During the bit of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to Labour conference where journalists were just beginning to drift off, Buzzfeed Political Editor Jim Waterson posted about a story on The Canary. The pro-Corbyn “alternative” site had posted an article by Steve Topple headlined: “We need to talk about Laura Kuenssberg. She’s listed as a speaker at the Tory Party conference.”
As Waterson put it, “It took me two mins to call the event organiser and find out this is bollocks. She’s not speaking at Tory conference. Already going viral regardless.”
The Canary article claimed that “BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg is listed as an invited speaker at the Conservative Party conference. And the news raises questions about the impartiality of the journalist and her organisation. Again.”
Now, it’s true that Kuenssberg appears as an “invited speaker” on the event listing for a fringe organised by the Centre for Social Justice alongside former DWP minister Iain Duncan Smith. The chancellor Philip Hammond is also “invited”. However, “invited” just means that the CSJ have sent her an email asking if she would attend.
There are two problems here. The first is the way that The Canary – an independent, reader-funded “alternative” news site – uses Kuenssberg as a traffic-driver for hate-clicks. This is a flimsy story – leftwing journalists speak at Tory conference, and vice versa – even if it were correct. Which it isn’t, as the BBC press office soon made clear.
— BBC News Press Team (@BBCNewsPR) September 27, 2017
So why would the Canary flam up such a small story? Simple answer: for traffic – and therefore revenue. The new left media has learned from the old right legacy press that the BBC is a big institution, and is vulnerable to accusations of bias. The Canary pummels the BBC, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the media. As a story, it’s cheap, easy and requires few resources – just switch on your TV or browse the BBC website and find something you don’t like. As my colleague Anoosh Chakelian reported in her piece on these alternative sites: “The Canary’s biggest target is the BBC, which it sees as biased in favour of a “neoliberal” establishment. Upon parliament’s return from the summer recess, the Canary website ran three attack pieces on the BBC in two days.”
The site has a tag for its Kuenssberg stories, which include “After taking six weeks off, it took Laura Kuenssberg just two paragraphs to reveal her true colours” and “Laura Kuenssberg’s response to the Labour manifesto shows the BBC is moving from bias to naked self-interest”. A story headlined “petition to sack BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg was ‘probably’ removed ‘under establishment pressure’, says former UK ambassador” – even features the thoughts of noted Julian Assange fan Craig Murray, just to complete the circle of conspiracy obsessives.
Kuenssberg has become a lightning rod for criticism, particularly since the BBC Trust ruled that she had breached impartiality guidelines with an interview on Corbyn’s “shoot to kill” policy. However, it’s important to contextualise this: BBC editors receive constant complaints from politicians and their teams about their reporting. Why? Because they reach so many people. What is reported on the BBC matters.
However, it’s not hard to spot that some BBC staff get more flak than others. Those in front of camera are instantly recognisable, and so make better targets. So – let’s be honest – are women. There is a strain of misogyny which delights in being told that there are some women it’s OK to hate. The media should not give license to that impulse, and neither should anyone who calls themselves progressive. Internet arguments over the exact calibration of condemnation given to vitriol against Diane Abbott vs Laura Kuenssberg miss the fact that both left and right are united in finding some women acceptable targets for sexist abuse. Do as you would be done to.
The demonisation of Kuenssberg, which the Canary has taken such delight in, has had real world effects. The BBC political editor was given a bodyguard for Labour party conference, presumably as a result of threats. When the story was reported, a sizeable section of the online left, instead of believing that the BBC would make a sensible decision based on duty of care to an employee, decided to question whether it was an anti-Corbyn plot. Where were these threats? Why won’t you tell us what they are? The tone was conspiracist, which is frankly boggling to anyone who has ever clicked on the replies to a Kuenssberg tweet. The hate for her is real, it is often wildly divorced from anything she’s actually done, and it often takes overtly misogynist forms.
In fact, look at one of the first responses to the Canary’s own tweet of the story.
The second point about the Canary’s Kuenssberg story is that it shows something unfashionable – the importance of expertise in journalism. Anyone who has ever covered a party conference could tell you that it’s far from unusual to see an event hopefully listing all kinds of grandees and big names as “invited”. That’s because Diane Abbott or Justine Greening will receive dozens of invitations and quite often they won’t decide their diaries until after the printed conference guide has been sent to press. A more experienced political journalist would have been more sceptical of that event listing – and would also, as Jim Waterson did, contact the event organisers for clarification before publishing. (The Canary story says that the BBC had not responded by the time it published the piece.)
In his speech to conference, Jeremy Corbyn attacked the mainstream media for fuelling online abuse. “The campaign by the Tories and their loyal media was nasty and personal,” he said. “It fuelled abuse online and no one was the target of that more than Diane Abbott.” On the question of Abbott, he is entirely correct – she was the subject of half of a sample of 25,000 abusive tweets sent to female MPs during the campaign.
But Kuenssberg is also a target of waves of vitriol – and, clearly, serious enough physical threats to merit protection. The Canary’s continued use of her as a punching bag for clicks suggest that they are willing to turn a blind eye to misogyny, as long as it’s directed at the “right” targets.
(Update: The Canary has now amended the article and added a note at the end, following the BBC’s statement.)