Relations between Jeremy Corbyn and the BBC have hit a new low after he became the first Labour leader in decades not to conduct a ‘Today’ programme interview at the party conference.
BBC sources told HuffPost UK that the flagship Radio 4 news show had expected Corbyn to carry out a live interview in Brighton on Tuesday morning - but it didn’t go ahead amid claims that Labour was unhappy with its treatment by the programme.
Senior party sources insisted to HuffPost UK that the Labour leader had not “pulled out” of the appearance as “it was never agreed or arranged”. They rejected the idea of a ‘no-show’ as “simply not true”.
But BBC sources said that Corbyn’s team had “cancelled” the interview at late notice on Monday amid claims that John McDonnell was irritated that the programme had not treated him fairly earlier in the day.
Corbyn will not appear on the show on Wednesday, as that is the day of his keynote speech to the Labour conference.
Labour figures were furious that the Shadow Chancellor was not asked on the show about his overnight policy announcement that the party would cap credit card charges in government.
Instead, McDonnell was asked about Labour’s Brexit motions, wider nationalisation plans, tuition fees and party reforms.
“[Party] leaders always do big interviews [with Today]…until now,” one Corporation source said, adding that the claims about McDonnell’s interview were “an absurd excuse”.
The Today programme has conducted interviews with all party leaders at their annual conferences since the 1970s, another source said.
But Corbyn supporters may seize on the fact that Tony Blair failed to go on the show at least twice during Labour conference in the early 2000s, citing a busy diary.
The spat came amid deep unease among some Labour MPs that BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg has had to hire special security protection for the party conference following threats online.
Some Corbyn supporters in Brighton believe they are being unfairly tarnished by the conduct of a minority, but Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott urged all members to stop the abuse of the BBC journalist, saying “just don’t do it”.
Corbyn and his team have long insisted that they will not follow ‘traditional’ media conventions and that neither the Today programme nor the Andrew Marr Show have a right to demand interviews at certain points in the year.
Some around Corbyn were furious at his treatment on his first Today programme interview as leader in 2015, when he was pressed on whether he would press the nuclear button. The story dominated the party conference and overshadowed his keynote speech the following day.
In 2016, the programme had to make do with a pre-recorded rather than live interview with the Labour leader during his party’s Liverpool conference.
Last year, Corbyn told Today’s Nick Robinson why he had not been available during the second leadership race: “With the deepest and greatest respect to the Today programme, I know it is the most important radio programme on the whole planet, it is not the only radio programme on the whole planet.
“We will be reaching out to all forms of communication. It’s not the only radio programme. We’ve done lots of radio programmes, lots of TV programmes, lots of social media.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Discussions around the logistics of an interview are ongoing.”
It is understood that Today are in discussions for an interview to take place later in the week. Corbyn attended a BBC function in Brighton on Monday night, sources said.
Today programme presenters including Robinson, John Humphrys, Sarah Montague and Mishal Hussein have come under fire on social media from Corbyn supporters since his election.
Insiders at the BBC point out that the Conservatives also criticise the show, and that it was robust and independent in its scrutiny of all political parties.
Allies of McDonnell point out he did a full morning media round on Monday, covering ITV, Sky and the BBC. However, one insider said that he’d cancelled planned apperances later in the day.
McDonnell stepped up his attacks on the media in his main speech yesterday, declaring that “our opponents” and “virtually every political commentator” were “indistinguishable”.
Campaign group 38 degrees last year took down a petition calling for the BBC political editor to be sacked, saying it had become a focal point for misogynist abuse.
In her Guardian interview, Abbott said that Kuenssberg’s treatment online was unacceptable.
“Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. There is a positive case to make on Jeremy online, make that positive case. You don’t have to be abusing other people.”
The Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership had seen fantastic debate take place online, she said, “but people need to think, ‘you know what, I’m going to put out a positive tweet about Jeremy, I won’t put out something unpleasant about Laura Kuenssberg’.”
Abbott added that Kuenssberg was “doing her job”, adding that it was interesting that female journalists tended to face more attacks that men.
McDonnell upset some Labour MPs on Monday by responding to concerns about Kuenssberg by saying that she should tell trolls and others who harassed her that “John McDonnell will sort them”.
Corbyn’s team fell out with the BBC in early 2016, when the Daily Politics Show arranged for shadow minister Stephen Doughty to announce his resignation live on air.
In a statement at the time, Corbyn’s advisers said Kuenssberg and the programme had committed an “unacceptable breach of the BBC’s role and statutory obligations” by allegedly stage-managing the event.
The BBC responded with a letter defending the impartiality of its journalism.