Why did the BBC hold back on reporting election expenses story?

Summary

Michael Crick’s scoop for Channel 4 News – followed up daily by the news programme, seemed to pass national BBC journalists by…until the elections had passed. Had the BBC covered the story? What profile did it have compared to say the Corbyn leadership chatter?

I try not to see conspiracies behind mainstream politics stories, but this one seems odd for a number of reasons. It was at the start of the year that Channel 4 picked up on this (http://www.electionexpenses.co.uk/) , extracting a concession from the Conservative Party on 20 April 2016 http://www.channel4.com/news/battlebus-conservatives-admit-election-expenses.

As it turns out, it was in mid-February that the BBC picked up on it – when none-other than Michael Crick of Channel 4 went onto the BBC’s Daily Politics programme to explain what it was all about – see here. It was Channel 4 that followed this story through, the BBC according to Labour sympathisers and supporters frustratingly going after questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and whether there would or would not be a leadership challenge. With the self-created noise/media scrum around both Corbyn and Ken Livingstone’s inexplicable remarks, I can almost see how the expenses bit got buried in the much safer political personality spats that all too often form the basis of ‘political news’ these days. It’s not as if there weren’t enough more interesting stories on this morning. Like…I dunno:

PufflesBBCCambsStudio

***Dragon Fairy on the radio!!!***

Yeah – me and Puffles were invited in by BBC Cambridgeshire’s Dotty McLeod to be a sort of ‘independent summariser’ of the election results in Cambridge. If you were wondering, only 3 out of the 14 seats changed hands – but as our friend Sophie was one of the people who won her seat in Romsey at the first time of asking (after working her socks off in the ward), it was one of the bright lights where other friends of ours in various parties fell short.

From a ‘news and current affairs’ perspective, what seemed to have happened in the immediate aftermath of Livingstone’s original remarks didn’t feel like news reporting, but rather news creation. “Red Ken’s said something controversial! Let’s get him on the telly to see if he’ll repeat it all again! Oh! Scandal! He has! Hold the front page!!!” That’s not so much news reporting as news creation for rolling 24 hour news – while the *real* story was with Channel 4 – trying to find out just how wide the allegations around incorrectly-declared election expenses were.

As Channel 4 started finding out and corroborating more details, I noticed a trend on Twitter where a number of left-wing Twitter users started targeting journalists such as – and in particular, Laura Kuenssberg. None of them could understand why Laura didn’t respond even to the more polite statements, let alone put out a single tweet with a hyperlink saying ‘Covered this back in February – we’ve not got anything new over here but are keeping a watching brief on what Crick comes up with’. This is where radio silence did more damage – damage that could have been avoided.

It wasn’t until the day before the election that Kuenssberg mentioned the Channel 4 investigation – see below.

By that time, the Labour-leaning newspapers were leading on it and it was all over Twitter – very difficult even for the BBC to hide away from. Remember that this was just after The Times got absolutely slaughtered for not even mentioning the Hillsborough Cororner’s jury findings that the 96 people who lost their lives were victims of unlawful killing. What the mainstream media chooses not to report can be just as powerful as what it decides to cover…though now social media makes this much harder to do without being called out.

So…what was the issue here? What were people complaining over? Why was Kuenssberg in particular targeted? Note that in the past other BBC journalists have been targeted over the content of their reports – such as Nick Robinson during the Scottish Independence referendum. I recall at the time a number of journalists across mainstream media responding with a chilled numbness at seeing one of their own being very specifically and very visually targeted on a custom-made mega-banner in a street protest. (See here).

Treading that fine line

The saying in the BBC goes that if you are getting an equal amount of grief from each side in politics, you’re probably pitching things about right. Which makes sense in the world of two party politics. But we’re not in the world of two party politics, nor are we in a world where the only important decisions taken in the UK are taken in London. Hence it was embarrassing to hear London-based journalists asking politicians repeated questions about the impact the votes in Wales and Scotland would have on Jeremy Corbyn. Devolution in Wales and Scotland has created some very different political centres of gravity – ones which most people in England are completely oblivious to.

“Yeah – was it Red-Jez’s fault that Labour got annihilated north of the border and when is a moderate going to ride to the rescue and bring back Tony?”

While we may have forgotten about the Independence referendum in Scotland, in Scotland my Twitter friends tell me it’s anything but over there. Not least because the referendum debate there got people talking not just about whether to break away from the UK or not, but on much more basic yet substantial issues of what sort of society did they want to create after the referendum and how they could go about doing so. Compare that to the limp excuse of a debate we’re supposedly having on whether to stay in the EU or not – something that currently appears to be a spat between one set of ex public schoolboys against another, and you can almost see what the rest of England is missing out on.

While the SNP has ruled the political roost for some time in Scotland, in Wales it has been Welsh Labour that has been in office for the Welsh Executive – and thus the First Minister for Wales Carwyn Jones is the much more pre-eminent Labour figure there than Jeremy Corbyn. But how many people in England had even heard of him. It took Charlotte Church to resort to shouting on Twitter to get the message across

“Yeah-but what about Jezza – when’s Jezza going to resign or will he stand if there is a leadership contest?”

I can’t remember which BBC journalist it was that kept on pestering Jeremy Corbyn on whether he would stand for election if a leadership challenger came forward. But I remember being pretty exasperated. ****This is NOT news! This is speculation on something that so far has not happened!**** If political journalists want to get into the business of predicting the future with large chunks of their content, become an economic forecaster or an astrologer – they are about as accurate as each other. Actually no, that’s an insult to the people that do the stars.

“Shouldn’t politicians be much more robust when journalists ask stupid questions?”

The politician who is one of the best examples of dealing with this is…Nigel Farage. His off-the-cuff put-downs (especially to the likes of Michael Crick!) are legendary – especially if, when out and about Nigel Farage is asked a question about Westminster chatter. “Why are you asking me a question about Westminster? We’re in Romford, ask me a question about Romford!”

“What’s this got to do with BBC election expenses and questionable content by journalists on the telly?”

For me there are a number of issues raised. For the first time in the minds of the Twitterratti at least, the BBC has been seen to be ‘caught out’ for not following through a very serious story about the political party in power, at a time when leading with such a story could cause them big problems in the run up to elections. 2 weeks of BBC headlines of ‘Tory election sleaze’ could have done just as much, if not more damage than Livingstone’s self-inflicted political wounds.

The second one is about interaction between journalists and the public. Numerous BBC journalists could have shut the whole thing down about covering the election expenses. The only person who actually did it seems was Andrew Neil – whose Twitter put-downs are legendary. I may not rate his politics ,but as an interrogator he’s one of the best in the business: Equally hard on everyone he interviews. (Also because he does his homework on whoever he is interviewing).

Unlike journalists from other media channels and publications I have seen, national BBC journalists don’t seem to engage much with members of the public. Hence when something like this could be nipped in the bud (either by the journalists themselves or one of their researchers/corporate accounts), it seldom is because for whatever reason, BBC national journalists seem to stay one-step removed from the rough and tumble of social media political discussion. (Which, to be fair to them is becoming more and more toxic with each passing day – a bit like mainstream national politics in general!)

“Why should the likes of Laura Kuenssberg be concerned?”

Because it’s their reputations being dragged through the mud, even though they may not be the ultimate decision-makers on what to cover and what not to cover. The people that perhaps need to be held more publicly accountable are these executives http://www.bbc.co.uk/corporate2/insidethebbc/managementstructure/bbcstructure/journalism.html. Hardly household names, but more influential than the people you see on TV? Perhaps?

Why transparency can help

With this I am talking about transparency of process, not about the unmasking of confidential sources. What are the decision-making processes that executives, producers, editors and directors go through regarding what content to cover? Would greater familiarity with these nip rumours in the bud?

Oh!

***That’s what you learn on media studies courses!***

And you wonder why the mainstream (especially the print) media likes to deride the subject as a not serious course? You look at almost any introduction to media studies book for teenagers and you’ll find a section on how to critically analyse the media, who it targets, and how.

Actually, I’d quite like to do a basic media studies course sometime in the future – just because I’m curious, not for any exam. For example, many of you ask how it is that the tax dude alliance always gets on BBC programmes but academics who are experts in specific fields do not? (The former develop and work those media contacts thoroughly before the latter have even worked out what media programmes are even interested in their work).

Just to finish with, in some circles there are mentions of ‘D’ notices. I don’t think something like this would fall into that category of all things national security, but for those of you who are interested, have a look at http://www.dsma.uk/. Not sure how it works in the world of freelance/independent media, but for the corporate press that system is there.

 

 

 

 

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