Brittle and Blustering

Glen Newey

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’.


  • 5 June 2017 at 10:22am
    IPFreely says:
    A consulting editor? Did she check the spelling? The Sky people don't seem to cosy up to the tories as much as the BBC experts, but isn't this the way that the interviewers work these days?

  • 5 June 2017 at 10:31am
    deano says:
    Strong, blunt and uncompromising words outside No. 10, luv it. Meanwhile, the Saudis are funding jihadi groups in the UK. But Theresa wants it kept quiet because she doesn’t want to have to do anything about it, despite saying ‘enough is enough’ a strong, blunt and uncompromising way.

  • 5 June 2017 at 4:53pm
    James Alexander says:
    So James Harding, the head of BBC News, said to the Trust's finding of bias: ‘We disagree’. Intelligent, or what? "Shut your face" has long been the standard BBC staff response to all and any criticism, as listeners to Feedback over the years will know. Even to the BBC Trust, so we can see what influence the Trust has. I well remember a predecessor Of Harding's some years back on Feedback expanding on 'shut your face' by smugly adding 'we are a journalistic organaisation you know'. To which one could only shout at the radio "indeed, exactly, that's the bloody problem". We need a decent public broadcasting organisation that brings a different, grown up approach to news (and much else) - but to get that we need first to get rid of the BBC (inadequate across the board, so last century, so up itself), and start afresh. Meantime, BBC managers need to remember who pays the overblown salaries.

    • 6 June 2017 at 1:37pm
      Colin says: @ James Alexander
      It is true that the BBC newsroom has some Tories in high places. The Tories are, sadly, the most popular party, and this therefore seems a fair and inevitable result. It is also probably true that rightward leanings of editors probably influence BBC news coverage from time to time--including, most likely, the times that Glen Newey has written about above. How one gets from that situation to 'abolish the BBC!' is a mystery to me. The BBC is a superb news-gathering operation, certainly one of the very best in the world, as well as an excellent restraint on the thoroughgoing commercialisation and propagandisation of news, seen for example in the USA.

      Those on the left should stop crying out for the abolition of the BBC every time one slightly low blow gets through their editorial process. You say 'We need a decent public broadcasting organisation that brings a different, grown up approach to news (and much else)'--I say you don't know how lucky we already are in precisely this respect.

    • 6 June 2017 at 4:04pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Colin
      Sky and ITV have both shown far greater fairness in this election than the BBC. Their coverage has been a disgrace and it will be a long time until their reputation recovers from this.

      It is also noteworthy how the very concept of what constitutes 'news' is shifting. Instead of actually presenting useful information to viewers concerning things like the national debt, house building, NHS provision etc we are constantly presented with members of the public giving their own completely uninformed opinion. This is an incredibly easy way to pass off opinion as news and create brazenly co-ordinated attacks as we saw with the 'Nuclear Nine' on the leader's Question Time special.

      The BBC also seem to have pursued members of the public who are switching from Labour to the Tories with the same zeal that a nine year old boy pursues Pokemon. If the ratio of Labour to Tory voters who have appeared on their programs is matched on Thursday by votes cast Labour should poll around 7%.

    • 6 June 2017 at 4:17pm
      Joshua K says: @ Stu Bry
      Absolutely. It seems the higher Labour gets in the polls the more people TV and radio crews happen upon who are switching from Labour to the Tories! It all makes one wonder what the state of play would be if Corbyn hadn't been continually misrepresented, smeared and demonized by the media and his 'colleagues' for two solid years..

    • 6 June 2017 at 6:05pm
      whisperit says: @ Colin
      @break.itoff - Sounds disturbing. Who are the people on the left "crying out for the abolition of the BBC"?

  • 5 June 2017 at 8:09pm
    John says:
    A very good posting by Newey. As a number of sources have noted, the dodgy Kuenssberg 'shoot-to-kill' interview clip he refers to went to the top of the viewed videos on the BBC website in the aftermath of the latest London attack, an event given celebratory coverage in the Sun on the 4th June. So the Corporation's news output continues to do its steady propaganda work, in this case 18 months after the item was first broadcast. Perhaps this election, among other things, marks a new low in the BBC's performance of its civic role, something that deserves the widest notice

  • 5 June 2017 at 8:18pm
    Stu Bry says:
    Corbyn spoke to 10,000 people in Gateshead who stood in the pouring rain to hear him. The BBC have completely ignored this.

    Yesterday the BBC blurred out a T-shirt with Corbyn's name on it worn by the singer of the band Clean Bandit apparently in the interest of fairness. So we can't see a T-shirt but we must given hourly updates on whatever anti Labour rhetoric billionaire owned right wing newspapers are saying.

  • 6 June 2017 at 5:25am
    JWA says:
    Kuenssberg is an utterly disingenuous journalist- here's her hot take on Jez's 'shoot to kill' perception issue that somehow fails to mention it was largely her creation. (And for pity's sake what kind of society is that won't question the ethics of state sanctioned murder - just ask the De Menezes family - a little context she also typically fails to mention).

  • 6 June 2017 at 6:41pm
    Pauldev says:
    Perhaps, it's more a bias towards New Labour inclined politicians which motivates Kuenssberg. She is a relative lightweight in terms of her reporting having an impact on the wider public, certainly compared to Paxman and Neill.

  • 7 June 2017 at 9:18am
    frmurphy98 says:
    We've now entered a parallel universe in which Theresa May is apparently "tough on terror" and Tories are to be "trusted on security". In reality, the very opposite is true.

    Here's Robert Fisk, a man who knows a thing or two about the causes of Islamist terror in Britain:

  • 10 June 2017 at 6:21pm
    yorkist44 says:
    Is it time we had a political correspondents' equivalent of the "register of members interests" which required them to say at least which party they voted for in the last election? What would be the objections?

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