Laura Kuenssberg’s apology for her tweet reporting the fake news that a Conservative aide had been punched in the face by a Labour activist was yet another illustration of the erosion in editorial standards that has resulted from cut-throat competition among journalists to be first with the news on Twitter.
By placing her trust in the truthfulness of Boris Johnson’s propaganda machine she had endangered the BBC’s reputation for accuracy and reliability.
As a BBC correspondent for 30 years I can speak with first-hand experience of the inherent dangers – and frustrations – of having to deal with media advisers closest to the Prime Minister who tend increasingly to speak exclusively to a handful of trusted journalists.
Once installed inside No 10, Johnson’s mercurial spin doctor Dominic Cummings started to boast openly of how he and his team in Downing Street had a direct line to three top journalists – Ms Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, and Tim Shipman, political editor and the Sunday Times.
Cummings understands full well the manipulative power of a spin doctor, that by trading information on an exclusive basis to a handful of selected journalists, there is every likelihood he will get more favourable coverage in return.
Here in lies the danger for Ms Kuenssberg and Peston: both have to be the voice of authority for the BBC and ITV respectively, but they are also having to chase their tails in a media world where journalists are more than likely to be judged by the rest of the news media on the strength of their following on Twitter rather than their political knowledge or judgement as a top broadcaster.
Competing to be first with the news with on Twitter – despite an increase in the character limit from 140 to 280 letters – is high risk, all the more so for Ms Kuenssberg whose writ within the BBC is sacrosanct.
Once a fact or information from the political editor gets into the BBC’s news machine that becomes the line to take, whether it is in a news bulletin on a local radio station, news online or the Ten O’Clock News.
When Ms Kuenssberg and Peston tweeted that a Tory aide had been punched by a Labour activist after a visit to Leeds General Infirmary by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock (9.12.2019) they were relying on briefings by Conservative sources and had not seen footage of the incident itself.
In their subsequent Twitter apologies Ms Kuenssberg said “two sources suggested it had happened but clear from video that was wrong” and Peston acknowledged it was “completely clear from video footage” Hancock’s adviser was “not whacked by a protestor, as I was told by senior Tories.”
My 30 years with the BBC ended in 2002 – well before the Twitterati started to dominate the news agenda – but the seeds were already being sown for the erosion in editorial standards.
Back in the 1970s the BBC’s political editor would get briefings from the Prime Minister’s press secretary that were not available to other correspondents or journalists, but the purpose then was to explain government background and thinking rather than promote a new story line.
In the 1980s, the redoubtable Bernard Ingham had a formidable reputation for the insight he could offer journalists in similar off-the-record briefings about the ins and outs of the Thatcher era, but his remit remained that of a government information officer rather than a voice for the Conservative Party.
Alastair Campbell’s edict on entering Downing Street with Tony Blair in 1997, was that he wanted the government’s information machine to “grab the agenda” rather than just supply information or simply react to requests from the news media.
At election time his operation merged seamlessly with that of Labour and the blurring of responsibilities between government and party has continued with a vengeance under Cummings.
In my final years as a BBC correspondent, my difficulty was that it was hard to check out or challenge information passed down the line from the political editor.
At critical times the point of contact was – and is – the BBC’s political editor; calls from other correspondents did not get through.
Hence my concern at the additional responsibility that filing instantly for Twitter has placed on the likes of Ms Kuenssberg and Peston.
What they are reporting as news is often no more than a tip off – and as any journalist knows that has to be substantiated.
Perhaps a salutary lesson for the trigger-happy Twitterati is to recall what happened when John Prescott was involved in a confrontation with a protestor on the way into a Labour rally in Rhyl in the 2001 general election.
Despite an exchange of blows having been witnessed by its own reporter, Sky News waited a full hour in order to view the video before reporting that Prescott had in fact retaliated, hitting the protestor on the chin with a left jab.
Illustrations: The Guardian, 10.12.2019; Daily Mirror, 9.12.2019; Metro, 10.12.2019.