There is a growing row today over the BBC’s stage management of the resignation of the Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesman, Stephen Doughty.
Mr Doughty announced he was quitting on The Daily Politics show.
Good scoop for them, you might think.
But yesterday the programme’s output editor wrote a blog explaining how it came about – and specifically that the programme asked Political Editor, Laura Kuessenberg, whether Doughty could be persuaded to resign on-air.
It appears that the programme team hadn’t quite realised how incendiary this would be. But someone else did and the blog was quietly taken down.
That was picked up the blogger Alex Little, who began to ask questions about the BBC’s role in the affair.
And then it all kicked off.
Wow………… smoking gun as far as BBC bias goes…. this is a scandal https://t.co/gOHVKT5j7P
— Éoin (@LabourEoin) January 7, 2016
For the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn this was clear evidence of a BBC agenda of bias against the Labour leader. They took to Twitter en masse to fulminate about the coverage. Some even going so far as to suggest that the entire resignation was a stunt got up by the BBC.
That was too much even for the BBC’s press office.
On Stephen Doughty’s resignation on Daily Politics: pic.twitter.com/9i0iR1sqKK
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) January 7, 2016
Most journalists were incredulous at the naivety of Corbyn’s supporters.
“Shadow Minister maximises attention for resignation/Media outlet tries to get scoop” why is this even a story? https://t.co/oRkbcCq70n
— Mark Ferguson (@Markfergusonuk) January 8, 2016
Although there was some questioning about the BBC’s taking down of the blog. This from the LSE’s Charlie Beckett, who is also an advisor to the House of Commons’ Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.
All TV news is orchestrated. I have no problem with BBC Doughty live resignation. But why take down the blogpost? https://t.co/Nd4kKXP3J9
- — Charlie Beckett (@CharlieBeckett) January 8, 2016
The key questions are:
- Did the BBC organise the resignation of Stephen Doughty?
- No. It’s clear he had already decided to resign and written to Corbyn.
- Was it right for the BBC to allow Stephen Doughty to resign on air?
- This is an editorial decision. The programme makers want a scroop and they got it. Referring back to my battered copy of the BBC Editorial guidelines, the only issue I can see raised by this is the question of whether carrying the resignation is a breach of due impartiality. I can’t see that it is. Not least because of the rigour of Andrew Neil’s subsequent questioning of his motives in resignation. Consider this: would it have been OK for the BBC to carry an interview with a public figure in any other sphere in which they announced their resignation? Clearly the answer to this is yes. So, why wouldn’t they carry Doughty’s resignation interview?
- Did the BBC stage manage the resignation for maximum impact?
- Pretty clearly the answer to this is yes. But all news coverage is managed by journalists for the maximum impact. If you’re the editor of News at Ten, you want your lead story to be a scoop that wrong foots the opposition. That’s what journalism is. Could the story been reported in other ways? Clearly it could – Laura Kuessenberg could reported it on the News Channel or Radio 4’s Today or any of the other myriad of BBC outlets. Would that have made any difference to the impact? I don’t think so and I think that comments about the timing are broadly disingenuous – Doughty had decided to resign on that morning, whether it was at 9am or 11.50am the effect would have been the same.
- Is the BBC acting in a politicised way?
- I don’t think so. I don’t see that any other news organisation would have run this differently. But the issue for the BBC here is not that it IS acting politically but that it might be SEEN to be acting politically. That, I suspect, is the reason for the caution over the blog. As the BBC enters licence renewal it will want Labour onside and thus crowing articles about taking scalps are the last thing it wants to talk about in public.
- Does the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other media organisations?
- All this all very well then. But doesn’t the BBC have to be held to higher standards than other news organisations because of the unique nature of the way it’s funded? That’s certainly been the argument of the author and media commentator Peter Jukes.
If the BBC starts behaving like any other news organisation, the question will quickly follow. Why should we be forced to pay for it?
— Peter Jukes (@peterjukes) January 8, 2016
Does the BBC act like any other news organisation? I don’t think so. It holds itself to high editorial standards, it pays at least lip service to transparency, and it agonises over its coverage. Was it right to carry Doughty’s resignation announcement as it did – broadly I think so. The programme was a specialist programme for a specialist audience, there was a public interest in questioning his motives in resignation, and it was clearly newsworthy. But as so often with these cases, that’s a matter of opinion and judgement.
Which brings us all back to the age old question: can you trust the media? Trust them to always be impartial and to act from the purest and noblest of motives? To paraphrase my old colleague, Adrian Monck, who once wrote a book on this…. no.