Former BBC producer Patrick Howse considers the different approaches of Laura Kuenssberg and Emily Maitlis and what this tells us about the state of the public service broadcaster.
A few minutes after news of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham broke, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg posted a response – on the Twitter timeline of Pippa Crerar, the Daily Mirror journalist who had broken the story in partnership with The Guardian.
Replying to Crerar’s tweet linking to the story, Kuenssberg wrote: “Source says his trip was within guidelines as Cummings went to stay with his parents so they could help with childcare while he and his wife were ill – they insist no breach of lockdown”.
Cummings himself, in his extraordinary Downing Street rose garden press conference, admitted that most of the ‘facts’ in this initial statement given to Kuenssberg were actually untrue: he stayed in a second home, separate from his parents and his parents did not help with childcare, meaning that there had been a clear breach of lockdown.
Kuenssberg’s tweet was unacceptable, and here’s why.
Every day, there is a BBC journalist somewhere in the world who is risking their life to get to the truth. The truth. Not what someone in power has told them, the truth. The most striking example of this recently was the attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul. The BBC journalists that covered that story not only risked their lives, they risked their long-term psychological wellbeing.
I felt it might be a sign that the BBC had found some ideals to live up to – a wall that it was prepared to die with its back to. It turns out it was more of a shield to hide behind.
I worked for the BBC in Iraq between 2004 and 2009. There was a lot of violence there which reached a peak in 2006 when a shrine sacred to Shia Muslims in Samarra was destroyed by al-Qaeda. The bloodletting that followed was horrendous. Shia militias prowled the streets of Baghdad looking for Sunnis, and for foreigners, to kill. Victims were rounded up and murdered in their hundreds, possibly thousands.
It was too dangerous for me or for the journalists working with me to go to Samarra. Journalists who made the journey died horrible deaths. Much of our reporting was, by necessity often a matter of “our sources tell us”. But the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson happened to be in town and, when we were told that the figures of the number of people dead were patently untrue, he said to me “we must go and count the bodies”.
I confess, the very idea terrified me. But we negotiated our way through hostile militia checkpoints and, while more bodies were being delivered, and John recorded a piece to camera. I counted the bodies.
As a BBC trainee, one of the first things that was played to me – as an example of the best of the public service broadcaster – was Richard Dimbleby’s account of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Dimbleby’s righteous anger and heart-rending description of what he saw in that hell-on-earth are rightly held up as BBC journalism at its best. What was less well-known is that BBC managers in London originally didn’t want to broadcast it – the details were too graphic and they doubted that they could be true. The report was only broadcast when Dimbleby threatened to resign if it wasn’t.
Another of my heroes, George Orwell, stands outside New Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters in London. An inscription next to his statue reads: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Fine words, and when I first saw them I felt it might be a sign that the BBC had found some ideals to live up to – a wall that it was prepared to die with its back to. It turns out it was more of a shield to hide behind.
Which brings me back to Laura Kuenssberg.
I never worked with the BBC’s now political editor directly, but I saw her in action during the broadcaster’s 2010 General Election coverage. Back then, she was a political correspondent, with a huge appetite to be on air and to be the first with a story.
These are virtues in the age of continuous news, but they bring with them a terrible danger – there is an inclination to report what has been said to you in a ‘he says this, she says that, my sources tell me’ sort of way. The truth doesn’t really feature in this process. Today, ‘official sources’ are not satisfied with simply spinning an interpretation of events – they actually just make stuff up; they lie.
Kuenssberg pursued this approach throughout the Brexit process and she has attempted to continue with it during the Coronavirus pandemic too. It’s not just her – ITV’s political editor Robert Peston has been little better.
The trouble is that tens of thousands of people have died and this ‘my sources say’ approach is demonstrably not an adequate way to cover or reflect this.
We have someone (Cummings) who holds Parliament and pretty much everything and everyone else in contempt, relaying his questionable version of events to tame journalists who he knows will just repeat it uncritically – because they love to be able to say to their audiences ‘look at me! aren’t I well connected?’. He works for someone who has been sacked twice for lying (Boris Johnson). But the journalists rarely – if ever – caveat what they’ve been told. There is no cautionary context provided. This approach might work with politicians who care about telling the truth but it is not going to work now.
Some within the BBC are rejecting this model of ‘journalism’ and are living up to the highest ideals –those like Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. She began her introduction to Tuesday’s programme by stating that “Dominic Cummings broke the rules – the country can see that and it’s shocked the Government cannot. The longer ministers and the Prime Minister insist he worked within them, the more angry the response to the scandal is likely to be… He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can flout them”.
Many powerful people don’t like hearing the truth, but she was upholding the tradition of Orwell and Dimbleby. But complaints followed and BBC managers upheld the traditions of BBC managers by immediately caving in, reprimanding her.
I am sad to say that much of the BBC’s domestic political coverage, particularly from some of its ‘star names’, is simply not good enough. And it is actually a betrayal of those fine journalists around the world who believe in telling the truth and holding power to account. Most of all, it is an insult to the BBC’s audience, who rely on the corporation to tell them the truth.
There are signs that the penny may be beginning to drop – but it is very, very late in the day.