They ask tough questions and they’re supposed to

laura kuenssberg

Following Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and the on air resignation of Shadow Foreign Minister Stephen Doughty, renewed accusations are doing the rounds claiming BBC bias. One of the most shared blogs I’ve seen regarding this accusation uses a now deleted post by Andrew Alexander to illustrate how the Daily Politics was ‘not reporting news, it’s making it’. But this is once again people misunderstanding, and showing contempt for, the role political journalism has in a healthy democracy.

The role of political journalism has been developing and changing for years and it’s only a recent development that we have constant access and cover of government and parliament. What has never changed however is the political establishment’s contempt for the media’s access to their business and the reporting of it. As Nick Robinson described his role back in 2012:

This may sound as if, for me, political journalism is about catching out, tripping up or embarrassing a politician. It is not. It is, however, about exposing publicly what many know to exist privately: tension between colleagues, policy contradictions or a failure to have thought through a policy clearly. The job I did then and to a large extent still do now, is to identify these problems and seek to bring them to light.

This insight to what he does in his work as a political journalist is the best summary I’ve ever seen or could offer. Not least due to its relevance in this situation, as we all know the Labour Party is carrying out a war against itself right now; when was the last time three shadow ministers all resigned in one day?

It was also not too long ago all political coverage happened across only three, maybe four, TV channels and was only covered on the news. Nowadays there is a torrent of political coverage and each outlet has to compete for the public attention, forcing them to do what they can to get the scoop. The blog above illustrates that this is exactly what they did. The lines singled out by the author are either taken out of context or simply illustrate three political journalists doing their job and doing it well.

Our politicians and those who follow them could all do worse than to learn from Justin Trudeau. Shortly before becoming Prime Minister of Canada and at the height of campaigning a journalist was in the middle of a question the activists behind him objected to but without a moment’s hesitation Trudeau turned around and told them ‘We respect journalists in this country, they ask tough questions they’re supposed to.’

Political journalists have a very important role in a democracy. They are there to expose the issues within governments and parliament that the public simply cannot find out for themselves. Only by doing the work they do can we realistically expect to have the knowledge and information we need to make educated and informed decisions about how we vote. We need them to probe the internal disputes, the half-baked policies and the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies that come with a healthy representative democracy.

* Jonathan Waddell is a History and Economics student at the University of Aberdeen and President of the Aberdeen University Liberal Democrats.

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54 Comments

  • Liberal Neil 8th Jan '16 - 5:08pm

    Spot on.

  • Excellent

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jan '16 - 5:11pm

    Alright then if the public broadcaster is justified to act like this because outlets “have to compete for attention” then I want deregulation in financial services.

    I don’t mind the public broadcaster acting like this, but I do mind the hypocrisy of private firms getting slammed if they act in the same way, especially financial ones, and I also don’t like the sneering that I’ve seen from some who have made out that any criticism is ridiculous, with one person even calling it “an outbreak of mass thickness”.

  • A Social Liberal 8th Jan '16 - 5:21pm

    Jonathon

    It is one thing to report the news, another to try and influence it. By asking Daughty to delay his declaration and then resign on air is not reporting the news but manipulating a story in order to further damage a party is interfering in politics – all very well for the murdoch press to do so, it is to be expected of them but not of an organisation that purports to be unbiased.

    This would be wrong if it had been sprung on Cameron, it is just as wrong to have it perpetrated on Corbyn

  • Jonathan Waddell 8th Jan '16 - 5:55pm

    I don’t believe it was a manipulation though.

    Simply political journalists seeking to beak the story themselves rather than others so that the most amount of people will see it.

    It’s far too easy for these stories to fall into a torrent and go unnoticed.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '16 - 6:01pm

    This almost reads like two different articles. One is celebrating the importance of good political journalism. The other is referring to a cheap manipulative political stunt by Andrew Neill’s team. They certainly weren’t asking Stephen Doughty the “tough questions they’re supposed to”!
    More worrying is that Neill’s stunt potentially shows a political bias that no Lib Dem should want to see in the BBC. Prime Minister’s Questions is an opportunity to hold the Prime Minister to account, and this is undermined by setting out deliberately to embarrass any of the opposition parties immediately before it and to set up a particular news story to be reported afterwards. It certainly does not sound like good political journalism.

  • David Allen 8th Jan '16 - 6:16pm

    I don’t think “They ask tough questions and they’re supposed to” is well illustrated by the BBC journalist featured below. Too often these days, they duck the genuinely probing questions and concentrate on a bogus “balance”.

    Paxman achieved “balance” by rubbishing liars and truth-tellers equally. Others achieve “balance” in the opposite way, for instance by finishing every report of another administrative disaster with “But the Government say everything is continually getting better thanks to their perfect policies, so that’s alright then”. Nick Robinson does, for the most part, manage to live up to his declared higher standards. There aren’t enough others like him.

  • A Social Liberal 8th Jan '16 - 6:27pm

    Jonathan

    Daughty was asked to delay his statement, that is manipulation of the news. He was asked onto the programme for one reason only, not to talk about his resignation but to resign – that is manipulation. There was only one reason to ask Daughty to resign and that was to embarrass the Labour Party, that is anything but acting without bias

  • The BBC has no reason to exist in the 21st century and is essentially a government/establishment mouthpiece and always has been much like Russia Today . Personally, I resent paying their wages and find online news outlets far better and Sky News , Channel 5 and Channel 4 news perfectly adequate and usually better as well.

  • Jonathan Waddell 8th Jan '16 - 8:16pm

    I accept the point that it reads like two different points but what I was trying to illustrate was that just because they may do something we don’t like doesn’t give us the right to hold it against them. It’s their job to ask tough questions to reveal what’s going on behind the scenes.

    However, on the point about Russia Today I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more. Many PMs have tried in the past to make the BBC their mouth piece and have failed miserably. It is not the mouthpiece of the government but it does have a responsibility to report on its business.

  • @Simon Shaw
    Well the now-deleted producer’s blog certainly claimed that the “on-air resignation” was dreamt up and then arranged (as far as the “on-air” part of it goes) by BBC reporters (Andrew Neil and Laura Kuennsberg respectively) :-

    http://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jan/08/bbc-stephen-doughty-daily-politics-laura-kuenssberg

    However, the same report also quotes Doughty as claiming that he had actually resigned (in the sense of telling Corbyn) BEFORE he went on the programme. Which, if true, means that this “on-air resignation” was in fact nothing of the sort.

    I haven’t seen the original programme myself or read a transcript, so I don’t know whether it was Doughty himself, the BBC, or somebody else who came up with this froth about an “on-air resignation”.

  • @Simon Shaw
    “I think it was quite possibly the BBC’s Andrew Alexander himself who asked for the account to be deleted.”

    Is that – or anything else in your answer to Peter’s Q3 – based on information, or is it pure speculation?

    Just putting this out there – I offer no commentary on it – but the title of the now-deleted blog post was: “Resignation! Making the news on the Daily Politics”.

  • Jonathon.
    It’s a matter of opinion, but personally I don’t see the BBC as much different to Russia Today. It’s certainly not unbiased on war, the royal family or much else most of the time. Political coverage is usually little more than tittle tattle, conjecture and when did you stop beating your wife questioning.
    You want unbiased news. Then report facts. Nothing more. No what does this mean, no how will this effect so and so, no interviewing journalists about what other journalist think, etc.

    All rolling news programs and political programing everywhere in the world is biased some way or another because all people and all cultures are biased some way or the other. So things become biased through editorial choices, inflection, framing, choice of language, inclusion and omission plus a host of other factors.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jan '16 - 11:51pm

    To back up Glenn: on very rare occasions I think the secret service does influence the BBC. I don’t mind this, but before the run up to the Syria vote in 2013 they broke their guidelines on images of dead children and refused to apologise. They always warn people of distressing images, but on this occasion they didn’t. As soon as Big Ben stuck 10 they flashed images of dead children. Whenever there is a war vote coming up, pay attention to the BBC. Remember smashing the Guardian computers too? The government does influence the press when it comes to serious matters of national security. Which I think is broadly fine. But not too much of it.

  • I have no problem with journalists asking tough questions, as long as they don’t interrupt the poor soul trying to answer it halfway through their sentence. More thought and nuance, less soundbite would benefit all sides

  • The reason for worrying about the methodology and manipulation of the story is in the sentence….“we knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact”….

    “Political Impact! ….They delayed the news; not reported it…..

    Neither the BBC nor Stephen Doughty ( how many of us even knew he existed before his 15 minutes of fame?) come out of this with any credit…Strangely, after his disloyalty (not in his going but in the manner of his going) Doughty tweeted….”No surprise shadowy advisers continue to spin + smear… What a stark contrast w/ @jeremycorbyn himself who thanked me for my letter”….

  • @Simon Shaw
    “The problem is that most of the anti-BBC comment is speculation as well.”

    Not at all – it’s based on hard information from one of the programme’s producers, who claimed that the on-air aspect of the resignation had been the idea of Andrew Neil and then actively arranged by Laura Kuenssberg in such a way as to maximise political impact. You might not agree that there was anything wrong with that but you can’t write it off as “speculation”. But thanks for confirming that your own post was composed entirely of speculation.

    I’ve just watched the programme on iPlayer for the first time and two things are very striking given the producer’s version of events :-

    1) Andrew Neil introduces Doughty as a shadow minister – despite the fact that Alexander claims Neil knew all along that Doughty had already resigned.
    2) Likewise Kuenssberg introduces Doughty as a shadow minister who is merely thinking about resigning.

    Why did they do that, if they already knew he had resigned? Is it really objective reporting to feign ignorance, giving the viewers a false impression of what they are actually seeing? Someone needs to teach Neil and Kuenssberg the differences between reporting, entertainment, and propaganda.

  • Jenny barnes 9th Jan '16 - 11:43am

    “ISterrorism is somehow the west’s fault”
    Let’s imagine a breakdown in law and order in the UK. Floods, criminal gangs, police disaffection with budget cuts. Let’simagine that the chinese decide to help us keep order, and wander round the country heavily armed, not speaking any English, getting from place to place by helicopter, … Do you think the natives might get a bit restless?
    The history of the ME throught the last 100 years illustrates copious interference and colonialism from the West, mostly GB.
    Of course everyone is responsible for their actions, but those actions take place in acontext.

  • I think it’s safe to say that Corbyn was NOT aware of Doughty’s resignation…His “I have just written to Jeremy Corbyn to resign from the front bench” more than implies that it was done that morning (otherwise “Yesterday” or “a few days ago”, etc. would have been the phrase used)…

    He also confirms in his tweet “jeremycorbyn himself who thanked me for my letter”, that it was a written letter not an e-mail…

    Stuart’s 9th Jan ’16 – 10:44am….
    1) Andrew Neil introduces Doughty as a shadow minister – despite the fact that Alexander claims Neil knew all along that Doughty had already resigned.
    2) Likewise Kuenssberg introduces Doughty as a shadow minister who is merely thinking about resigning.

    This ensured that the lie of his ‘sudden on-air resignation’ could be kept from Corbyn and his team to inflict the most damage….

    Unles

  • @Simon Shaw
    “I think you are speculating there yourself, Stuart. The way I read it the BBC was keen for this to happen this way because of the journalistic impact.”

    I thought you said you’d read (Daily Politics producer) Andrew Alexander’s now-infamous blog post? From which :-

    “we knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact.”

  • @Jenny Barnes
    “The history of the ME throught the last 100 years illustrates copious interference and colonialism from the West, mostly GB.”

    The history of the ME through the last 100 years (and for countless centuries before that) is one of copious interference and colonialism from non-Western parties too, as well as endless internal strife. Ignoring all that and constructing an entirely West-blaming narrative is not only inaccurate, it’s deeply unhelpful to the people suffering in the ME now, since it leads to ignorance of many of the causes and inflames the West/ME anatagonism that increasingly seems to be driving us towards the proverbial “clash of civilisations”.

  • On this particular case. Is it not worth noting that Andrew Neil has a history of well known links to and support for the Conservative Party so is hardly bipartisan. Imagine the fuss these shenanigans were reversed with a Conservative Frontbencher being encouraged to resign on a show fronted by a well documented Left Winger.
    Whatever, it is not the job of a publically funded broadcaster to manipulate the news for it’s own purposes.

  • @Glenn
    Well, quite. To be fair to Neil I think he is usually excellent at his job and I enjoy watching his programmes. But on this occasion he seems to have temporarily thought he was back at the Sunday Times instead of on the BBC…

  • I complained to the BBC when, just before the May General Election, their “Lead Story” on the 6PM news was a 10 minute “A day in the life of David Cameron” (showing him shopping, picking up the children and making his hard working wife a meal)…He was accompanied by a BBC ‘reporter’ who just happened to be an old school chum….

    Complaints were acknowledged by the usual “We are the unbiased BBC”

  • John Marriot.
    The difference is that Fox News is not funded by a licence fee and doesn’t pretend to be impartial. It’s more like the Mail or the Telegraph. Most people who watch it know what its politics are. I also know what Andrew Neil and nick Robinsons politics are so I know they are not impartial either.
    To me this is the crux of the issue. In Britain we have this strange idea that presenters who espouse an establishment view is neutral and that if we interview two shouty people from opposite ends of the spectrum we have achieved balance. This happened, that happened is sort of neutral, but endless speculation on why how this might effect that aligned to questioning that presupposes things like splits or motives is not neutral. In all honesty, I would be much happier to pay my licence fee if all BBC news presenters, journalists etc., were all open about their politics and so bias was out in the open. Coz the fact is knowing Jeremy Paxman is a tory supporter, which lots of us suspected anyway , does alter the context of his handling of the leadership debates for example. No one pretends Russell Brand or Charlie Brooker or Glen Beck are politically neutral.

  • Peter Watson 9th Jan '16 - 4:06pm

    For what it’s worth, I do not believe that the BBC in general has a particular bias (other than a small l liberal one as mentioned above by Simon) though individual presenters and producers might. However, I do believe that the BBC has a horrible tendency to follow a news agenda set by the press which does have a right wing bias.

  • Peter Watson 9th Jan '16 - 4:12pm

    On reflection, perhaps individuals in the BBC have a small l liberal bias at the same time as the corporation has a small c conservative bias.
    Either way I would like Neill’s team to do the same thing to the Tories before I would believe their stunt reflects sensationalism rather than bias.

  • John Marriot.
    I see what your getting at, but I disagree. I think the way people conduct themselves on air always reflects personal views. Trump is an easy target and is mainly a bogey man. The fact that a presenter isn’t a cartoon right winger or left winger does not make them or the way they frame questions neutral. My point is that I don’t believe anyone is neutral and that the pretence that they are is itself not neutral.
    I sometimes watch Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson but I don’t think either are neutral ever. In both cases I’m happier knowing their politics rather than pretending they unbiased delivers of the truth. I think the same should apply to all BBC news and current affairs presenters as well as the editorial staff, although personal I would rather get rid of the licence fee.

  • Doughty’s tweet “jeremycorbyn himself who thanked me for my letter”….

    He says letter…

    He also tweeted… 6.Am asked if I will do interview on TV to explain my reasons without spinners getting in first. I say yes. 7. I write to Jeremy …

    It seems clear that the ‘letter’ was sent on the wednesdayafter he agreed to resign on air…

  • The BBC feel that trying to embarrass Corbyn is OK.

    However, I watched the Andrew Marr fiasco this morning …Over “Cabinet Collective Responsibility” on Europe, Marr reached to switch the clip of Cameron’s interview last year when he promised it……Cameron almost slapped his hand away, waffled about how he hadn’t actually said it and NO CLIP WAS SHOWN….

  • Did you miss my reference to the Andrew Marr incident?…Perhaps you might view it and comment on that?….

    The BBC ‘skewed’ their involvement/reporting of Stephen Doughty…As Jayne Mansfield ( 9th Jan ’16 – 9:46pm) wrote “When it comes to political bias, I would be making that judgement based on whether the BBC would have done exactly the same thing if it had been a Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP”….

    I don’t think a LibDem would be spared but this morning’s incident points to NOT embarrassing Cameron….

  • @Simon Shaw
    “If one of my two local newpapers, having heard that as a local councillor I had some reasonably interesting local initiative ready to be announced, got in touch and told me that they would give me the front page lead in the next week’s edition, so long as I gave it to them exclusively, would you really accuse that newspaper of ‘skewing’ the news?”

    If such a front page were to be an obvious puff piece that was likely to win you votes, and if the newspaper were subject to the same kind of rules on impartiality as the BBC, then the answer would very obviously be “yes”. (At least that would be my answer, I’m not speaking for expats.)

  • …………………Assuming you are talking about a section 39′ 00″ into the programme I’m not clear why you think it was a “fiasco”? What are you alleging, that the BBC, having presumably lined up the clip which was meant to embarrass Cameron suddenly backed away mid programme? Or what?………

    Yes! I think exactly that…,

  • @Simon Shaw
    “On that basis, what’s the problem?”

    Actually, as I hinted at earlier, my only real problem with the DP broadcast is not so much that they gave Doughty a platform to “resign on-air”, but that they were not straight with viewers that that was indeed what they had done (and had to some extent contrived). If Neil had introduced Doughty as somebody who had just resigned and was going to explain exclusively to BBC viewers why, that would have been just fine. Instead, he and Kuenssberg acted as if they didn’t know what was about to happen.

    I really don’t see how acting a part like that is compatible with objective news reporting. If I want to watch people acting on the BBC, I’ll watch something like War and Peace.

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