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Jeremy Corbyn’s war with the BBC is a depressing and pointless spectacle. The current bout of fighting started last week after the resignation of Stephen Doughty, which, according to some Corbyn supporters, was timed by the BBC to maximise the Labour leader’s embarrassment. It rumbled on into this week after shadow chancellor John McDonnell told this website “the editor of the [Daily Politics] obviously decided to do maximum damage to Jeremy’s standing”.
Most Corbyn supporters are decent people. They’re right in many of their assessments. They are certainly correct that the press has it in for their leader. Most of the press outright supports the Conservatives, the rest of it does not really challenge the notion that there should be two parties fighting over centre-right ground. The proprietorial model of newspaper ownership, which relies on the good will of wealthy owners to compensate for a market failure in news provision, naturally produces a media culture which favours the status quo. And most political journalists themselves are a conservative bunch, who tend to instinctively dislike anything really radical. It is also true, as many Corbyn supporters point out, that political journalists are obsessed with process and personalities over principles and policy.
The BBC is simultaneously part of that culture and separate from it. It is barred by regulation from conducting itself with the same bias as the press, but it still deals with a political culture in which the press has a disproportionate influence on events. That’s why figures as senior as the Downing Street director of communications believe that the press only matters in so far as it influences BBC coverage.
At the heart of the Corbyn complaint there is a truth: that the press is after Corbyn and the BBC is influenced by their coverage. But the account of what happened last Wednesday is not credible.
The charge centres on a blog by Andrew Alexander, an output editor for the Daily Politics, which was published on the BBC website and then deleted, discussing how he secured one of the day’s three resignations on the programme. You can read it here.
Just before 9am, Alexander spoke to BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who said she knew of a junior shadow minister considering resigning from the front bench. Presenter Andrew Neil wondered if they’d do it on air. Within an hour they decided they would. The programme started at 11:30am and a little later Doughty resigned. Shortly after that David Cameron used the resignation against Corbyn in PMQs.
This is the account given by Corbyn supporters online: the fact the blog was pulled showed the BBC had something to hide. “We knew his resignation just before PMQs would be a dramatic moment with big political impact,” Alexander had written. This was taken as proof that the BBC was conspiring with enemies of Corbyn to time resignations for when they would do him the most damage. So the BBC is now making news rather than impartially covering it.
It is all abject nonsense. The blog was written for an internal audience at the BBC and was clearly pulled because the language in it wasn’t sensitive enough given the outcry online. That was an error – the BBC should have left it up, because there was nothing incriminating in it. It documented how programme makers wanted a big news moment to take place on their programme - a completely unremarkable fact. Journalists want glory, programme makers want viewers, and everyone wants to maximise the impact of their stories. That sense of competition is part of what makes journalism work.
It is unclear how long the resignation was delayed by the programme makers’ attempt to get it to happen on air. According to the blog, Doughty was considering it at 9am and had decided an hour later. An hour and a half after that, he did it. Keeping news for a certain period until you can report it is not unusual. All journalists do it. If the story you’ve been working on is ready on Sunday afternoon, you’d be mad not to hold it back until Monday morning if you can, because it’ll get more attention. Similarly, the Daily Politics is on around the time of PMQs because that’s when viewers tune in. Convincing someone to delay a resignation until then is completely expected, if you can achieve it.
The Corbyn position is that the resignation was timed not for editorial reasons (ie: a presenter wanting it to happen on his programme) but for political reasons. They have provided no evidence at all with which to justify this assertion.
They have not even shown that the change in time had any adverse impact on Corbyn. Did it really make that much difference whether Doughty resigned at 11:50am rather than 9am? Corbyn’s reshuffle nightmare had been going on for over a day already and was fated to continue for some time yet. A string of resignations is seriously bad news for a party leader and it will be bad news in three hours’ time as well. It was a press disaster for Corbyn and that was his own fault, not that of the BBC. Pretending otherwise is a classic case of blaming the messenger.
Corbyn’s supporters claim that announcing it just before PMQs put the Labour leader on the back-foot. There are two problems here. Firstly, he was anyway going to be on the back-foot because he was being hit by a string of ministerial resignations. Secondly, Corbyn actually performed very well in PMQs – as he always does – and asked the prime minister sensible, perceptive questions about the flooding, which Cameron singularly failed to address in a grown-up manner.
It’s uniquely depressing to see Corbyn and McDonnell encourage this sort of rubbish. They themselves complain that the media spent all last week covering their reshuffle rather than the flooding or doctors’ strike. How can they continue to make that argument now that they have stretched out the story and seemed keen to address it over the other concerns facing the country?
One thing which isn’t a conspiracy theory is the coming assault on the BBC and the entire notion of public service broadcasting. It may be funded through a regressive tax system, but the BBC symbolises many of the great achievements of the left, and specifically the way left-wing economic and social models are far more effective and valuable than their free market alternatives. This publicly-owned news organisation is trusted more than almost any news outlet in the world. It is the envy of other countries. For entirely ideological reasons it is coming under attack from a government which is suspicious of any form of public ownership. Instead of defending it, a swathe of the left is engaging in the most inane conspiracy theory nonsense about it and then loudly telling their allies to withdraw their support. It is a highly irresponsible act of self-harm.
This type of hysterical anti-BBC conspiracy has been a common currency on the right for years. Tories – from the grassroots to front benchers - spend every morning complaining about the non-existent Labour bias on the BBC. Ukip never lose an opportunity to show how they are ignored by the BBC, even though the BBC would invite Nigel Farage onto the Antiques Road Show if it could find an excuse. The hard-right spent most of last week screaming about a media silence over the Cologne attacks, while it was being reported and discussed almost everywhere.
This widespread sense of media conspiracy, of ‘what the media won’t tell you’ articles on Facebook, is what tiny online echo chambers do when they need to explain why everyone doesn’t agree with them. It’s an explanation for the false consciousness of everyone else.
The left has gone down the same road in Scotland, but it need not do so in the rest of the UK. The movement supporting Corbyn is still embryonic. Not so long has passed since those extraordinary summer months in which he won a groundswell of genuine and enthusiastic support. And contrary to media reports, there is plenty on which Corbyn and the public agree, not the least of which is that politicians should speak like human beings.
There is still time for Corbyn’s supporters to pull back from the edge, reject the seductive embrace of false consciousness paranoia and conspiracy theory, and focus on changing the minds of real people in the country at large. But this ridiculous crusade against the BBC will do nothing to help them get their man into power. It just helps the right dismantle one of Britain’s great institutions.