Brittle and Blustering
Brittle and blustering Theresa May reacted to Saturday night's killings in London with strong words from outside Number 10. We know they were strong, because the BBC’s anchor Jane Hill kept telling viewers so the next morning, during the rolling coverage near London Bridge. Central Office must have been heartened to see that Lynton Crosby’s election campaign attack lines are getting through undiluted into the Corporation’s news reporting. Later, on BBC1's evening bulletin, Hill's 'strong' had become 'blunt and uncompromising' from the Beeb's political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
BBC coverage of terrorist atrocities rehearses a rote formula: bits of actualité footage, stern words from brass hats and politicos, survivor testimony, and sentimentality about the victims which does duty for condolence. All this has political valency, especially during an election campaign. The Sunday evening bulletin featured clips from May, Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Paul Nuttall responding to the atrocity – but no Jeremy Corbyn, who gave a measured speech on counter-terrorism policy in Carlisle. In effect if not in intent, such coverage stokes public alarm and invites people to cling to nurse for fear of something worse. The new BBC Charter's first stated public purpose is 'To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them'.
Kuenssberg's impartiality has been doubted. In an interview with Corbyn in December 2015, not long after the Bataclan atrocity, she asked him whether he would support a shoot-to-kill policy on Britain's streets. In the edited package, however, broadcast on BBC1 news, Corbyn's answer was prefaced not by that question, but by Kuenssberg’s saying: 'I asked Mr Corbyn if he were the resident here at Number 10 whether he would be happy for British officers to pull the trigger in the event of a Paris-style attack.' Corbyn's reply to the general policy question followed: 'I am not happy with a shoot-to-kill policy in general.' It looked as though Corbyn would oppose letting police shoot armed attackers even during the course of a Paris-style massacre. When the BBC Trust upheld a viewer's complaint about bias, finding that Kuenssberg had not 'achieved due impartiality', James Harding, the head of BBC News, said: 'We disagree.'
Kuenssberg crossed the line again between political reporting and intervening when she connived at the on-air resignation from Labour's front bench by the Blairite MP Stephen Doughty in January 2016, timed to coincide with Corbyn's appearance at prime minister's questions. After the referendum result, when the Parliamentary Labour Party tried to stage a coup against Corbyn, Kuenssberg averred that support for Corbyn among Labour party activists outside parliament 'may be starting to recede'; Corbyn's 'confidence that he would win the likely leadership contest may be misplaced'. In March, Kuenssberg made the government's denial of its U-turn over its breach of a manifesto pledge not to raise national insurance for the self-employed into a story about Corbyn's failure to land a glove on May at PMQs.
One of the 'flagship' Radio 4 Today programme’s regular presenters is Nick Robinson, previously the BBC’s political editor. He was president of the Oxford University Conservative Association as a student and active after university in northern Conservative politics. Today’s new editor is Sarah Sands, editor previously of the Sunday Telegraph and Reader's Digest; she also did a stint as consulting editor on the Daily Mail. After leaving the Storygraph she went on to edit the Evening Standard, making way earlier this year for the distinguished journalist George Osborne.
As a staffer on the Telegraph in the 1990s, Sands wrote a memo to the then editor Charles Moore urging him to 'play on people's fears'; she thought the paper should 'take people aback with militia-style attacks', as 'the Mail’s brilliance is not just money but energy’; it ‘gets the best out of people through fear’.