part of his response is the explanation about why the blog by producer Andrew Alexander was deleted ('Resignation! Making the news on the Daily Politics').

The language ‘no inferences should be drawn’ suggests a BBC lawyer’s hand, but even so the BBC Journalism college site has never been private, and internal circulation would have been to thousands of leaky BBC employees. More importantly, Gibb doesn’t disown any of the events laid out in the blog.

But the key thrust of Gibb’s argument is that he rejects any suggestion his programme “orchestrated and stage managed" Doughty’s resignation, arguing that the BBC was merely deploying normal journalistic practices by breaking news.

This is where the problem lies. Let’s forget the civil war in the Labour Party (if you can) or the fact the BBC is under intense pressure from a second wave of cuts and looming Charter review.  Let’s take out the political and journalistic personalities, and look at the timeline for the events.

The Timeline

9 a.m. Sometime shortly before this, the political editor of the BBC established that a shadow minister is about to resign and talked to the Daily Politics whose presenter suggested it should be on air.

10 a.m. The programme, presenter and political editor agreed this should be done.

11.51 a.m. The shadow minister emailed his party leader with news of his resignation.

11.56. a.m. The shadow minister announced his resignation.

11.57 a.m. Daily Politics tweeted out the news, which is immediately retweeted by BBC Parliament Today

11.57 a.m. During Scottish questions, the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretaries react to their phones and one talked to another government minister on the front bench.

12.00 p.m. A space on the front bench was cleared between the government minister and the prime minister, who talk for a minute or so.

12.06 p.m. Replying to a question from the leader of the opposition, the prime minister was the first to announce on the floor of the house the shadow minister’s resignation.

Scoop or Stunt?

So there’s an immediate problem with the BBC’s ‘breaking news’ defence. The news was actually breaking around 9 a.m. With a live news channel and various radio stations, the BBC could have gone on air at any time in the next three hours. In technical terms this is not a scoop as in “let’s get this out ASAP before someone else breaks it". It’s a ‘drop’: a piece of information held back for a strategic moment.

The next problem is with the strategic moment. Forget for a moment the deleted blog’s claim this was for “maximum political impact”. Let’s take in good faith the programme makers’ claims that this was for maximum audience impact when people are tuning in for PMQs.  Surely they would have had even more publicity and impact if they’d trailed at the top of the show at 11.30: “And today we have news of another resigning shadow minister… stay tuned…” But there was no hint of this.

Doughty himself has said that he left his announcement to the last moment so he couldn’t be smeared by Corbyn’s press team. They wouldn’t be able to do much in the half an hour before PMQs.

By timing the announcement – intentionally or not – in such a way that the opposition leader would have no chance to respond, and the prime minister could use the information in PMQs, gives the appearance of making ‘maximum political impact’ on the House of the Commons rather than to the general audience. 

Andrew Neil made the point to me yesterday that he held back a scoop about the CIA finally admitting it hadn’t found WMD in Iraq for eight hours. But this situation is different. Neither the CIA, government or opposition would be significantly disadvantaged by the timing of the ‘drop’.

The Appearance of Partiality

The timing of the resignation gives the appearance of partiality. The Parliament live archive of the three minutes leading up to PMQs shows the problem.

Cameron’s parliamentary secretaries in the second row were constantly checking their phones from 11.56 onwards. Around this time Cameron's private parliamentary secretary passes some information onto Chris Grayling while the treasury secretary David Gauke was responding to a question.

While the Scottish minister David Mundell was at the dispatch box, the prime minister still seems oblivious to the news. However, as soon as Gauke leaves the chamber, Grayling passes onto Cameron some urgent news. Seconds before rising to his feet, the prime minister does not look unhappy. Any reasonable person could conclude that Doughty’s resignation put Corbyn on the back foot and gave the prime minister an advantage.

This is How it Works

Doughty has every right to resign when he likes, and his reasons for doing so seem principled, though the complaint about negative spin and the failure of a ‘new kind of politics’ are somewhat ironic in the circumstances. But what were the BBC doing enabling him with the timing? 

In private, several senior journalists have told me this is dangerous territory, and risks at the very minimum the charge of sensationalism.

However, in public, journalists from across the print media have defended it as excellent journalism. On Friday, the former Guardian editor and now professor at Columbia, Emily Bell; John Gapper the Financial Times columnist and novelist, Paul Connew the former Mirror executive and deputy editor of News of the World, all told me the same thing.  This is what every news organisation does and every hack would hope to achieve. Maximum impact and political effect.

But the BBC is not any news organisation. Unlike the Guardian, FT, or News of the World, it is uniquely funded, with the prospect of a criminal sanction for not paying the licence fee.

Because it is paid for by the overwhelming bulk of the UK population, the BBC’s own guidelines emphasise impartiality above all in their editorial guidelines. These are even more specific when it comes to political interviews:

“Our arrangements must stand up to public scrutiny and must not prevent the programme asking questions that our audiences would reasonably expect to hear.”

Public funding should be accompanied by public scrutiny, and Andrew Alexander should be commended rather than punished by the BBC for contributing towards that transparency with his blog.

The other important factor in this is the role of the BBC’s political editor. Far from being any ‘hack’ the political editor is a figure of enormous trust and authority who is relied on to provide perspective on the political cockpit, not appear to play any part in any particular battle.

In a reasoned exchange on Saturday with the Sky News presenter Niall Paterson, who found himself in the unusual position of defending the BBC, he concluded with the key question: "Why should the BBC behave differently than competitors simply because of the licence fee? Why should licence fee payers dictate when politicians should not?”

This goes to the heart of the role of a publicly funded public service broadcaster. Should it chase ratings to cater for its vast subscriber base? With its funding ultimately in the hands of politicians, is it ultimately a client of the state?  

As the battle for the future of the public service broadcaster rolls on, one thing is for sure; if the BBC starts behaving like any other news organisation, the question will quickly follow: why should we be forced to pay for it?

And for the first time in my adult life I’m seriously asking myself that question.

About the author

Peter Jukes is a dramatist and journalist who has written dozens of prime time TV dramas and radio plays as well as articles for both UK and US publications, from the New Statesman to the New Republic. He successfully crowd funded his coverage of the phone hacking trial and subsequent book, and is an adviser for the new crowd funding journalism site Byline. 


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