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It's Going to Take More Than an Online Petition to Stamp Out Bias at the BBC

12/05/2016 11:35 | Updated 12 May 2016

The withdrawal of the petition calling for the sacking of BBC TV journalist Laura Kuenssberg by campaigning group 38 Degrees is something I think we should all welcome. Although the reasons behind that withdrawal may not be as straightforward as they first seem.

Whilst I agree she has displayed a level of bias against Labour in recent months, and certainly her attacks on Corbyn's leadership have been verging on hysterical, a campaign to have a journalist silenced because you don't like what she has to say is at best equally subjective, and at worse a dangerous precedent to set for the future.

I'm not a wholehearted Labour supporter myself but I found her behaviour during last week's election night broadcast - where she revealed pre-prepared statements written by Labour to cover various eventualities - to be excruciatingly shabby. It was worthy only of red-top tittle tattle, and certainly not something I'd expect to see from a seasoned broadcaster on respectable national network.

As she explained prior to her rant, all the parties were asked to submit, in advance, their reaction to either positive or negative news about their results. This is apparently standard practice now as the need for instantaneous reaction to events becomes ever more pressing.

Yet she chose to focus on the statements from Labour with truly disingenuous fervour, seemingly gleeful to be revealing privileged content, as John McDonnell squirmed rather uncomfortably in his seat.

Looking something like a jilted woman who'd found some incriminating texts on her partner's phone, she offered a virtual symposium on self-satisfied smugness, punctuating her choice phrases with flourishes of her hand as if she was highlighting some grand deception.

She obviously enjoyed the process of ambushing Labour yet again, after pulling off a similar stunt with the on air resignation of Stephen Doughty in January, something the BBC later admitted had been specifically staged to embarrass Corbyn and the Labour leadership.

After that sort of performance it's little wonder that she's incurred the wrath of viewers keen to see genuine discourse and analysis, rather than a commentator grinding an axe that she's quite obviously itching to swing. It was almost as if she deliberately courted this disdain, perhaps as a reaction to previous criticism of her position.

I remember Laura when she was with ITV News. Back then she seemed to be a fairly well balanced reporter. But since she joined the BEEB there's been a definite change in her approach.

She now seems hell bent on becoming the new hard-hitting, go-get 'em interviewer, apparently believing that to do that she needs to court controversy at every turn.

Fuelled by sensationalist speculation, she seems to be emulating the wrong Jeremy, becoming more Clarkson than Paxman with every appearance she makes. Not really something one would expect from the political editor of what was once a dauntless bastion of reliable non-partisan analysis. Certainly not something that one would expect from a serious journalist.

An analysis by Cardiff University recently revealed that there was some basis for the anecdotal perception of bias against the left from the BBC. Their report revealed, amongst other things, that the number of appearances of Conservative and UKIP politicians on the BBC far outweighed those of opposition parties. Something I think many of us already knew.

The Green Party in particular has repeatedly been singled out for a snubbing, culminating in the denial of air time for Party Political Broadcasts on numerous occasions. Pressure from the public forced something of a U-turn on this stance during the General Election, but we saw a reinstatement of the exclusion zone in the run up to the local and London Mayoral elections earlier this month.

Laura Kuenssberg has become the poster woman for much of the disaffection of left-leaning viewers and listeners, and I have to say that is not without cause.

Having said that, it's not appropriate for her to have been directly attacked for her stance, or for there to be campaigns to have her removed from her post. The fact that this campaign was being run by a fairly well-respected organisation like 38 Degrees is almost as disappointing as the lack of equanimity now apparent in some of the BBC current affairs team.

It was perhaps not unexpected that the petition against Ms Kuenssberg descended into misogyny and abuse, although there is some speculation that this perception may have been part of an orchestrated campaign on behalf of those looking to discredit the petition itself. Indeed if one looks at the list of comments published yesterday, it's difficult to find anything remotely aggressive or sexist.

Whatever the case, in a theoretically free society, with an equally theoretically free press, journalists have to be free to express their opinions without facing these sorts of attacks on both a personal and professional level. That's assuming of course that there are enough channels through which they and their masters can be legitimately challenged.

Considering her senior position, I would question to some extent the level of professionalism being shown now by Ms Kuenssberg. The expectation of fair debate cuts both ways, and ultimately the responsibility for the tone of journalistic punditry lies with the broadcaster or publisher. In general the buck stops with the editor, which does rather put her in the frame for criticism both as a journalist and a manager.

As one of only two public service broadcasters, the BBC has a duty to represent all facets of our society, including various shades of political opinion. That means there should be proper oversight of such matters in response to public concerns when they are raised. When it fails to live up to those expectations on numerous occasions, it's perhaps little wonder that feelings will run high.

Whilst I'd never countenance personal attacks on any journalist, that doesn't mean that sometimes there isn't a case to answer. The BBC is a very influential organisation as such they need to wield that influence equitably.

As someone who has both supported and fallen foul of the BBC over the years, I have to say I'm very saddened by the continued arrogance and high-handedness of a once highly respected organisation.

I know several political journalists and news presenters working at the Beeb who provide measured and balanced reportage along with skilful, insightful commentary.

There was no need for the corporation to descend to the level of the click hungry gutter press when they already had a loyal and expectant audience. They certainly don't need the televisual equivalent of a Tricoteuse knitting at the foot of her own jaundiced guillotine.

One can only wonder why the BBC would facilitate a continuation of the behaviour being shown by presenters like Kuenssberg. The question has to be asked - when does journalistic freedom step into the realms of direct influence and bias?

If the BBC, in it's apparent frantic bid to win the support of the current government, loses public trust, one wonders what the future may hold for a corporation whose name was once synonymous with reliable, professional and above all impartial news gathering.

The fact that over 35,000 people signed the petition calling for the sacking of Ms Kuenssberg suggests that they should at least be looking very critically at her behaviour since she took up her post.

Although it has to be said that if that oversight rests with the BBC Trust, itself demonstrably politically biased in it's own make up, there's little reason to hope for any more of an even-handed approach than shown by their current political editor.

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