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In the last year or so the BBC has come under increasing criticism for a perceived bias against both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the left in general. Social media has been alive with hostile chatter directed at the BBC in general and Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg in particular.
According to the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines;
Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audience.
The same guidelines also state (in the section headed ‘News, Current Affairs and Factual Output’);
News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events opinion and main strands of argument.
After a recent Newsnight interview with Shadow Attorney General Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, journalist Kirsty Wark became the latest BBC figure to come under fire. Social media was alight with criticism of Wark’s tone and general handling of the interview, accusing her of being aggressive, repeatedly talking over her guest, bombarding her with question after question while constantly interrupting her answers and of throwing the next question without allowing Chakrabarti to properly answer the previous one.
Having seen the interview in question, it’s fair to say that those criticisms aren’t without some merit. Granted, Wark isn’t a particularly soft interviewer anyway, but her treatment of her guest seemed to become progressively more pushy, aggressive and domineering. It started to seem more like an interrogation than an interview. It’s also not the first time that Wark has been accused of ‘ambushing’ Chakrabarti. A Huffington Post piece from July, 2015 openly described her handling of a previous interview with Chakrabarti in those terms.
This comes hot on the heels of a leaked draft finding from the BBC Trust into the conduct of Kuenssberg herself. A viewer complained at her presentation of a November, 2015 ‘News at Six’ report regarding the Paris terror attacks in which she asked Corbyn for his views on British security measures and a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. This attracted complaints that she had misrepresented Corbyn’s views and presented them inaccurately.
As the BBC’s Political Editor, it’s no doubt embarrassing for both Kuenssberg and the BBC Trust to have to investigate a complaint of anti-Corbyn bias. Nor is it the first time Kuenssberg’s output has attracted harsh criticism. It’s even more embarrassing when the draft finding is leaked to the Press and finds, to use the Trust’s own words:
There was a significant difference between what Mr. Corbyn said and what the report inferred. This led to a failure of due accuracy.
The draft finding also states:
Trustees considered that the effect of the failures to observe due accuracy had, on this occasion, also resulted in a failure of impartiality.
To be fair, the draft ruling doesn’t accuse Kuenssberg of deliberate deception and the ruling is only a draft. It has, however, already been challenged by BBC News and will be reviewed by the BBC Trust before a final ruling is given.
This places the BBC in a difficult position and isn’t going to inspire confidence in Kuenssberg’s critics. If the final ruling is against her, then the BBC will almost certainly face renewed anger at her conduct. The Corporation might well find itself having to defend her continued employment as Political Editor. The least unfavourable spin the BBC could put on it would be as demonstrating the fairness of its own complaints procedures.
If, on the other hand, the review overturns the draft ruling and gives her a clean bill of health, the backlash would likely be even worse. Not only would Kuenssberg be secure in her position, angering her critics even further, the Corporation itself would face a storm of accusations of tolerating bias and poor presentation and protecting its own rather than grasping a highly inconvenient nettle. If the resulting controversy were heated enough and refused to die down, Kuenssberg could still find herself sacrificed to protect the reputation of the BBC as a whole.
The BBC’s flagship political panel show ‘Question Time’ has also endured long-term accusations of stacking the editorial deck. Since Corbyn’s election and subsequent re-election as Labour leader, social media has bubbled with weekly accusations that its panels are routinely packed with far more right-wing than left-wing guests. These remarks don’t appear infrequently and they aren’t a recent development. Nor are they all from hardened Corbynites. They’ve appeared on an almost weekly basis for months.
Rightly or wrongly, there exists increasing belief among many Corbynites and other left-wingers that the BBC’s Politics department has been stacking the deck against him from the start, whilst hiding behind their Charter and complaints procedures in order to do it.