In defence of Laura Kuenssberg

BBC correspondent Laura Kuenssberg has recently been vilified as a covert Brexiter who has shown her true colours, a Tory mouthpiece, secretly colluding with Brexiters and systematically conspiring with neo-fascists (and that’s ignoring the more offensive stuff). What happened?

On Brexitcast, a BBC radio 5 show and podcast for “geeky gossip about Brexit from Westminster and Brussels”, she said at the 43:35 mark

First draft of history and all this, I think that people will look back and think, “hang on – people voted for something in 2016 and then lots of people in the political establishment in Westminster spent a lot of time trying to undo that. What?” […] In the 2016 referendum campaign politicians on both sides, including the then-Prime Minister, stood on platforms and said things like “if you vote this way, this will happen. There will be no going back, this is not a vote where you get to have a second opinion.” And lo and behold, now three years later, people are scratching their heads in the Labour Party, saying “oh, do you think maybe that was a bit of problem that we were trying to undo something that people voted for?” There are obviously legitimate reasons, it’s perfectly legitimate for people to campaign for a another referendum. But, I always thought, covering it as a story, people voted for that. It’s not your job to undo it!*

What I think Kuenssberg does here is to explain that in her opinion, campaigning for a second referendum was a problem for Labour because many people believed Brexit was a done deal. You can obviously disagree with the reasons she gives, e.g., that “lots of people in the political establishment in Westminster” tried to undo Brexit. Clearly, that was not what happened. The People’s Vote campaign managed to get over a million people onto the streets of London, so that’s hardly the “political establishment”. And even among that establishment, initially right after the referendum, there was almost universal agreement that the results needed to be honoured. But then Theresa May tried to prove her credentials to the Tory Brexiters by embracing a hard Brexit and setting out red lines that emboldened the extremists in her party and made it impossible to solve the Northern Ireland problem without breaking up the UK. And as the harmfulness and contradictions of her Brexit approach became clearer and clearer, opposition to Brexit rose. However, it is very hard to disagree with Kuessberg’s assessment that many people perceived it as she describes it.

Maybe you can criticise Kuessberg for blurring the line between assessment and endorsement at the end of her statement and there are other things on the show that you can disagree with or even pick at, for example making light of the illegal prorogation of parliament by summing it up as “the courts and stuff” (around 19:10). Or saying that Ireland in effect accepted a time-limit on the backstop (around 26:00), when that’s not really the case (because it is only theoretical). But overall I think the show provides a reasonably fair analysis of what has been going on, free of any glaring bias.

Which finally brings me to the main point of the whole post. I don’t know whether Laura Kuenssberg is a Brexit supporter and I don’t really care as long as it does not colour her professional work. Obviously, as a journalist, it is her job to be neutral. However, we need to acknowledge that it is very, very difficult to always completely conceal one’s personal biases. If one fails to do so, it is legitimate, important even, to point it out and criticise it, but that’s usually not what happens. Instead, every hint of bias seemingly becomes a betrayal of all that is decent, every glimpse of a personal opinion turns the other into an agent of the dark side. All that, mind you, only if the “wrong” kind of view shines through. More often than not, all cries for impartiality are forgotten when the commentator seems to play for the own team.

This tendency is highly problematic for two reasons. For a start, if we can’t even have a normal conversation with the Laura Kuenssbergs of the world, then with whom can we? We need to stop ascribing sinister motivations to everyone with a different opinion. Yes, other people are biased, but so are we. Most people are coming from a good place and have arrived at their positions for reasons that if viewed in isolation are, if not always rational and justifiable, then at least understandable. If we want to move away from the increasingly polarised and aggressive tone in society, we should acknowledge that and make it our default assumption until proven otherwise. Then our conversations may actually get somewhere.

And turning everything into ideological warfare makes it impossible to make any progress on the issues. For example, I’m sure there was bias in how the BBC reported on the election campaign. I very much doubt there was a coordinated effort to swing the electorate in one direction. People at the BBC are humans and they sometimes make mistakes. And that is how we should start approaching the issues – as honest, possibly problematic and serious, but still ultimately honest, mistakes. There are very serious problems in how the media covers politics, like the general unwillingness to challenge statements that are deflecting, misleading, or outright lies, the focus on “meta-issues” instead of real issues (for example, instead of asking Boris Johnson about his trustworthiness, ask him about the government’s impact assessment of the withdrawal agreement), the preference for controversy over competence, or false balance, i.e., the misguided tendency to give equal representation to opposing viewpoints irrespective of the supporting evidence. None of these issues will be solved if we outright deny the media any fundamental interest in doing so.

Therefore, instead of demonizing everyone for not seeing the world exactly as I do, so that I can feel like I’m righteously fighting for the good cause against evil forces, I’ll try to give the other the benefit of the doubt and try to understand where they are coming from.

* Compare my transcript to the one from the Express, which first published the story and kicked off the small shit-storm. The differences are subtle, but not always trivial. For example, they write “this wasn’t a vote that you can have a second opinion on” when Kuenssberg actually said “not a vote where you get to have a second opinion”. The former suggest you are not allowed to have a second opinions, whereas the latter means you won’t get an opportunity to express a second opinion. Or, more serious in my opinion, they write “covering it as a story, to me it just seemed like, people voted for that. It’s not your job to undo it!”, but she never actually says “to me, it just seemed like”. Even if these differences are not intentional, I would expect a good journalist to be more diligent than that.