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9 January 2016

Why Labour won’t back down in its row with the BBC

The leadership feels the Corporation overstepped its remit as a public service broadcaster.

By Stephen Bush

Labour has been widely criticised following its decision to launch a official complaint against the BBC’s Daily Politics programme over its handling of the resignation of Stephen Doughty,  who quit his job as a shadow foreign minister live on air. But the leadership has no intention of backing down in the row.

Matthew Doyle, former head of press and broadcasting at the Labour party, expressed his incredulity at the row, asking “Since when has it been wrong for the BBC to break a story?”, while Doughty himself has poured scorn on the claim that the BBC had anything to do with his decision to resign.

Robbie Gibb, the programme’s editor, dismissed the suggestion that either he, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg or anyone at the Corporation had “played any part”  in Doughty’s decision to resign and described the show’s handling of the resignation as part of the BBC’s “long standing tradition” of seeking to “break stories”. “It is true that we seek to make maximum impact with our journalism,” Gibb said in a letter to the party’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, “which is entirely consistent with the BBC’s editorial guidelines and values.”

But the party leadership has no intention of backing down and is sticking to its guns in the row. They do not believe that Doughty’s resignation had anything to do with the BBC, nor do they bear any animus against Kuenssberg. But they do believe that Gibb and the Daily Politics still have further questions to answer. Gibb explained that the now-deleted blog at the centre of the row  was removed as, when the piece was commissioned, he had believed it was “for internal purposes only”, and that the tone was “only suitable for an internal audience”, an explanation they believe to be inadequate. Nor should the row be seen as a personal project of Milne – there is a widespread belief at the top of the party that the BBC acted in a way “that we’d expect from ITN or Sky, but is not acceptable from a public institution”.  

In addition, they believe that the party is being denied a fair hearing both by the media and by others in the party “for factional reasons”. Gibb, who one aide describes as a “former Conservative party press officer” is brother to Nick Gibb, the school minister, while Andrew Neil is the Spectator’s chair – connections that, they believe would not escape the attention of the Mail or the Telegraph if they were “the other way round”.

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They point out that “Alastair Campbell went to war with the BBC [over Iraq]” while Tom Baldwin, who worked in communications for Ed Miliband, criticised the BBC strongly for its coverage of a Labour-SNP deal and the row over Ed Miliband’s use word ‘weaponize’ to describe the NHS. They believe that it is important to draw a line now, in order to lay a marker for the BBC’s coverage over the Labour party over the coming years. The argument over the Doughty affair may have a way yet to run.

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