Saturday 20 May 2017

"Well, I wouldn't accept them"

Laura Kuennsberg, holding forth

This week's Newswatch featured complaints about how BBC news bulletins are becoming "the Laura Kuenssberg show" with Laura providing a "running commentary" and plenty of "personal opinion". (Well, yes).

There were also 'complaints from both sides' about bias, with 'one side' complaining that the BBC is giving far too much airtime to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and 'the other side' (the more numerous one) complaining that the BBC is adopting "a sneering and condescending tone" in its interviewing of Labour its reporting of Labour policies. (Oddly, both could be true. Think of UKIP's treatment over the years).

Also the BBC's economics editor Kamal Ahmed came under fire his piece on Labour's manifesto on Tuesday's News at Six, which seriously botched the figures - to Labour's disadvantage. Kamal's graphics especially made out that those earning over £123,000 would have to pay and extra £23,000 in income tax - whereas, apparently, the correct figure would be £2,150! (Radio 4's More or Less also debunked Kamal Ahmed this week). Cock-up or conspiracy? Newswatch viewers were split between those who thought it was a "cock-up" and those who thought it was a "conspiracy". (Cock-up, I'd say).

And there were complaints about the use of vox pops, with a slightly absurd clip of John Pienaar asking panting gym users, mid-exercising, about their views of Jeremy Corbyn. What purpose do they serve? How representative are they? (Good questions!)

Answering all of this was our old friend Katy Searle. She was having none of the criticisms. (Shock! Horror!).

A transcript follows....

Katy Searle, waiting to say the BBC has got it right

Samira Ahmed: Well, let's discuss some of those issues with the BBC's editor of political news, Katy Searle, who's in our Westminster studio. Katy, let's start with the allegations of bias, mostly claiming that the BBC has an anti-Corbyn bias and it's quite a personal one. You've seen the examples that viewers raise. What would you say?

Katy Searle: Well, I wouldn't accept them. We have very strong and clear guidelines that we follow, our editorial guidelines, and they're in line with the Ofcom code of conduct as well, which show that we have strict rules to abide to across the election period and to reflect all parties' positions and policies. And that's something we do absolutely and we take that very seriously.

Samira Ahmed: Labour supporters are complaining that too much coverage is attacking the party. Tory supporters are saying Labour get more air time. So how is BBC News approaching that whole issue of balance and fairness?

Katy Searle: Well, it is a challenge every day. What we have to do is take our editorial judgments and that's always going to have to guide our coverage. And that's why programme editors across the BBC and correspondents on air, as well as Laura, the political editor, have long and careful discussions about what stories we're going to cover, what are the values in the news terms of those stories, and then how do they fit in line with the guidelines that I've just talked about.

Samira Ahmed: What's noticeable already in this election campaign is that perceived errors, and indeed some factual ones, are amplified on social media when people try to build a campaign around them saying, look, the BBC's being unfair. How should the BBC deal with those examples?

Kamal Ahmed, getting it wrong

Katy Searle: Look, we're all human, we do make mistakes. Look, you know, we're working to tight deadlines with lots of information coming in all the time and sometimes we do get it wrong. In those circumstances you just have to look and see where you can correct it as quickly as possible. And just on the detail I think it's worth adding that sometimes graphics actually can not be as clear. You are trying to sum up quite a lot of detail in one simple picture of numbers and figures. What we need to do is be very clear that our scripting goes around that and tells the full story.

Samira Ahmed: OK. We have seen a particularly vocal campaign online against Laura Kuenssberg alleging anti-Labour bias. What's the BBC's response?

Katy Searle: Well, Laura Kuenssberg is a first-class political editor who has worked incredibly hard to get her job right. Laura does the daily analysis of all of the political parties and, of course, no personal views are reflected in any sense on any party, and that's true not just of Laura but across the BBC. So Laura's doing her job and she's doing that brilliantly.

Samira Ahmed: More broadly, though, viewers do complain that there's too much personal commentary from political correspondents who are kind of filling airtime and it is not fact-based, it's not objective. Wouldn't the BBC be better, as at least one of our viewers has suggested, to sticking to factual reporting?

Katy Searle: Well, I think analysis is really important actually, as part of our coverage. Certainly in elections, and as we saw in the referendum last year, parties and campaigns have their own positions to push and they will do that and they will give us figures. And really, an important part of our job is to try and analyse and say to the viewer, well, on balance this is what it looks like to us. That's why we have very experienced people, from Laura down across the BBC, working on that and trying to give the audience something that means something and not just slogans and numbers.

John Pienaar interviewing a vox pop at the gym

Samira Ahmed: We have to talk about vox pops because they come up every election and the charge is two things, one is if they are too gimmicky - you're not going to get much of an answer if people are in the gym, or whatever. But also that they're not informed and aren't representative, and shouldn't the BBC be more careful about using them?

Katy Searle: Yeah, vox pops are tricky actually because I have a little bit of sympathy for that view. However, if we're doing a lot of politicians, and we are at the moment, and it's a very formalised way of presenting their views and opinions, I think vox pops gives us a bit of colour. It also does the most important thing which is to reflect the public's view. And in this campaign which goes on for several weeks we want to hear from our audience as well and try and, if you like, road-test some of the policies. A vox pop is an unscientific way of doing that but it's the best way that we can do when we're dealing with tight news agendas.

Samira Ahmed: Katy Searle, thank you. 


  1. BBC news bulletins are becoming "the Laura Kuenssberg show" with Laura providing a "running commentary" and plenty of "personal opinion".

    A good distillation of the problem inherent in having titled editors. It's Laura K's job to give opinion, while at the same time to appear as an objective, hard-nosed reporter. It's impossible, as is the case with all BBC titled editors.

    As for the perceived anti-Corbyn bias at the BBC, we all know it's real and where it happens. And yes, it's personal.

  2. listening to the news on Fri or Sat last week - they had 4 misc political pundits on discussing manifestos. They didn't even bother to consider the labour one - just dismissed it as the manifesto of a party that knows it will lose so can say anything


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