13 January 2016 — Media Lens
‘Our Only Fear Was That He Might Pull His Punches’ – BBC Caught Manipulating The News
Nobody with a questioning mind seriously expects impartiality from BBC News. Certainly not anyone who has followed its reporting on the National Health Service, Scottish independence, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or a myriad of other important issues.
While some may believe that the corporation’s failure to provide fair and balanced journalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, many others will recognise that it stretches back many decades: coverage of the West’s destruction of Libya in 2011; the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003; Nato’s war on the former Yugoslavia in 1999; genocidal UN sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s; the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91; the miners’ strike in 1984-85; the Falklands War in 1982; and on and on.
Indeed, you can go all the way back to the early years of the BBC. During the May 1926 General Strike, just four years after the broadcaster was founded, the BBC bent over backwards to protect the government and oppose the striking workers. John Reith, the BBC’s first general manager and later BBC Director-General, was under no illusions; this was not a time for ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’. With the strike underway, he wrote in his diary:
‘They [i.e. the Cabinet] know they can trust us not to be really impartial.’
Despite grand documents, notably its much-trumpeted Royal Charter, and robotic PR statements about maintaining impartiality and independence, and being ‘vigilant about our values’, the reality is that BBC News reflects and upholds establishment values and priorities.
The position of BBC political editor plays an important role in this propaganda system. His or her function is essentially to tell the public what leading politicians say or even ‘think’. It is certainly not to question power or challenge government authority in any meaningful way.
Manufactured News: ‘Laura Had Sealed The Deal’
The current BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, took up her post in July 2015. Her challenge has been to maintain a façade of impartiality while reporting on the remarkable rapid rise of Jeremy Corbyn in becoming leader of the Labour party. It is a task that has proved beyond her, with the mask slipping on more than one occasion; perhaps most glaringly when she tried to press Corbyn on whether he would push the nuclear button.
In the first few days of 2016, she reported incessantly on the ‘revenge reshuffle’ of the Labour shadow cabinet, as rumours flew that Hilary Benn would be sacked by Corbyn in retaliation for his Parliamentary speech in favour of bombing Syria, which was greeted ecstatically by neocon politicians and journalistic hangers-on. In the end, that did not happen, but Kuenssberg gave her ‘impartial’ assessment on BBC News at Ten:
‘The last 24 hours have been a damaging pantomime… today’s chaos will be remembered.’ (BBC1, January 6, 2016)
‘The Westminster bubble has never been more evident. Kuenssberg thinks the public care more about a commonplace reshuffle, mainly concerning people no one has heard of, than the real issues of the disastrous new housing bill, outrageous rising rail fares or a submerged Northern England.’
Earlier the same day, Kuenssberg helped to orchestrate the live resignation of Labour shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty on the BBC2 Daily Politics show, presented by Andrew Neil. Doughty was teed-up by Neil:
‘Are you considering your position, Mr Doughty?’
In fact, this was the prearranged prompt for Doughty to announce his resignation, before going on to accuse Jeremy Corbyn’s team of ‘unpleasant operations’ and ‘lies’. This was timed to have maximum political impact, just five minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) began in the House of Commons. And, indeed, David Cameron used that information a few minutes later to mock Corbyn. Activist and blogger Helen Cherry mapped out the Doughty resignation timeline, highlighting the serious issue of how the BBC manipulated the news, rather than merely reporting it.
There was a considerable backlash against the BBC via social media. The BBC’s discomfort was highlighted by the fact that a boastful piece written by BBC political producer Andrew Alexander about the live resignation was swiftly deleted (it is still available here in Google’s cache).
The article, published on the BBC’s College of Journalism website for trainees, stated (our emphasis):
‘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. I wonder, mused our presenter Andrew Neil, if they would consider doing it live on the show?
‘The question was put to Laura, who thought it was a great idea. Considering it a long shot we carried on the usual work of building the show, and continued speaking to Labour MPs who were confirming reports of a string of shadow ministers considering their positions.
‘Within the hour we heard that Laura had sealed the deal: the shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty would resign live in the studio.
‘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. We took the presenters aside to brief them on the interview while our colleagues on the news desk arranged for a camera crew to film him and Laura arriving in the studio for the TV news packages.
‘There’s always a bit of nervous energy in the studio and the gallery just before we go on air at 11.30am, but I’d say it was a notch higher than usual this week. By this point we weren’t worried about someone else getting the story as we had Stephen Doughty safely in our green room. Our only fear was that he might pull his punches when the moment came.
‘When it did, with about five minutes to go before PMQs, he was precise, measured and quietly devastating – telling Andrew that “I’ve just written to Jeremy Corbyn to resign from the front bench” and accusing Mr Corbyn’s team of “unpleasant operations” and telling “lies”.‘
Clearly under mounting public pressure, the BBC News press team swiftly issued a defensive late-night (11.22pm) statement the following day: ‘Stephen Doughty had already decided to resign.’ This contradicted the BBC producer’s article which had stated that he was ‘considering resigning’, and that Kuenssberg had ‘sealed the deal’ for him to do it live on air, just five minutes before PMQs.
A further, lengthier attempt at damage limitation emerged after Corbyn’s team submitted an official complaint to the BBC. Robbie Gibb, editor of the Daily Politics programme, wrote in a letter circulated by the BBC News press office (again, our emphasis):
‘Following the media reaction to Mr Doughty’s resignation and appearance on the programme the BBC’s Training Department, the BBC Academy, contacted me asking for an article explaining what goes on behind the scenes when a politician resigns live on air. I had assumed (wrongly) that the article was for internal purposes only. When it became apparent that it had been published more widely, we decided to delete it as the piece was written in a tone that was only suitable for an internal audience. No other inference should be drawn from our decision to delete the blog.’
Note that the deleted blog was ‘only suitable for an internal audience’. That tells us much about the BBC’s fear of public scrutiny. Recall also that the deleted BBC blog piece had said that ‘our only fear was that he [Stephen Doughty] might pull his punches when the moment came.’ Again, this is most revealing. The implication is that BBC team’s ‘only fear’ was that Doughty would not attack Jeremy Corbyn with sufficient vehemence. As it turned out, no doubt to the team’s relief, Doughty was ‘quietly devastating’. No wonder the BBC did not want that ‘internal’ discussion made public.
This all adds to the compelling case that BBC News editorial decision-making should not be exempt from the UK’s Freedom of Information Act. (This stymied our attempts over a decade ago to unearth internal BBC decisions on how the corporation reported the Iraq war, particularly on WMD and public dissent towards the war; letter of final FOI decision, dated April 4, 2005).
Political And Media Elites Fight Off Hordes Of Marauding Serfs
The corporate press published a handful of articles about the live resignation, uniformly leading with the angle that the BBC was defending itself from attack by the Labour party and its supporters. The Guardian said:
‘The BBC has launched a staunch defence of its journalism’.
‘The BBC has defended its handling of Stephen Doughty’s resignation on air’.
‘The BBC has rejected an official complaint from Labour that it “orchestrated” the resignation of frontbencher Stephen Doughty on live television’.
‘This was not news created, but news reported. Stories happen all the time, it is just a question of how to make sure it is your readers or viewers, and not those of your rivals, who get to see it first.’
Award-winning journalist Nic Outterside, a former chief investigative reporter at The Scotsman, saw it otherwise. He referred to this particular passage in the deleted BBC blog:
‘This was a story where we could make an impact… We knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact… We took a moment to watch the story ripple out across news outlets and social media. Within minutes we heard David Cameron refer to the resignation during his exchanges with Jeremy Corbyn.’
As Outterside said, the producer’s blog:
‘admitted that the BBC team were not just reporting the day’s news but trying to influence it.’
Outterside summed up:
‘As a fellow journalist I find this admission shocking, but also symptomatic of degraded and biased practice.’
As for Stephen Doughty himself, the politician brusquely dismissed public concerns with a bizarre tweet mocking complainants as David Icke-style conspiracy theorists:
‘Epilogue: twitter goes into meltdown + lizards running the BBC (all members of the Bilderberg group) are exposed in the harsh sunlight…’
In fact, once again the ‘Corbyn phenomenon’ has ‘exposed in the harsh sunlight’ the disdain for the public shared by corporate media, neocons and Blairite politicians alike.
The ‘Jeremy Corbyn for PM’ campaign said via Facebook:
‘In recent days there has been a wave of articles supporting the BBC and suggesting that those who have made a “big deal” out of the orchestrated Doughty resignation are delusional. While understandable that journalists seek to defend one another, it is surprising that not one voice has been found to offer the alternative line – that, in the words of the blog post itself, the BBC acted to cause a political impact that in turn handed the Conservative Prime Minister an upper hand during PMQs.
‘The evidence of possible BBC bias is not some wild conspiracy theory when we take the time to analyse it. For example, take into account the job history of Daily Politics host Andrew Neil, a former Tory researcher and Murdoch editor. Or consider the Editor of the Daily Politics, Robbie Gibb who was once Francis Maude’s chief of staff and deputy chair of the Federation of Conservative Students.’
‘The editor of the programme obviously decided to do maximum damage to Jeremy’s standing.’
‘It can sound like we’re paranoid but the reality is that the treatment Jeremy has had across the media has been appalling. It’s the worst any politician has been treated.’
It is significant that McDonnell singles out one particular newspaper for criticism:
‘Even the liberal left Guardian opposed us and undermined us at every opportunity.’
Professor Greg Philo, head of the Glasgow Media Group, notes that the aggressive media treatment of Corbyn echoes the demonisation of left-wing political figures in the 1970s and 1980s:
‘in all the news we analysed, there was a constant pattern in which trouble and turmoil were seen as originating from the left.’
And in the corporate media today:
‘the right–wing of the [Labour] Party are described as “moderate”, while their opponents are referred to as “hard core” and “hard left”. In this context, “hard” is suggestive of danger, plots, and threats.’
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Glenn Greenwald can see clearly what has been going on:
‘Ever since members of the U.K. Labour Party in September elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader by a landslide, British political and media elites have acted as though their stately manors have been invaded by hordes of gauche, marauding serfs. They have waged a relentless and undisguised war to undermine Corbyn in every way possible, and that includes — first and foremost — the Blairite wing of his party, who have viciously maligned him in ways they would never dare for David Cameron and his Tory followers.’
‘in the first five days of 2016, Twitter had been subject to thirty speculative, often opinionated tweets from Kuenssberg about Labour’s reshuffle. Doesn’t seem so bad, right? Perhaps not. But this is in comparison to zero tweets on rail fares, zero tweets on the Housing & Planning Bill, one tweet on the floods which have ravaged the country and eight on the cataclysmic divide in the Conservative Party over their membership of the European Union.’
Kuenssberg’s skewed reporting:
‘makes a mockery of the problems that are facing millions of people up and down this country today. It is an unmistakable slap in the face to the vast majority of viewers who want to see impartiality, balance of opinion and an unbiased BBC.’
It is noteworthy that Kuenssberg has a very privileged background. According to Wikipedia, she is the daughter of Scottish businessman Nick Kuenssberg, OBE, and Sally Kuenssberg, CBE. Her paternal grandfather was German-born Dr. Ekkehard von Kuenssberg, a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Her maternal grandfather was Lord Robertson who was a High Court of Justiciary judge, and her great-uncle was Sir James Robertson, the last colonial Governor-General of Nigeria. She attended Laurel Bank School, a fee-paying school that ‘defined what it meant to be young, female, and fortunate in the [affluent] west end of Glasgow’, as one journalist wrote in The Herald.
She comes, therefore, from a particularly elevated substratum of Scottish society. She belongs to what Miss Jean Brodie would recognise as ‘la crème de la crème‘. It is therefore no surprise that Kuenssberg has slotted comfortably into the prize role of BBC political editor, a key function in the British propaganda system. But because Corbyn has offered a significant, publicly-supported alternative to the corporate-shaped, establishment politics that normally prevail, the ‘neutral’ position of BBC political editor has been brought into starker focus. The veneer of ‘impartiality’ is crumbling under public scrutiny. In the case of Kuenssberg, it has been particularly noticeable whenever she has to report on Corbyn and what he stands for.
As one Twitter user noted:
‘I thought Chomsky was exaggerating a bit about the media and its role in Gov propaganda…until Corbyn became leader’.
A particular obsession of Kuenssberg is the question of whether Corbyn has the necessary capability to inflict violence, as all political ‘leaders’ are supposed to. Would he push the nuclear button? Would he countenance a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy by British police? Would Corbyn agree to drone strikes?
In an alternative universe – one in which the BBC actually challenged power – the political editor would be grilling Prime Minister David Cameron with questions like these:
‘Why did you destroy Libya?’
‘Why preach “democracy” when you’re supporting Saudi tyranny?’
‘Why aren’t you tackling Britain’s floods?’
‘Why aren’t you taking proper action on climate?’
Contemplating how unlikely is this scenario highlights the bitter propaganda deceptions being perpetrated every day by the BBC on the public it ‘serves’.
If you decide to contact a journalist in response to our alert, please keep the tone civil. We do not condone abusive language.
Please forward any replies to us:
Laura Kuenssberg, BBC News political editor
Robbie Gibb, Editor of BBC’s Daily Politics
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The first Media Lens book, ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’, was published in 2005 by Pluto Press.
The second Media Lens book, ‘NEWSPEAK in the 21st Century’, was published in 2009, also by Pluto Press.
In 2012, Zero Books published ‘Why Are We The Good Guys?’ by David Cromwell.
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