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  1. Election 2024
2 October 2019

The Conservatives have relearned the art of spinning the BBC

Boris Johnson's Downing Street is better at managing the UK's most important news source than Theresa May's – and the consequences could be significant.

By Stephen Bush

One of the BBC’s more reliable biases in its political news is the significant advantage it gives to whichever party is proposing something. At the last general election, particularly on radio, that helped the Labour Party. Almost every day they would put out a policy, while the Conservatives ended up in the losers’ corner of criticising it on the grounds of cost or inefficiency, which in the minds of most people listening just made them seem like negative grumblers.

In more recent times, the BBC put Caroline Lucas’ entirely unworkable plan for an all-female unity government to prevent a no deal Brexit at the top of their homepage, the United Kingdom’s most-visited online news source. It took nine paragraphs for the write-up to include any criticism of the approach and a full 13 for what some might consider the killer problem with the scheme, which is that the main opposition party didn’t want to play.

The “proponent drives the narrative” bias doesn’t necessarily reward parties for positive campaigning or punish them negative claims – look at the way David Cameron’s warnings about an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP were covered – but they do reward whoever has gone first on a story.

Now they have pushed Boris Johnson’s claim that his proposal for the Irish border is a “compromise on both sides” to users of the BBC News app, which six per cent of people describe as “their most important” news source in Ofcom’s latest survey of British news consumption – for context, that is not at all far behind ITV as a whole (ten per cent) or Facebook (eight per cent).

But it is difficult, to put it mildly, to look at the detail and claim that Johnson’s proposal is a “compromise on both sides” unless those sides are the bit of the Conservative Party that wants the government to make constructive proposals in order to get a Brexit deal and the bit of the Conservative Party that simply wants no proposals at all.

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Theresa May’s Downing Street was surprisingly bad at gaming the BBC’s digital output, considering that her communications director from 2017-19, Robbie Gibb, had a long and successful career at the corporation. He would time May’s Downing Street statements so that the preview would lead the six o’clock news and the speech itself would lead the ten, but that was about it.

Many Conservatives hoped that Gibb would bring the same knowhow to the table as David Cameron’s second press chief, Craig Oliver, but were bitterly disappointed by the reality. One close observer of both Gibb and Oliver believed that the problem was that while Gibb was politically distinct from many at the BBC due to what they described as his “libertarianism and commitment to Brexit”, he was culturally at one with and unable to perceive the corporation’s blind spots. Oliver, while being more typical of the average BBC employee as far as his actual views went, had a keener sense of what the BBC’s blind spots were and was better placed to exploit them to secure better coverage.

That’s an awareness that Johnson’s operation seem to share with Oliver. Their response to an investigation into allegations of malfeasance in office led the BBC’s online coverage. The Downing Street view of the world is frequently repeated in the BBC’s online headlines, and dominates its headlines.

Of course, that may not matter – while the BBC’s online coverage is hugely influential, it, along with every other news source in the country, is dwarfed by the influence of BBC television (27 per cent of people’s most important news source) and radio, where I suspect Labour will again have a very strong campaign.

But ahead of the next election, it’s an important, potentially gamechanging difference that while the Conservatives have had a flatfooted and naive approach to spinning the BBC’s coverage since Cameron left the scene, they are now showing themselves to be pretty good at doing so. That could well have major implications for how the next election campaign plays out.

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