There’s a growing campaign to sack Laura Kuenssberg. This seems to me an example of the fundamental attribution error. What’s wrong with the BBC is not so much Ms Kuenssberg herself, but the very nature of political reporting. I suspect instead that there’s a case for sacking all its political correspondents.
For one thing, they are redundant. All worthwhile issues could be as well or better covered by specialist reporters in other fields. For example, the junior doctors dispute could be covered by health or industrial relations correspondents; the local elections by local government reporters; the Brexit debate by economics, foreign or diplomatic reporters. And so on. The relative standings of the parties could be reported simply by comment-free reports on opinion polls or on Oddschecker’s election odds, in the same way that daily changes in the FTSE 100 are reported without comment.
Which poses the question: what do political correspondents add?
One thing is gossip. Political correspondents’ sources are anonymous briefings from “senior figures”, “sources close to Number 10” and other people too cowardly to go on the record. This gives us politics dominated by tittle-tattle and personal grievances rather than by checkable public evidence.
This, though, is not the only way in which the very existence of political correspondents warps politics. They incentivize parties to invest in spin doctors and the management of short-term headlines (which are mostly noise) rather than in more democratic forms, such as building a mass party membership and using those members to change the political climate through the gradual process of millions of individual conversations. In this sense, Westminster-based political reporting encourages closed hierarchical politics rather than more open egalitarian ones.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine we got rid of political correspondents so that policy was reported by specialist journalists instead. What would happen?
There’d be a shift in the knowledge base of journalists. The opinions of politicians would have less weight and those of experts more. This would diminish bubblethink – or at worst, give us a multitude of different bubbles which would at least be some improvement. And it would make politics more technocratic because politicians’ utterances – which of course must still be reported – would be judged not just against each other’s, but against the weight of evidence and expert opinion.
Rather than have what Paul Krugman calls “views differ on shape of planet” journalism – of the sort lampooned by Alexander Cockburn – claims would be seriously tested. For example, Hunt’s assertion that people are more likely to die if admitted to hospital on a weekend would be counterposed not just to a Labour party statement, but to academic research on the matter. This would encourage a more evidence-based politics.
The BBC can do this: Radio 4’s More or Less is a model of what I have in mind. Getting rid of political journalists would give more space and resources to this vastly superior journalism.
Now, I’m not calling here for the sacking of all political journalists: in a free country, the private sector media should hire whomever it wants. But the BBC is different. It has a duty of due impartiality. However, this is inconsistent with the employment of political journalists, because their prominence has the effect of biasing politics against openness, egalitarianism and evidence – which is anything but impartial.