Many of those who have been prepared to cut the BBC and its correspondents a little slack over attacks on them from both left and right, and take each complaint against the Corporation strictly on its merits or lack thereof, are taking time out this morning to think long and hard about the latest apparent exhibition of less than totally impartial reporting.
Laura Kuenssberg ((c) Guardian)
The Electoral Commission has been investigating the behaviour of the Vote Leave campaign; Zelo Street regulars will know that Jolyon Maugham was first out of the blocks with the conclusion that Vote Leave had broken the law. But when the BBC ran the story the following week, political editor Laura Kuenssberg told that “Watchdog expected to find Vote Leave broke rules”. Not “law”, only “rules”. Nothing to see here, then.
Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer was unimpressed. “New from BBC: ‘Watchdog expected to find Vote Leave broke rules.’ And misleading from BBC. Because, they’re not ‘rules’ they’re ‘laws’. Let me help you here: ‘Watchdog expected to find Vote Leave broke LAW”. The Zelo Street observations concluded with “Did Laura Kuenssberg just take Vote Leave damage limitation spin and serve it up as if it were reality?”
Well, now we know, and it is not good news for the Beeb or Ms Kuenssberg. Under her by-line this morning we learn “The official Brexit campaign is expected to be found guilty of four charges of breaking electoral law, the BBC has been told … The draft of an investigation into Vote Leave concludes it broke spending limits and failed to comply with some of the rules … It also imposes fines as a result of its findings”.
And then comes the opportunity for Matthew Elliott of Vote Leave to spin for his supper. “But the group's former chief executive claimed the Electoral Commission had not followed due process … Matthew Elliott has submitted a 500-page dossier to the Electoral Commission rebutting the claims”. Ms Kuenssberg’s source is Vote Leave.
The adverse comment was not long in materialising, led by Ms Cadwalladr: “This isn’t the official report. We don’t know the sanction. & it was leaked & spun by Vote Leave who put it out after midnight, post-football. These are criminal offences & @BorisJohnson & @michaelgove are in the frame & really troubling they used state broadcaster to do this”.
DCMS Committee Chair Damian Collins noted that Vote Leave had shot themselves in the foot: “Clearly no issues now with Vote Leave discussing the Electoral Commission investigation before its report is published. This further undermines Dominic Cummings excuses for not appearing before @CommonsCMS to answer questions on data & campaign management”. And there was more. Much more.
Adam Ramsay of Open Democracy had also noticed the timing: “The BBC was given this story prematurely by Vote Leave, gave Vote Leave the bulk of the first few paras to spin their crimes away, then published it on the night of England’s football victory”. One Tweeter was unimpressed with this morning’s follow-up. “Looks as though VOTE LEAVE gave the report to @bbclaurak and got an extended interview to rebut the story in rerturn, and by extraordinary coincidence Michael Gove happens to be in the studio the same day”.
Michael Gove, you say? The same Michael Gove named by Ms Cadwalladr? The very same. Another observer had been listening: “and he repeatedly congratulated [Laura] for her ‘scoop’ !! Some real people & journalists been investigating this for ages, BBC just recycle other people's work & try to take credit”. Also at Open Democracy, Peter Geoghegan asked “Why is BBC allowing Vote Leave to spin this? Why is a senior BBC journalist reporting sections of a not yet published investigation rather than allowing Electoral Commission to publish in good faith? V concerning”.
The whistleblowers were equally unimpressed, with Shahmir Sanni concluding “Funny how the BBC shut down my allegations because they said they needed to wait for the EC report, but somehow give Vote Leave a platform to talk about those exact allegations without the actual report being released. Shameful”.
Chris Wylie, also noticing the football timing, added “Brexit is now a crime scene. Vote Leave cheated and they are trying to use BBC on the night of the football match to bury the fact that they had to commit crimes in order to 'win' the referendum. They hope no one notices that Brexit was won with fraud”. And there was yet more.
Richard Summers mused “This overspend and lying just is not mentioned in the news in any serious fashion. They should be shouting it from the hill tops”. And Jolyon Maugham asked that question once more: “You have to wonder why the BBC is giving Vote Leave a platform to explain its cheating. And you have to wonder why the BBC chose the morning after an England World Cup fixture”. It looks bad. Because it is bad.
First it was spun as mere rule breaking, when it was known it was lawbreaking. Now, Vote Leave has been allowed to get its version of events out there via the BBC unchallenged. We will no doubt see counter allegations suggesting that this is all some kind of grand conspiracy theory. It isn’t. And those concerns need to be taken seriously.
The BBC’s integrity is now in question. Smirking and shrugging ain’t going to cut it.