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Connections at the BBC are useful for any political candidate. Luckily Owen Smith spent ten years as a BBC producer. Doubly luckily his father is a former head of programmes at BBC Wales. Triply luckily, Olivia Pienaar, a staffer currently rallying Smith’s support in parliament, has her own familial connections to the Beeb. Her father is John Pienaar, deputy political editor.
Unfortunately Owen Smith’s establishment links do not end there.
Smith’s closeness to the BBC contrasts strongly with Jeremy Corbyn’s more adversarial relationship. The BBC’s treatment of Corbyn inspired criticism from other outlets and even its own Nick Robinson. Channel 4’s Michael Crick even took to Twitter to chastise Auntie Beeb for its choice of language to refer to Labour plotters as “moderates.” Evolve has previously covered the most egregious incident where the BBC staged a live resignation. This act seemed intentionally designed to damage the Corbyn leadership.
With Corbyn, broadcasters have again started using word "moderates" to describe non-Left in Labour. They should stop doing so. It's unfair
— Michael Crick (@MichaelLCrick) January 4, 2016
These are not isolated incidents. Two recent reports have both shown a consistent pattern of negative reporting on Mr Smith’s opponent. One university found that the BBC evening news had given twice as much time to unchallenged criticism of Corbyn as it had to pro-Corbyn voices. This is despite strict impartiality rules.
This suggests that the BBC’s coverage of the Labour leadership election has been seriously unbalanced. With two candidates any story that is anti-Corbyn is a boon for the Smith campaign, still ongoing despite several major gaffes. It is possible that without the relentlessly negative media coverage of Corbyn Smith would have already been forced to pull out.
The BBC has rejected both reports and insisted that they were overly focused on a period of time following the mass-resignation of members of the Chicken Coup. They argue that this unprecedented event led to a higher than usual amount of negative coverage and that their reporting was balanced and accurate.
There is no evidence that Owen Smith’s connections have had any effect on the reporting. However, a recent report by investigative reporter, Paddy French’s Pressgang on Owen Smith’s CV suggests that Mr Smith’s connections with the establishment reach far beyond Olivia Pienaar.
Pressgang’s investigation suggests that “Normal” Owen Smith has held a series of well-paid establishment jobs despite minimal experience. He had no journalistic experience before being appointed as a producer at BBC Wales, however his father was a guest presenter at the time. He had no lobbying experience before being appointed at private healthcare firm Pfizer and he had no political experience before being made an advisor to then Cabinet Minister Paul Murphy. Murphy was a friend of Smith’s father but denies this played a role in his appointment.
The report also raises questions about Smith’s conduct in previous leadership roles. Insider comments at Dragon’s Eye, Wales’s foremost political programme, ranged from “tough and uncompromising” to “heavy-handed.” They also noted some accusations of “bullying” of junior staff.
Although the Pressgang concludes that Smith’s career is built on patronage and nepotism there is no evidence that he has benefited from his connections. However, they do undermine his claim to be more down to earth than his opponent; the Smith campaign has previously criticised Jeremy Corbyn for being too “metropolitan.”
Smith has cultivated his own image as a regular boy from “the valleys,” drawing his persona as a line through the area’s industrial heritage, to the miners strikes to the Battle of Orgreave. In reality, his 24 year career has been spent as a BBC Luvvie, ex-lobbyist and former political adviser. He may not be metropolitan, although it is Wales not Antarctica, but he is certainly establishment.
Should Smith win the leadership election it will be another job obtained despite minimal experience, having only been an MP for 6 years. During this time he has held shadow ministerial positions but has failed to break through into the public consciousness. Despite this he has based his campaign on a claim of Parliamentary competence, a dubious claim at best.