In defence of BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg who works within a system that is being gamed by populists in government, Russell Jones writes that the only solution is to adjust the system.

First published in October 2020.

You didn’t ask for this, but I am doing it anyway, so tough: a bit of a defence of BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. If you come to this with your mind made up, you are unlikely to be persuaded. But I hope you will at least give this some consideration...

A social media row erupted after Laura Kuenssberg reported an anonymous government source’s attack on Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer after his calls for a two-week lockdown. | Twitter – @bbclaurak

I think Laura Kuenssberg suffers from a problem many others do, but is a high profile, so gets a lot of sh*t. Lobby Correspondents like her used to be seen as fair, because the politicians broadly played by the rules: briefings were mostly honest, policies were mostly delivered... But...

Globally, the populist right is flagrantly ignoring those rules. That is their deliberate approach. But the BBC still has a duty to follow the rules – to report what they are told as if it is fact. And populists exploit this. Laura’s hands are, therefore, tied by UK broadcast media convention.

[I should say at this point that the populist right is exploiting this, but if the populist left had a chance, they would it too. The issue is with populists: not allied to reality, shorn of conscience, just churning out vituperative, exploitative bullsh*t with no remorse.]

Kuenssberg could report the lies when they are revealed to be lies (as I do in The Week In Tory); but her role is daily news: she cannot go on TV and say, “Remember that thing from 3 months ago... well it was a lie.” And again, populists exploit this omission.

The government is like a shark of bullsh*t: it has to keep moving, or it dies. Daily doses of lies and misdirection: the BBC has to report the news, so it reports the lies. It then has no time to tell people that yesterday’s news has been proven to be lies.

It is regrettable that Kuenssberg is from a Tory background, because this exposes her to more criticism than she deserves for simply following the established ‘Lobby Rules’. It is not her fault, and generally I think she is relatively unbiased... just exploited by a government without conscience.

And obviously she is a woman, and therefore gets far more abuse than a man would. Though I think a male journalist from a Labour background would be just as exploited by a political class contemptuous of rules, because if they work in broadcast news they have to follow the rules.

If I were the BBC, I would forget all this pointless BritBox nonsense, and focus on making a compact with ITN, Sky and Channel 4 News to apply new standards to Lobby reporting. Stop themselves being exploited. But they have to ALL do it or it won’t work.

The convenience for ministers during the pandemic to only have to face journalists via a TV screen and not having to allow them to have follow-up questions. | Flickr – Number 10

My 5-point plan is:

  1. Do not report any anonymous quotes about other parties. Anonymous quotes about internal party issues are OK. They reveals hidden truths. But anonymous quotes about another party allows unsubstantiated lies to be reported as if they are fact. It must end.
  2. Do not report any policy announcements unless they also have a budget, schedule and delivery team. If they don’t have those things, they aren’t a plan. They are merely headline-grabbing empty propaganda, not policy. Simply refuse to report it.
  3. Do not engage in any interview that limits the number of follow-up questions. Only allowing 1 or 2 follow-up questions allows politicians to evade scrutiny. They wriggle out of answering twice, and then know they are safe. It must stop.
  4. If a politician is found to have failed a fact-check, that politician and their ENTIRE PARTY are given no coverage until the politician apologises on camera, and gives the correct info. They get away with lies. So make lying hurt. Make it not worth doing.
  5. No party or politician should be allowed to embargo one of the Big 4 (BBC, ITN, Sky, Channel 4). If they refuse to appear on one, the others stop reporting the entire party. This ends the “No minister was available” stuff that let’s them escape scrutiny.

These 5 tactics work because politicians require a megaphone. Their biggest megaphone is still broadcast news – it is repeated and commented upon via social media, but the originating material is TV news. If those channels apply new rules, the exploitation stops.

And then, when Kuenssberg reports what the government has told her, she will not get the abuse because the government will be forced to tell her facts, or be muted by the major outlets. And the government cannot escape questions. And the government cannot use her to broadcast empty promises.

That is my defence of Laura Kuenssberg, whose hands are tied because she works within a system that is being gamed by populists. The only solution is to adjust the system.

Because the BBC is regulated, its journalists cannot simply take it upon themselves to stop playing by the rules. Populists exploit this fact.

But... why do journalists like Emily Maitlis and Emma Barnett succeed in calling out the Tory lies? They are not Lobby Correspondents.

It seems that it is not clear to people what a Lobby Correspondent is. Their job is to report, in pretty-much real-time, what is happening inside Westminster. It is not the same as (for example) Emily Maitlis, whose job is to unpick the news later...

This gives Maitlis time to fact-check. It also explains why the government often boycotts Newsnight and other outlets with the time to pull their bullsh*t apart. This is part of the exploitation of a system that my plan aims to resolve.

If you are reporting 650 MPs and their hangers-on in real time, you are going to get a lot of stuff wrong. And Kuenssberg has. Add to that: she has lied too constantly, but her role in the BBC is to give equal weight to what each party says. Even the liars.

If she has to do it in real-time, she cannot stop and fact-check for hours. She should. But the culture of rolling news means she has to feed the beast. The plan I propose stops this.

That’s why the system must change. Shouting at Kuenssberg will not change it.🔷

Russell Jones, Designer, data analyst, blogger.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 14 October 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Cicero Group. - Laura Kuenssberg. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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