Saturday 2 October 2021

On Jonathan Munro, the petrol pump panic and Carolyn's sister-in-law


This week's 'I think we got it about right' BBC editor on Newswatch was Jonathan Munro, the BBC's Deputy Director of News.

Mr Munro is apparently a serious contender to replace Fran Unsworth in the the BBC's top news job.

You may remember him for:

[a] His role in the Cliff Richard affair, where the judge described him as “overly guarded” in his defence of the BBC. And the judge further accused him of “almost wilfully failing to acknowledge inconsistencies” and of “refusing to acknowledge the plain effect of some of the emails in the case”. 

[b] His role in the re-hiring of Martin Bashir in 2016, when he said he was attracted to the reporter’s “track record in enterprising journalism” and respect within the industry.

[c] His statement that “We don’t want all our editorial meetings to be dominated by what white people think”. 

[d] His sarcastic tweet about things going badly for Nigel Farage and 2015, a year before the UK voted for Brexit. 

[e] His branding of certain ex-BBC senior editors [Roger Mosey and Mark Damazer] in an internal BBC email as “male, pale and stale” sexists after they dared to criticise the BBC, despite him being male, pale and possibly stale himself. 

[f] His previous defences of the BBC on Newswatch where he's been disingenuous and/or factually wrong, or both, and never particularly fleet-footed.  


His appearance on this weekend's Newswatch was typically flat-footed. The judge in the Cliff Richard case would surely have made similar comments about his appearance here had he watched it and was asked for his opinion again. 

And Carolyn and Anna, the two viewers pitted against him, really showed him up, cutting through his flannel like hot knives through pre-melted margarine.  

And he was typically disingenuous again from his very first words, twisting Carolyn's claim about it being a 'non-story' at the very beginning [the Thursday of the week before last before the panic-buying began] into a straw-man suggestion that she was claiming the whole thing [from that Thursday to now] has been a 'non-story'. 

That's a slippery politician's way of sliding away from a difficult charge. 

He did it again at the start of his final answer.

The most striking bit comes though when Carolyn picks up on Jonathan Munro's inadvertent admission that the petrol/diesel pump story was high up in the news running order that Thursday partly because it was a slow news day. She rather nailed him there. 

This man is said to be the frontrunner to replace Fran Unsworth.

Here's a transcript:
Samira Ahmed: Hello, and welcome to watch with me Samira Ahmed. Did the BBC fuel a sense of panic at the petrol pumps this week? It was Thursday of last week when the BBC first put on air a story which was to dominate news output over the following few days. It appeared in the headlines on the News at Six:
Headlines: A shortage of lorry drivers forces BP and Esso to close some of their petrol stations. Downing Street says people should buy fuel as normal. 
Samira Ahmed: By Friday lunchtime, a sense of crisis was developing: 
Headlines: The government urges people not to panic buy fuel after some petrol stations had to close because there aren't enough tanker delivery drivers. But this afternoon there are long queues of motorists in some parts of the country trying to fill up. Petrol station owners insist there is no need to panic. 
Samira Ahmed: But that 'don't panic' message seemed to have the reverse effect as the queues lengthened and anger grew among some motorists: 
Vox pop motorist 1: The petrol is on zero. I'm not going to make it! People have half a tank and they are going in there to fill up. 
Vox pop motorist 2: Three hours is just ridiculous. You pass these two petrol stations, you cross the road and it's the same again. 
Samira Ahmed: The problem was clear, the cause of it less so. The Government insisted there was no lack of fuel, just a shortage of drivers. But hundreds of Newswatch viewers told us they put the blame squarely on the media and specifically the BBC. Two of those viewers join me now, Anna Grayson and Carolyn Issitt, as does Jonathan Munro, who is the BBC's Deputy Director of News. Carolyn, can I start with you? What did you object to about the news coverage you saw of this issue?
Carolyn Issitt: Basically, I felt that it was a bit of a non-story that was built up to the point which people started saying, 'don't panic', and if we've learned anything from Covid and the lockdown, if you say don't panic, people panic. People including my own sister-in-law rushed out to fill their cars with petrol, and that's what caused the problem. 
Samira Ahmed: Jonathan, this is a specific point. Did the BBC hype the story early on when it was only a few petrol stations? 
Jonathan Munro: I don't think so. I don't think it was a non-story. I think a lot of people were affected by, whether it's supply issues, but at the pump it was a lack of ability to get your car filled up because so many petrol stations were running out. So the question for us in dealing with stories like this is how do you solve the dilemma, which clearly exists, between reporting the story on the one hand because it's a legitimate story that lots of people are interested in, and as Carolyn says, being in danger of actually making it a self-fulfilling prophecy, that you report it and you cause people  like Carolyn's sister-in-law to change her behaviour. 
Samira Ahmed: Just so people know, it was the second headline on Thursday evening's Six and then it was the lead on the Friday morning on the news channel. Once it's that prominent, you can see why people think you are giving out a message. 
Jonathan Munro: There is a prominence debate, for sure, about all stories of this sort. But at that time I think I'm right in saying that about three quarters of petrol stations in England were having some sort of problems with deliveries and therefore supply to the consumer. And there are all sorts of layers on the story. It is a consumer behaviour story, as we just discussed in the context of Carolyn's sister-in-law,  but it was also a story about government preparedness and about resilience and about the just-in-time supply chains and the supplies to supermarkets and other retail outlets. So quite a lot of layers of complexity to go into. 
Samira Ahmed: Anna Grayson, you're a driving instructor yourself. How were you affected by the way this story and this problem developed over the days? 
Anna Grayson:  It was huge. It was instant. I had no problems with receiving, filling my car up until last Friday morning when this news story broke, and literally I had to stop work that Friday and I haven't been able to go back since because I cannot get fuel in my local area. 
Samira Ahmed: So, again, Friday morning is when the problem really kicked off which is after it had been given a lot of prominence on BBC News. Anna has given one example, but a lot of people have been really badly affected, cancelled medical and social care appointments and operations. Do you think the BBC thought enough about the consequences of the prominence it got on the Thursday evening and the Friday morning?
Jonathan Munro: We did think a lot about it, and we featured a lot of...not a driving instructor as I remember...but other workers whose livelihoods were affected, including those who were delivering essential services like nurses who visit patients in the community for example. Those sorts of people are clearly not panic-buying. It is part of their essential tools to go to work. And in the case of nurses and care deliverers that has a real knock-on to people who are vulnerable. So they are not in any sense panic-buying. And reporting the effects on businesses was part of what we tried to do. On the prominence point, whether we lead on a story or it runs lower down the running order does slightly depend on what else is happening in the world. This week, for example, we've done a lot more on Afghanistan, we've lot a lot more about the terrible events around the Sarah Everard murder. we've done the Labour Party conference, which was a big political story. Back end of last week was a little bit quieter elsewhere in the world and it did achieve a prominence in our bulletins and elsewhere which was a result of both the importance of the story and, as always, what else is happening that gets running time in our programmes. 
Samira Ahmed: Carolyn, you heard Jonathan...I can see  you're shaking your head. What is your response to the explanation he's given? 
Carolyn Issitt: It kind of bears out my thoughts which is, 'as it's a slow new day, let's make this one a bit bigger'. Quite honestly, from Friday, through to even yesterday, the BBC was still showing a variety of people on forecourts talking about not being able to get fuel. Just continuing to add to the problem. My BBC East Midlands show started its show at 6:35 yesterday with a photoshop of lots of empty pumps. Honestly. That's just irresponsible journalism in my view. You need to recognise when you're causing a problem and actually try to do something about it, not simply fuel the fire because it's something to make news. 
Samira Ahmed: Anna, you are really upset as well because this has affected your livelihood. What would you like the BBC to learn from the way this story has been covered and the fact that so many viewers have complained? 
Anna Grayson: We're not the only profession that has been hugely affected by this but we were just getting on our feet from lockdowns before. And I think the BBC need to be held to account in the way that they're funded. You have a social responsibility to report the truth. And what annoys me about this story is that you had other fuel providers, not just BP, who were jumping onto the media saying 'we are fine, absolutely fine, stop panic-buying fuel, we don't have a problem with the delivery of fuel'. So where did this story come from? To me, it was just pure and utter scaremongering and sensationalism with the purpose of gaining viewer numbers.
Samira Ahmed: You've heard what the viewers say. What lessons do you think the BBC is learning from this? 
Jonathan Munro: I think it is not our job to change the news, it's our job to report the news, and... 
Samira Ahmed: [interrupting] But they're arguing that the BBC played a role in turning it into a bigger story and there was a momentum. 
Jonathan Munro: Yes, but I think that the case that Carolyn mentioned, for example, about shots of the forecourts with no petrol available at series of pumps, that actually happened. It wasn't...we didn't make it up. And we have to balance that with the responsibility that Anna quite rightly says about the BBC's voice in the debate publicly and where we make sure that we are acting responsibly, and I completely agree with her that our responsibility is to report the whole picture. So, for example, to say, as we did several times on most of our bulletins, that there were parts of the country that weren't particularly badly affected. So rural areas were less badly affected, on the whole, than urban areas. Northern Ireland wasn't affected at all. And one of the things we did regularly was go round the country to our correspondents to make sure that we were getting an accurate picture of what was happening in their part of the UK.

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