As I pointed out yesterday, the BBC’s second instance of working from Vote Leave spin - specifically its political editor Laura Kuenssberg getting her story from VL Principal Matthew Elliott - has raised eyebrows, even among other journalists. But the Corporation’s apparent tone-deafness did not stop there, and the resultant furore has dragged in at least two of its staff who may be having second thoughts about their interventions.
Laura Kuensberg ((c) Guardian)
After Jolyon Maugham mused “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”, there was the most extraordinary intervention from the BBC’s Editor of live political programmes Rob Burley.
Burley, formerly Editor of The Andy Marr Show™, has built a deserved reputation for engaging with critics of the Corporation and reasoning with them, to illustrate that many of the more out-there accusations contain little real substance.
But his response to Maugham really wasn’t a good move. “Yet another stain-glassed window in the cathedral of conspiracy”. The kind of response that might have come from the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his rabble at the Guido Fawkes blog, although, admittedly, the latter would have been heavier on the mental health smears.
Stefan Stern attempted a gentle warning: “Given that we don't know how this story will end, wouldn't it be wiser to tone down the sarcasm a bit?”
Burley became defensive. “It's not about how the story ends, it's about increasingly nonsensical attacks on the BBC. Whatever happens in the story of Vote Leave etc. - a story we report fully and fairly - there won’t [be] a shred of evidence that the BBC [sought] to bury or deflect from [its] own story”. Nonsensical? Subjective, much?
Stern remained unimpressed. “I suspect you have colleagues who are very interested in how the story ends and are working on that right now. Charles Wheeler used to say that ‘balance’ was a poor lodestar. Evidence is what journalists should be pursuing”.
Burley feigned momentary outrage: “What are you inferring?” Stern was by this time out of the discussion, but Burley got his reply, if not what he might have wanted to hear.
Peter Jukes of Byline Media stepped in: “Stefan's too polite to respond, so I'll make my own inference. Your response to criticism is bluster and thin skinned performance art. But you're supposed to [be] defending journalism: I.e. Open minded investigations. Sceptical but not cynical or prejudging potential new evidence”. Quite.
In the meantime, the controversy had dragged in LBC host James O’Brien, who summed up the Beeb’s woes by referring back to the football. “Sports news in the style of the BBC's 'Vote Leave' coverage: England won the football last night but the Colombia manager insists that the referee miscounted the goals and refused to listen to his ‘opinions’”.
Also weighing in was the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, who might be thought to have as good a claim as any to be given a hearing. “The BBC's head of live political programmes responds” was her only comment on Burley’s snark. But she did have a further point.
While the BBC was taking its cue from Matthew Elliott of Vote Leave, there was very clear evidence of wrongdoing on that organisation’s part. “This was @shahmiruk & @darrengrimes_ days before the referendum. When they were supposed to be running the entirely separate & independent BeLeave campaign. Campaigning for @vote_leave”.
And such was the brouhaha that BBC stalwart Nick Robinson had now joined the melée, upbraiding O’Brien “What say you to this @mrjamesob? You complained about the top line of BBC News and simply got it wrong”. In this, he was supported by the head of BBC Westminster Katy Searle, who had passed adverse comment on the LBC man.
O’Brien was not for letting it rest: “You seem to be both asking & answering your own question again, Nick. My point, obviously, is that the BBC gave wholly undue prominence to Vote Leave’s denials & complaints - presumably as a condition of getting the ‘scoop’ from them in the first place”. Also, it was the second time VL had achieved this.
And when Robinson veered over the pedantry median in his claim that the “top line” was not what O’Brien had claimed, the response was as emphatic as it would have been embarrassing for The Great Man: “'A "top line" is the most interesting, newsworthy, exciting part of a story - and is also used to refer to the start of a news story featuring that angle.' (That's not just my opinion, Nick, it's from the BBC's 'teacher resources' for students of journalism.)” Ouch!
Meanwhile, just to show that the Leave side thought they had done rather better from this particular set of exchanges, Sophie Germain pointed out that two of Burley’s Tweets had been RTd by, of all people, Andy Wigmore. “Always heartening to have LeaveEU's Wigmore retweeting the editor of BBC's live political programming as a defence”.
Then Mark Haddon, referring back to two of Ms Cadwalladr’s stories which the Corporation did not see fit to feature with the same prominence as that presented to them by Vote Leave’s Elliott, asked “a question i've not yet seen answered with specifics: the decision to ignore this story by the BBC must have been taken repeatedly by different people in many different meetings. so... is there a policy in place? a climate of fear? and if so, driven by what / whom?” We’ll put that one to Rob Burley.
Oh, and to Katy Searle. And Nick Robinson. And maybe Lord Hall-Hall himself.
The BBC’s great strength is that it gets it right on 99% plus of occasions; its processes and internal discipline give it that resilience. Its problem nowadays is that in that small number of cases where it gets something wrong, the response can be bafflingly inadequate.
Perhaps it’s because there are so few of those occasions. But that does not excuse the sarcastic and dismissive exhibition that followed criticism of the Vote Leave story.
The public, generally, wants to be able to feel confident about what the BBC tells them. Good reason, then, for taking that public, and the response to their concerns, seriously.