Saturday 1 June 2019

"Well, you know, I wasn't in Laura's thinking at the time"

Supreme BBC Newsgatherer Jonathan Munro

This week's Newswatch aired various viewer concerns about the BBC's EU election coverage and saw Samira Ahmed, with her usual professionalism, put aside her personal views about Nigel Farage and pursued the BBC's Head of Newsgathering Jonathan Munro ("marathon runner, keen cook, wine lover"armed with some decent questions. 

Here's a transcript:

Samira Ahmed: Plenty to talk about that with the BBC's Head of Newsgathering Jonathan Munro, who joins me now. Thanks for coming on Newswatch. We know Brexit really divides people, so it's no surprise that there are different complaints coming in , and the BBC, of course, can deal with each one by one. Specifically. Let's start with the graphic of pro and anti-Brexit votes aggregated. You left the Conservatives out of the pro-Brexit tally. That was wrong, wasn't it? 
Jonathan MunroIt's one of a whole range of data crunches we did on the figures and, as your member of the audience said, it was online for a while and referred to on air. At no stage was it a major part of our coverage, and I don't think anybody watching our coverage could think that we were saying anything other than that the Brexit party had done very well. But the Conservatives specifically didn't actually issue a manifesto in this election (1) so it was difficult for us to make an assumption that people voted Conservative specifically on that policy whereas for the Brexit party, Change UK and other people who advocated a so-called people's vote were campaigning specifically on that issue. (2)
Samira Ahmed: Why were you doing Leave and Remain tallies of votes anyway, because it actually wasn't a referendum? Even if the Brexit was an issue, people were voting on parties. 
Jonathan Munro: They were voting on parties and lots of our coverage broke down party by party, right down to the very small parties, and of course the bigger ones too. Any election has a range of data that you can carve in comparison to previous elections or, in this case, the Leave/Remain referendum that we had three years ago now. There's nothing wrong with giving people a snapshot of how the UK votes based on those intentions and how they compare with the last time we went to the polls, specifically on the Europe issue - which was, of course, a referendum not an election. 
Samira Ahmed: Except, of course, at it turned out, it created confusion because people are saying you didn't put the Conservatives in where you should have done and maybe if you'd just stuck to party lines there wouldn't be any of those complaints. 
Jonathan Munro: Well, the vast majority of our coverage did stick to party lines, with the Brexit Party shown clearly as the winner. And I don't really think overall, taking the coverage as the whole, anybody could be any doubt that we reported absolutely fairly, completely straightly, that the Brexit Party was the winner of this election. They were. (3)
Samira Ahmed: Well ,there were lots of complaints that the BBC gave the top headline to Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party over the success of Remain parties and that wasn't the best top headline. 
Jonathan Munro: Well, in a way, that's the opposite complaint to the other one...
Samira Ahmed(interrupting) It is, and, as I say, we're getting complaint from both sides. But they are all specific complaints. 
Jonathan Munro: They are, and I've never been satisfied with the idea that because we are getting complaints from both sides, therefore everything is kind-of all right. That's not good enough, because it presupposes that people are not necessarily right and, of course, some complaints specifically will be right and they'll have a good case for that. (4) But it does show the polarisation of the audience which, of course, reflects the polarisation of the electorate...
Samira Ahmed(interrupting) But on this issue then?
Jonathan Munro: But Nigel Farage headlining the programmes on a day when his party, which was only six weeks old, won the election in England and Wales, is a reasonable editorial call. (5)
Samira Ahmed: The panel in the studio was dominated by the two parties that did badly - the Conservatives and Labour. Why hadn't you got a Brexit Party person in the studio or more of the Lib Dems and the Greens?
Jonathan Munro: OK, so two points on that if I may. The first is that the clip we just saw in your introduction showed the panel at one moment in time during a five hour programme. The panel changed significantly during the night. The Liberal Democrats, for example, were on the panel. Jo Swinson was on for a significant amount of time, not in the clip you just showed. And we also interviewed Sir Ed Davey down the line - that is to say presenter in the studio, he was remote on a camera outside the studio. On the Brexit Party, most of the people we wanted to speak to were in a location because they were candidates at a count. So people like Ann Widdecombe, for example, who we heard from, and Richard Tice, they were interviewed on the programme. We heard Ann Widdecombe's acceptance speech on the programme. They were there because they were candidates, which we, of course, can't control. But wherever they are doesn't make a difference to how much prominence they get in the running order. (6) 
Samira Ahmed: Pro-leave voters regularly complain that BBC news coverage is biased against them. Many did think that it crossed a line when Laura Kuenssberg referred to Nigel Farage knowing how to appeal to "a certain kind of voter". What did she mean? 
Jonathan Munro: Well, you know, I wasn't in Laura's thinking at the time. It was a live programme. It went on for five hours. And I think you could use that phrase to apply to any loyal supporter of any party. "A certain type of voter" will vote for the Greens. "A certain type of voter" will vote for the SNP or Labour or the Conservatives. (7)  So I don't think there was anything pejorative implied by that comment at all... 
Samira Ahmed: (interrupting) Well, a lot of people thought there was"A certain type of voter". What do you think she meant? What do you think people should think she meant?  
Jonathan Munro: I don't think they should think she meant anything. She has been covering this Brexit saga for years now, and is incredibly careful about the way she describes politicians of any colour, whether they're Leave or Remain or somewhere in between. And there was nothing meant by that comment. (8)
Samira Ahmed: Thank you very much, Jonathan Munro. 

(1) Nor did the Brexit Party, so his point doesn't work here.
(2) Note how he only cites The Brexit Party and Change UK here, and not the Green or the Lib Dems. Why presume that only Remain supporters voted Green or Lib Dem, or that people voted for them specifically over Brexit? 
(3) That whole section consists of Jonathan Munro avoiding the nub of the point being raised.
(4) Quite right!
(5) Agreed.
(6) Some reasonable points, but a proper tally of studio and non-studio guests would be useful, and he didn't cite any examples for the Greens. Were there any?
(7) Seriously? What on earth does, say, "a certain type of voter will vote for Labour" mean? Is it even remotely true? 
(8) It must have meant something Jonathan!

UPDATE: If you were wondering, here's a list of the guests and interviewees on the Huw Edwards-run EU Election Programme on BBC One (10 pm Sunday - 2 am Monday):

In the Studio Guests - Emily Thornberry (Labour), Suzanne Evans (pro-Brexit), Helen Whately (Conservative), Alastair Campbell (People's Vote), Mark Francois (Conservative), Jo Swinson (Lib Dem), Stephen Kinnock (Labour), Tobias Ellwood (Conservative), Jonathan Ashworth (Labour), Sian Berry (Green) and Ian Blackford (SNP).

Non Studio interviewees - Annunziata Rees-Mogg (Brexit Party), Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem), Alyn Smith (SNP), Heidi Allen (Change UK), Richard Tice (Brexit Party), Adam Price (Plaid Cymru), Anne Widdecombe (Brexit Party), Daniel Hannan (Conservative), Layla Moran (Lib Dem) and Darren Jones (Labour)


  1. Re (2), if you look at Change UK's pitch they are primarily a second referendum party. They think any deal should be put to a second referendum. They would revoke Article 50 notice but only in the face of a no deal threat and in order to make time for a second referendum. (I took this off the BBC website so must be true!)

    So, it is not unreasonable to conclude that a gullible Leave voter might believe them and think "Well there will be second referendum whatever happens, so I can vote to Leave then." Nowhere did Change UK offer a direct "revoke and stay" option.

    Lib Dem policy sounds v. similar in some respects.

    "A certain type of voter"...did she do that gimlet-eyed, mocking tone of voice thing? And context is everything...what was she asked?

    1. There was a bit of a mocking tone in some of what she said, but not those words. And you couldn't see her face throughout. This is the context:

      Huw Edwards: We'll stay with this list Laura because Nigel Farage may say something but a very strong performance therefore the Brexit Party here.

      Laura K: The Lib Dems again strong. Once again in a strong second place absolutely and, again, the Conservative party falling back appallingly. In that region the last time they were in second place just behind Ukip. This time, nowhere near it. Look, the Greens getting an MP in this area. The Lib Dems second in behind Nigel Farage. In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see what they do with this. So we've heard from Brexit Party representatives tonight. They now are going to try to demand some kind of role in negotiating the Brexit deal or how we leave the EU. That seems very difficult to imagine how they may do that.

      Huw E: And which negotiation is that?

      Laura K: (laughing) Well quite! A negotiation to get us out as soon as possible (incredulous tone) without a deal? Surely they're not going to suggest somehow taking place (sic) in Westminster negotiations? But they are clearly going to seek some kind of role and we know that Nigel Farage is extremely good at making his case to the public in a way that appeals to a certain kind of voter, and he has done that again.


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