Laura Kuenssberg’s Time as BBC Political Editor has been a Catastrophic, Systemic Failure
Thanks to managers at the BBC, the outgoing Kuenssberg repeated lies rather than challenging them, says former BBC journalist Patrick Howse
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Laura Kuenssberg’s tenure as the BBC’s political editor, beginning in July 2015 and ending in the coming weeks, was a catastrophe.
On her watch, lies were not just permitted, they were amplified and given credibility by Britain’s state broadcaster. At least partly as a result of this, the UK Government now routinely lies with impunity. The country’s international standing has been irreparably harmed, and trust in the political system has been trashed.
I don’t hold Kuenssberg entirely responsible for this state of affairs – I think that BBC managers carry a large amount of the blame because they chose the wrong person, for the wrong job.
I saw Kuenssberg in action close up when I worked for the BBC in Westminster for a year either side of the 2010 General Election. She was confident, ambitious, and good at her particular job – which at that time was to supply live commentary for the news channel about every development in the Westminster bubble, every day.
She did so fluently and energetically. She loved being on air, she loved being the first to get a story, and she could be trusted to ‘wing it’. In other words, she was a good continuous news reporter, always available to fill airtime.
After a spell at ITV, Kuenssberg was chosen to be the BBC’s political editor, replacing Nick Robinson in the summer of 2015. She was picked because of the qualities that I have outlined above. Unfortunately, these were not the qualities the BBC should have been looking for to fill that post at that time.
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What they got was a journalist with access to the upper reaches of the Government, with a determination to get on air and tell everyone the whispers that she had heard from ministers, advisors and officials – before Sky or ITN.
What the BBC needed was someone who could take a step back, away from the scrum, and tell audiences when they were being lied to. That was something neither the BBC nor Kuenssberg has ever come to terms with.
There are so many examples of why this was bad both for the BBC and the UK’s political system in the years that followed. It began with the Leave campaign making lying a central part of its strategy during the Brexit referendum. The BBC’s response was to ‘balance’ these lies with information from the other side – rather than using their editorial judgement to call out when something was blatantly and dangerously false.
Kuenssberg’s approach to the job complimented this. Access was crucial. She would ring up (or be rung) by the top people in the Leave campaign, get a response and get on air. It didn’t matter whether the audience had a better understanding of the issues, all that mattered was beating her broadcasting opposite numbers to the story.
Scoops were seemingly all important, even if they just involved parroting Dominic Cummings – who masterminded the Vote Leave operation – before Robert Peston did.
A Loudspeaker for Lies
Kuenssberg also gave the impression that she was far more comfortable holding the opposition to account than the Government. She should have been moved to a new role after the 2019 General Election. But then came the pandemic, and she hit a particular low point when Cummings, at that time a chief aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, broke lockdown rules and drove hundreds of miles north – eventually ‘testing his eyesight’ by driving to Barnard Castle.
That story was broken by Pippa Crerar for the Daily Mirror. Yet, before the ink was dry on that genuine scoop – before most people had read it or even heard about it – Kuenssberg was tweeting Downing Street’s rebuttal. That’s how she viewed her job – and what she was employed to do: to repeat, to a mass audience, what she had been told by her top level sources.
This was problematic, primarily because – for the first time in my lifetime – the Prime Minister and those around him lied unashamedly. And they lied, knowing that their dishonest version of events would be repeated by Kuenssberg.
The reason she took this approach was that her bosses shared her equivocal stance towards the truth. She was chosen for her continuous news strengths, not for her analytical skills. The BBC under Tony Hall was a timorous beast, beset and bullied by enemies in Government who posed a very real threat to its continued existence. The last thing BBC managers wanted was a political editor who would get them into trouble with ministers.
They desperately wanted calm seas and a prosperous voyage – and they saw kowtowing to the Government as the best way to do that. History has only retrospectively taught us that this timidity didn’t gain the BBC many friends in high places.
When I committed some of these thoughts to Twitter, I received some sharp responses from former colleagues who thought that I should have been more critical of Kuenssberg. One experienced broadcaster described her as “a disgrace”, and accused her of “blatant anti-Corbyn bias”. Another very experienced journalist said that Kuenssberg was “not rated” by her colleagues, and had built her role around just repeating “whatever Dominic Cummings told her”.
I’m not here to defend Kuenssberg, and we all agreed that her time at the top has been a catastrophe for the reputation of the BBC. However, I don’t think it’s fair to lay all the blame at her door.
She did what her bosses expected of her – as we all do. It should have been at least in part an analytical role, trusted to hold power to account. Yet, if the role had been conceived in this fashion, she would never have been awarded it in the first place. That is a systemic failure, and is the fault of BBC managers who didn’t think it was the BBC’s job to call out political mendacity.
Britain’s wrecked political system is one of the consequences of their failure to see that our national broadcaster needed to challenge political liars, rather than to amplify them.
That cohort of timid managers has now mostly moved on. The appointment of Kuenssberg’s successor will tell us a lot about the direction their successors now want to take.
There’s plenty of courage and integrity in the BBC’s journalism, as has been brilliantly demonstrated by its coverage of the war in Ukraine. It’s time for the BBC’s managers to show their mettle and embrace some of these same qualities in their coverage of domestic politics.