Newsnight is playing a dangerous game

As a concerned friend, I beg you to see that this isn’t healthy

“Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot. The longer ministers and the prime minister tell us that we worked within them, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be…He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can now flout them.”

The words of Emily Maitlis, opening the BBC Newsnight programme for 26th May 2020. True? Brave? Wise? Advisable? Appropriate?

It wasn’t until this morning that I saw the clip. I, like many others, haven’t watched Newsnight for years now, and I have my own reasons. The reaction to this has been divided, but I confess mine was one of deep discomfort and unease. I tried to find the best gif for it, but so many just didn’t quite do it. The closest I got was the classic Picard head in hands one, but even that isn’t exactly there.

It’s hard to explain this without sounding like a partisan. If you are willing, up front, to be assured that I am not, then I hope you will hear me. To ‘the Left’ (as unhelpful a term as that usually is, it’s the best I have at this point), those who like, defend and cherish the BBC, I beg you to hear this. As a critical friend, I offer this up.

To start with, read the lines again. Can you hear them in the voice of, say, Owen Jones? Can you imagine Ash Sarkar saying it? Polly Toynbee? Sounds right to me. Now, can you imagine it from Allison Pearson? Daniel Hannan? Ok this isn’t a perfect science, but you take my point.

It certainly sounds like an opening monologue from a CNN news show, perhaps MSNBC, and of course if you flip the perspective, Fox News. American channels whose biases are upfront for you to see. Does it sound like something that should be being said on a supposedly neutral show, on a supposedly impartial channel? It was praised by the Independent and HuffPost, criticised by the Daily Mail and the Express. What does that tell you?

Whatever you may think about this tiresome Cummings story (and I made my point clearly, I think he broke the law), the facts and the interpretation of the events are disputed. While I think he broke the law and you may do too, others don’t. And frankly, it seems to be straight along party lines whether you believe it or you don’t, which makes this even more of an issue. It looks like Maitlis, and by extension Newsnight, and by definition the BBC, are taking a side in a partisan dispute. And that just isn’t sensible.

The current government has not hidden its disdain and dislike for the BBC. At the start of its administration, the higher levels of the Conservative Party have been making strong noises about what will happen when the BBC’s charter expires (which, barring some monumental collapse, will occur under a Conservative government). Cabinet Ministers don’t appear on the main news shows (outside crisis time). I am absolutely not saying that the BBC should be kowtowing to the incumbents, far from it. But again, I say as a concerned friend, is it wise to be so brazenly flouting the charter rules? Is it really in your interests, long term, for Newsnight to editorialise along your party line? Is is wise to claim, on a neutral platform, that you are ‘speaking for the nation’?

Honestly, if Maitlis had taken my exact, biased thoughts and spelled them out in a monologue, I would not have cheered. It’s not the platform we should be hearing it from. It felt like Maitlis thought she was taking a loaded gun and firing it at the government. That it was fool proof, that this would be a clear shot with little repercussion. What it looks like she has instead done, is load the gun and hand it straight to them. The government is under the heaviest sustained attack it has yet faced, and now they have an out – ‘look at that, blatant bias, against the rules’, blah blah blah.

Newsnight is supposed to be impartial, to report the news. The news yesterday was that Cummings had given his account, that some of the story checked out, some of it was fishy at best, and there was serious doubt over whether what he did could reasonably have been said to have broken the law. That was the story, it is straightforward enough and, frankly, looks awful for the government when reported straight. But that’s not what the monologue said. And opinion could absolutely have been given by invited guests

Emily Maitlis is a great presenter and interviewer. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the interview she did with Prince Andrew last year, in which she slowly and quietly handed him the opportunity to sink or swim, and he duly threw himself into the water without a life raft. It was meticulous, it was thorough, it was well prepared, it was even on his territory. The interview with the Prince was so powerful because she stayed neutral, because she didn’t get tribal or aggressive.

Newsnight is the flagship BBC television news programme, and Maitlis has been key to it for a number of years now. She is very, very good. But last night she made an error. Not only did she make an error, but the whole team did. I struggle to understand how that speech managed to get written, then past however many layers of editorial checks that are required for a programme like that without being remotely questioned. Even if you agreed with every word, I plead with you to see that this isn’t a good thing.

The BBC takes serious risks with its own future when these sorts of things happen. This isn’t the time to be flagrantly taking a line when its whole financial model, its very existence could be coming under serious pressure very soon. As somebody who would hate to see the BBC disappear, I’m worried. And these rather silly attempts to look tough and trend on Twitter could be very costly indeed.

Taking the time to think – In praise of not reacting instantly

How long does it really take to get to a fully formed view? Probably longer than composing a tweet…

I was struck when watching an interview with Ian Hislop  (mainstay of BBC panel show Have I Got News For You and, more to the point, editor of satirical magazine Private Eye), by a response he gave to a question put to him.

He was asked “In this age of 24 hour news, how are you able to run a self-described ‘current affairs’ magazine which publishes every fortnight?”

His answer was swift and enlightening.

“Well the great thing about publishing every fortnight is that you have time to think. The problem with rolling 24 hour news is that you just go bleh bleh bleh. So the news comes out unformulated and the comment comes out equally quickly. So quite often, you see a story and think ‘well that’s obviously not true’, and then people comment on it and you think ‘well why have you commented on that, it’s not true?’ and we’re going to find out it’s not true in about an hour anyway. There’s just a huge amount of space filling. With a fortnightly, by the time you come out there’s a chance to say something interesting.”

Clearly, the term ‘current affairs’ has evolved as the word ‘current’ more and more means ‘what happened in the last 3 hours’. There won’t be any getting away from it – as reaction is available instantly, with social media (particularly Twitter) allowing a story to travel around the world with the click of a button, reaction will be given instantly.

Perhaps, then, it is down to each of us to consider what our reaction actually is. While we can add our voice to the conversation instantly, is it worth tempering that voice with a little reserve, even scepticism? An initial dipping of the toe before a fuller, more measured response later? It’s something I certainly need to consider – blameless I am not.

The panic that takes hold of most journalists or commentators if a story breaks and they’re not close it is not a new thing. But whilst in the past that would have meant they didn’t have the scoop for the following day’s release, now it means they are instantly a million miles away from it, with no way to get to the centre as it breaks all day long, while their colleagues or rivals dominate. This induces a habit of pushing everything, however ill-formed or unconsidered into the public domain as quickly as possible.

24 hour news is not necessarily a bad thing. The ability to know about things straight away is a remarkable technological feat, and one which doesn’t need to be reversed. But I would suggest that the culture needs to mellow. A thing has happened – ok, fine. Let’s talk about it, but do we need to have a fully formed opinion on it immediately as well? Can’t we wait a week for that? Why are we inviting commentators into the studio to give their ‘immediate reaction’? Why are we reading out viewer emails? Can’t the reporters and the journalists just report what they know so far without the reach for ‘what the people think about it as well’?

I read an old post on this site that spoke about the Gibraltar crisis. Remember that? Course you don’t, but I bet you reacted strongly when it happened. I only left it a couple of days myself.

I may come back to this at some point, because I’m sure there will be some example that will illustrate the point better than this general observation.

But in the meantime, perhaps we can all just step back for a moment whenever we are invited to give our view on an event that is 5 minutes old. Have we considered all the angles? Am I sure this is even true? Does it even matter? What will happen if I wait? These simple questions have recently turned would could have been a blind rage into not even bothering to react for me. And boy, does that make a difference.

In defence of Diane Abbott

On June 8th, Britain goes to the voting booths, and with the polls starting to narrow between the two major parties, the supposedly inevitable Labour wipeout is far from certain. Indeed, some Conservative sources are briefing that plans are even being made for a hung parliament. With an army of 700million 18-24 year olds primed and pumped to definitely get out of the house and definitely vote Labour, this seems like a sensible precaution to take.

A Labour victory would mean many things, not least of all Jeremy Corbyn taking the keys to Downing Street. What I can’t quite get my head around is Emily Thornberry as Foreign Secretary (although I could have easily said the same about Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson) and – worst of all – Diane Abbott as Home Secretary.

Ms. Abbott has, so far in this campaign, committed a series of excruciating gaffes. These are not isolated incidents, as she has a rich history of cringeworthy interviews in which she invariably comes across as smug, self-serving and completely unbothered about whether she is actually answering a question put to her.

However, she has been much derided for an interview she gave to Andrew Marr this week, derision which I think on the whole is not deserved. The whole clip can be found here and is definitely worth a watch. I want to examine this interview, and show why I think descriptions of a ‘car crash interview’ are well wide of the mark.

Marr opens with a question on why she should be trusted on security, to which she responds (after a brief diversion about Manchester, standard politics which any MP would open with) with some nonsense about having worked in the Home Office as a graduate trainee, apparently giving her the knowledge of “how it works on the inside”. But she then talks about her work with diverse communities and having been a working MP for 30 years, giving her the undoubted experience of seeing how the work of the Home Office affects her community. This is (eventually) a perfectly reasonable response.

He then moves on to chuck an old quote of hers about wanting to abolish MI5, her signature having been found on an early day motion calling for the “abolition of conspiratorial groups, not accountable to the British people”. She responds by saying that she wanted it to be reformed, it has now been reformed, and she would not call for its abolition now. Again, completely reasonable and a straight and clear answer. She even bats away Marr’s insinuation that “the old Diane Abbott has gone” by correctly asserting that it is not her that has changed, but MI5, allowing her to now support it.

The next point is around Abbott having voted “around 30 times against anti-terrorist legislation”. Now, this is one for me that I can’t stand hearing about. I hate it when it is used against Labour MPs, Tory MPs and Lib Dem MPs because it simply isn’t fair. It is also this kind of question and fear of its reprisals that turns perfectly intelligent and thoughtful MPs into self-serving, robotic lobby fodder. Legislation is very carefully crafted, often to try to trick or pressure opponents in a particular way, and so to boil down 30 (what would have been huge and wide ranging) pieces of legislation and use them to imply that Abbott is against anti-terror provisions is frustrating. She may have been wrong to vote against these, but we can’t know without examining each one carefully. Alas, not something that can be done in a 12 minute interview, but I would always urge you to look into these things further (and for complete integrity, do it for the Tories as well when they’re attacked in a similar way).

She makes this point brilliantly when Marr puts his next question, which relates to her having voted against proscribing Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation before 9/11. She calmly asks him if he has read the legislation he is referring to (he has). She explains that some on the list were, she thought, freedom fighters and dissidents in their countries, and so could not vote to proscribe them as terrorists. She may be right about this, she may be wrong, but it illustrates perfectly the issue with having one vote to cast on a wide variety of issues in one bill.

To give an extreme example, say you had to vote on a bill that was there to designate Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Lib Dem Party as terrorists, how would you vote? Does that mean you don’t think ISIS are terrorists? (Tory friends, this may not be a good example for you…)

After he puts it to her that “no list is perfect, but this is a pretty good list”, she hits back by explaining that she couldn’t possibly vote for it whilst she considered some of those groups to be legitimate dissidents and voices of opposition in their countries. Whether you think she was right or wrong to vote the way she did, she correctly points out that, “you have to give people credit for thinking about how they vote”. This is a more important quality in an MP than blindly following their party whips, and I have huge respect for it.

We move into murkier waters regarding support for the IRA. I won’t get into too much detail here because I could write for ages, but suffice to say I am not with her (or Corbyn) on this one – I do consider her to have supported the IRA against the British state, and with a group that brought such horrible violence, I don’t think this is defensible. The nonsense about her concurrent change of hairstyle and views are obviously ridiculous, but she dodges the real question, claiming simply that she “has moved on”. This is slippery and doesn’t look good. The only dark spot in an otherwise solid interview.

Next, it is put to her that Amber Rudd “spends 2 hours a day” signing orders for various activities requested by the police – would she do the same as Home Secretary? Her response is, for me, perfect. “If it’s put in front of me and there is sufficient evidence, of course I will.” What more could we ask of her?

On the question of tech companies like WhatsApp that provide communication tools, I couldn’t be more opposed to her. She peddles the same nonsense as her opposite numbers across the house about the companies working with the British government to access messages. She recognises there are ‘issues’ with end to end encryption, but she seems to misunderstand (perhaps deliberately) the nature of the thing…it is either encrypted or it isn’t. If you let the state access it, other people could do as well. I oppose any moves to open these things up, and her use of the Manchester attack to push this point is naked political posturing using a tragedy – something she has had no issue with accusing her opponents of. However, this is her view and it is clear and concise. We are free to disagree, and I do.

The issue of DNA databases is raised, with her apparent opposition to having even guilty people’s DNA on the database put to her. She explains that she has had children in her constituency who have never even been convicted of any crime who have their DNA on there. This seems to be a gross violation and, certainly in that case, I would support her opposition.

The rest of the interview focuses on police numbers (during which she actually knows her figures – a refreshing change) and how she would run the Home Office as a black person (how that is relevant I have no idea, and to her credit she bats it back by saying she would run it as best she could, same as with everything else).

Overall, this was a creditable performance and, despite having disagreements with her on several points, she came across as reasonable, professional and competent. I would have my misgivings about seeing her in the Home Office, but following this, some of those have disappeared.

She has been roundly criticised on social media for this interview, but I cannot see why. Corbyn and Abbott do have serious questions to answer about their past IRA support, but that can’t be the only thing we take into consideration about them, especially given how long ago it was. If we don’t allow people to change and adapt, we only reinforce our own prejudices and push people into corners, and that’s not something we should seek.

She has, in the past, been evasive, slippery and simply ridiculous plenty of times. But those times when she isn’t need to be credited. It is only be doing this that we encourage our elected representatives to do it more often. If this is seen as a car crash interview, why should she ever feel like she should be clear or straightforward with us again? We must give credit where and when it is due. This applies to ALL parties and ALL MPs. If we don’t, all we will get is an army of dreary, whipped Michael Fallons.

And we would deserve it.