Friday, May 13, 2016

Laura Kuenssberg

The Laura Kuenssberg affair is a low parody of the media at its worst. Not because Kuenssberg is particularly awful herself: I don't think she's any worse than her predecessors. But because the magnificent histrionics of the media circling the wagons in her defence indicates that they simply don't get it.

Allow me to explain. Many people think that the BBC's chief political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, is partisan. That is to say, not just perceptibly biased as every journalist is and must be, but actively using the journalistic platform to pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda. I think that's improbable, but it's worth saying that a recent petition on 38degrees, which achieved 35,000 signatures before it was taken down, suggests that the impression is not totally marginal. And in my experience, whatever people make of Kuenssberg herself, it's just a common sense right across the Left that the BBC is remorselessly biased against the current Labour leadership.

Of course, the BBC is frequently criticised on the Left, and for good reason. Whether it is its coverage of war, where it is more biased toward the state than any other broadcaster, or its coverage of Israel-Palestine, Scottish independence, and all Corbyn-related matters, the BBC acts as though it were part of the political establishment that it reports on. Its political editors are usually a particular source of irritation. For example, people constantly criticised Nick Robinson for his right-wing bias, and even called for him to be sacked. There is a reason for this. The BBC's political editors speak with the voice of authority: the authority of the Corporation. When they editorialise, they declare 'the facts', and there is no opposition. That is, their inevitable bias is not acknowledged as such. In a media outlet that admits no partisanship, that is more than usually aggravating.

For example, in April 2003, the New Labour loyalist Andrew Marr stood outside Downing Street on the day that Saddam Hussein fell, he said:

"Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren't going to thank him - because they're only human - for being right when they've been wrong. ... He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result."

This was what you might call 'peak Marr', as it expressed in concentrated form all the tendencies that were already apparent in his editorial stance. But he was not alone. It would not be difficult to find examples of other occasions on which correspondents have stated as fact grossly partisan political judgments. Just off the top of my head, I can recall Justin Webb reporting on Schroeder's welfare cuts, in which he asserted that 'Germans knew' that the big welfare state was unsustainable and would have to be pared down. You could probably come up with your own. These instances would have been a great deal less offensive had they been acknowledged as partisan interventions in a political field, as opinion commentaries which could then be contested within the programme. That they are offered as fact means that there is a degree of agenda-setting going on, because it takes them out of the realm of being open for debate. It would actually be possible for BBC journalists to be more objective if they were able to acknowledge partisanship, rather than pretend or strive toward impartiality.

When I say that the BBC acts as though it were part of the political establishment, then, I suppose I may as well come out and say it: it, and every other major news organisation, is exactly that. They are not just reporting on policy, they are part of the policymaking process. They do not just reflect on state power, state power circulates through them. They do not just represent what takes place in the political system, they regulate it and discipline it through the particular kinds of scrutiny they give it, the consensus they safeguard, the things they attack, the policy objectives they foreground, the debates they allow to be had, and the way they structure those debates. The 'non-partisanship' they esteem tends to be, particularly in the case of the BBC, a bias toward the governing centre, toward authority, and toward a default nationalism. This, to be clear, is not all that is happening in the media. It is not a homogenous entity, and there are spaces for contesting viewpoints which can expand or contract. And of course the media has to be in some sense susceptible to the views of its audience, no matter how much it may try to shape and manipulate those views. Nonetheless, if you assume that the major broadcasters and newspapers operate within the field of state power, have a mutually dependent relationship with other actors in that field, and contribute to its overall performance and reproduction, I think it makes their behaviour a lot easier to understand.

So, Laura Kuenssberg is the latest person to inhabit that authoritative editorial voice, the voice of the BBC, the voice of objective and impartial journalism. She is also, and this will become important to the story, the first woman to hold this post - a reflection of the BBC's institutional sexism. And, of course, she is no more impartial than she is immortal. That comes across in the very texture of her reporting. For example, I think there was something terribly snide and deliberate about the way in which the sacking of Pat McFadden during the reshuffle was represented as if it was because of McFadden's opposition to ISIS. That sort of thing, snide and insinuating, would leave any uninformed viewer alarmed that the leadership of the Labour Party has developed a crush on Daesh, which of course feeds into existing PR themes developed by the Conservatives and Tory-aligned media. But is she any worse in this than anyone else? Is she, as many people think, displaying a pro-Cameron bias? I don't think so. Her interviews with Tory figures have the same sort of performative aggression, the same zealous determination to catch the minister or whomever in a slip, however trivial or nonsensical. Whether or not she is personally Tory, her reporting doesn't evince a pro-Conservative bias. It does, though, bear the hallmarks of a generalised and institutionalised hostility to the left, a diffuse phenomenon of which Kuenssberg partakes.

After all, this situation is unprecedented. Corbyn is a radical socialist leading the main party of opposition, in a country where radical socialists have never been anywhere near executive office. The majority of parliamentarians, civil servants, media professionals, businessmen, think-tankers, pollsters, party professionals and others in that milieu, are used to the common sense that socialism is and will always be marginal (and amen to that, they add). Their sense of the political possibilities has, moreover, been radically reduced by decades in which Labour has rarely done anything but move to the Right. When Kuenssberg's reports were first singled out for scorn and satire, shortly after Corbyn was elected as Labour leader, there was a panic and derangement across the whole media, the like of which one usually does not see. Now, journalism is a cliquey profession in some ways, and the 'Westminster bubble' encloses media professionals as much as it does politicians. To some extent, if everyone else is reporting things in this way, and talking about things in this way, that sets the parameters of discussion for any journalist aspiring to be seen as non-partisan. To deviate from the established or emerging consensus is what would look like bias from the point of view of the journalistic profession. And if the parliamentary reaction is overwhelmingly the same, a sort of flutter and cry that the fox has got into the chicken coop, then that compounds the emerging consensus.

What about the Stephen Doughty resignation which, with BBC orchestration, took place live on air? It seems quite likely to me that in that case, several things are simultaneously true. First, no journalist in today's media would even consider turning down a story like that. Second, the pursuit of this story very probably overlapped with a contempt for Corbyn and his politics shared by most on the Labour Right and most at the BBC. Third, Doughty's desire to inflict damage on the Labour leadership, no doubt on the road to greatness, was congruent with Kuenssberg's desire to ensure that something that she reported was talked about for the next few days, in parliament and in other news channels.

To elaborate a little. Careers in journalism are hard-won, often by people who've hoked through the bins or hacked the emails or voicemails of private citizens, so on what possible ethical precept would they consider rejecting this story? Kuenssberg's determination to draw blood in political interviews and to get scoops that rock the tiny Westminster world to its tiny foundations, is an example of a tough journalist excelling at her job by the standards of most journalists. It may be trivialising, it may be obsessed with process and personalities, it may contribute to a general bafflement about and detachment from politics because of the way it treats politics as a series of racy stories without really giving any account of how real power really works. But that, by the standards of the capitalist media, is actually 'adversarial journalism' at its best. 

Supporters of Corbyn found the story obnoxious because Kuenssberg seemed to be gloating about it and relishing the sense of crisis, which to them was artificial. The reshuffle martyrs - the Doughtys and McFaddens and Dughers, all metaphorically cruciform and wailing for the humanity, all undoubtedly destined for greatness were it not for Corbyn's vindictiveness - were attempting to represent an exceptionally minor change to the composition of the cabinet as a fucking Stalinist purge. They were being lionised for the most inane comments. And here was the BBC eagerly working to give one of them as much profile and impact as possible. It doesn't matter that it was a 'legitimate story', it felt like a stitch-up - and, what is more, just a particularly repugnant example of the BBC's palpable contempt for Corbyn. But, to reiterate, journalists don't see anything problematic in what Kuenssberg and her colleagues did in this case. The NUJ defends Kuenssberg and repudiates the petition against her. The New Statesman's 'media mole' probably reflects the view of many in the profession when querying whether we can remember when "the left believed in employment rights". Of course, that's a red herring. There is nothing in the idea of employment rights that says anyone is immune from the sack. But media professionals don't see a struggle over politics and representation - the criticisms may as well be coming from outer space as far as they're concerned - they see an attack on their profession.

Given this, it makes a certain amount of sense to look for ulterior motives. Since Laura Kuenssberg is the first women to become political editor of BBC News, sexism would be a logical motive to look for. That can be pitched on a number of registers. Either you can say that Kuenssberg is being targeted more for criticism than her male predecessors. I think that would be difficult to sustain, given Robinson and Marr. Or you can say that there is a certain unconscious sexism in the particular libidinised ferocity of the criticism. That's a tougher case to evaluate but we could make room for there being an element of that. Or you can say that most, or at least a sigificant minority, of the criticisms of Kuenssberg amount directly to sexist abuse. Well, the fact that there is outright sexist abuse of Kuenssberg, with some Twitter comments referring to her as a 'bitch' and a 'slag', exposes a nasty undercurrent of popular culture that was probably not as visible before social media. But is there any ground for thinking that the campaign against Kuenssberg is in any sense predominantly or even significantly sexist? Is the petition framed in a sexist way? What about the comments on the petition page (via)? Is there a preponderance of sexist spite or presumption or overt or covert male privilege in those comments? The evidence seems to suggest that the answer is no. And yet that has not been the conclusion of any media outlet, from the Guardian to those notable bastions of feminist thought and action, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. There is, and we are not seeing this for the first time, a serious disconnect between conception, evidence and conclusion.

Therefore, from the outside, the furore in the media denouncing not only the individual comments or the culture they represent, but also the 38degrees petition itself and the whole critique of Kuenssberg as sexist, looks really appalling. It looks like it is instrumentalising feminism in a tawdry and opportunistic way. Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism makes the obvious point that you can't just dismiss sexist abuse as a distraction when it occurs. Absolutely right, but I would turn this point around. It is not a 'distraction', it is a real issue: therefore do not use it as a distraction. Talk about it, but do not pretend that is all there is to talk about. Do not pretend that this gives you a license to wave away the criticism of the BBC and its political editor. As Stavvers puts it, "There is misogyny going on. It is just that the misogyny is levelled as a distraction from issues they don’t want you talking about. ... Using misogynistic language does not change the important discussion about bias from a public broadcaster, it merely deflects away from what we ought to be talking about." Those who deserve to be criticised for trivialising and dismissing the issue of sexism are those who utilise it in that way, leveraging it - as if we wouldn't notice! - to illegitimately rebuff the entire critique. A critique that, agree with it or not, threatens the flattering self-image of media professionals. The Guardian, whose renaissance under Katherine Viner is not quite as advertised, even went to the extent in its leader column of bundling together the Strauss-Khan rape allegations with the sexist comments about Kuenssberg on Twitter, under the category of 'sex abuse' - a term that in common usage, if you care to google it, refers to rape. That conflation is, someone please tell them, not just crazy but actually disgusting.

But matters get worse. After a sustained media campaign, both the petitioner and the petition's hosts decided to take it down. David Babbs of 38degrees explains that the petition had to be taken down as a gesture of principle, because: "A small number of people signing the petition were using it as a launch pad for sexist hate speech towards her on other platforms such as Twitter." I find it hard to blame Babbs for buckling under this pressure, but he did in fact buckle under pressure. By this standard, I swear, 38degrees will have to stop hosting petitions altogether. Because there will never be a time when one of their petitions doesn't generate 'a small number' of signatories who go on to say something trashy and bigoted on another forum. The attempt to implement this practice consistently would result in a generalised moratorium on all written material. That, of course, will not be necessary, because this standard would be applied in no other circumstances. But the press, again almost uniformly, has been bullish. They have also been joined by politicians, above all David Cameron. Fresh from addressing the fantastically corrupt practices of Nigeria, he's here to address the nation on sexism. And next, he'll be lecturing the farmers on how to avoid inter-species coition.

Now, if you're a journalist, ask yourself how this looks. We live in a society where, like it or not, the breakdown of the representative link is coextensive with a general decline in trust in the media. People do not feel represented by the government, and they do not feel represented in the media. The mirror of democracy has cracked and warped, and that means that people are more and more critical of what they see and hear in the media, and more inclined to see the media as an extension of the 'political class'. And what have you got here? A complete failure to understand the criticisms let alone take them seriously. A generalised smarmy smugness among the punditry, snorting at the silly little people and their silly little conspiracy theories. (There are conspiracy theories, but I don't think we need any lectures about that from the people who gave us the story of Labour's remarkable takeover by antisemites.) And finally, a crescendo, an undignified, hectoring campaign to shut them up, denounce them as sexist, get the petition taken down. A chorus extending from the Tory front benches to the Labour back benches, and right across the media, exultant and graceless in victory. Do you have any idea what you look like? No. Of course you don't.