As Laura Kuenssberg completed her seven-year stint as the BBC’s political editor, she posted her last piece in the job on the BBC website. On her watch, Britain has lurched through the Brexit referendum and negotiations, the capture of the Labour Party by the left, three different Tory prime ministers of contrasting tempers and a pandemic that shut the country down. So much has gone wrong it is tempting to conclude that she must have been a jinx – and there are plenty of critics who would agree.
The job of the BBC political editor has been made all but undoable in the social media era. Kuenssberg has had to endure extraordinary abuse, personal and political. She has been accused of being embedded within the Tory party, of being the personal tribune of Dominic Cummings, of being too light on lying Leavers, of being openly dismissive of the Corbyn leadership. Most common of all, she is often accused, sometimes by people who are otherwise rational, as being the channel through which Brexit was communicated. If only the BBC had turned up for the fight, they allege, the British people would not have been duped. It is now a minority opinion to venture that almost all of that is patronising rubbish, and that Laura Kuenssberg did a near-impossible job pretty well.
It is worth trying to regain the sense of proportion that has lately been lost. Delving into John Cole’s memoir As It Seemed to Me is a pleasant immersion in a world that has disappeared, but it is instructive all the same. A few nights before he took over from John Simpson as the BBC’s political editor in 1981, Cole was a guest at a party thrown by Shirley Williams in her Hertfordshire home. As Cole is leaving, Williams says to him with a sad smile: “You have just witnessed the wake of Labour’s old establishment.”
There are two interesting aspects to this. The first is that Cole writes, in frank terms, that he regarded the Labour split as a grave and historic error. He had trenchant views, as an old labour correspondent, which were never raised as an issue in relation to his ability to do the job in 1981. The second is that As It Seemed to Me is full of anecdotes of Cole meeting Jim Callaghan at a party or having a drink with Tony Benn. Imagine if Laura Kuenssberg wrote a memoir of the beer she shared with Dominic Cummings. The balloon would go up.
The times, in other words, have changed. As Kuenssberg herself said in her outgoing post, “technology has allowed toxicity to spread more easily into our debates”. The next BBC political editor, whoever it is, would be well advised to turn off the Twitter machine, or at least to use it more sparingly. Social media is so much faster than proper journalism. It was, in fact, her Twitter game – not something that ever concerned John Cole – which raised the only real question mark about Kuenssberg’s time as political editor.
That question is: what should the job really amount to? John Cole and Robin Oakley were more chief political reporters than political editors. Andrew Marr approached the job as the editor he had been, and Nick Robinson continued the process of editorial interpretation. Despite the loud accusations that she was editorialising, Laura Kuenssberg’s problem was that she tried to return the job to its roots in reporting.
And that is the only thing that might calmly be said against her. If a reporter receives a text from the chief consigliere to the prime minister it is, in one obvious sense, “news”. Or if the prime minister himself gets in touch, it is surely news to report what he says. Yet both those characters might be pulling a fast one. Once upon a time, John Cole would have had all day to assess whether a juicy thought whispered in his ear by Bernard Ingham was really worth the candle. These days, it is straight to social media to say “sources close to the Prime Minister say that the moon is made of green cheese”.
There must, therefore, be an editorial aspect to the job: some degree of filtering and assessment of what to include and what to discard. This will only be possible if the audience is prepared to allow that the political editor is capable of, or at least is trying to be, non-partisan. Nobody ever questioned whether Jack Hardiman Scott, the first political editor, thought Harold Macmillan was a good egg, or what David Holmes made of the election of Mrs Thatcher. I always knew which horse Robin Oakley fancied in the 3.45 at Newmarket but his politics were not on show. Andrew Marr and Nick Robinson came to the job with political histories but laid them aside for the duration.
The contested truth is that Laura Kuenssberg did the same. And the legacy of the job as she leaves it is not that she won a referendum for Nigel Farage. It’s that, as media power scatters, BBC political editor is both a less desirable job and a less powerful job than once it was. I wouldn’t say that in the Brexit saga the BBC didn’t matter at all, but it didn’t matter much. Laura Kuenssberg had no magical power to make Brexit happen, even if she had wanted to. She was just a decent journalist doing an impossible job well, in an era in which its power was slowly dissolving.
This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special