Twitter and the non-bias of the Daily Politics

There’s been a lot of fuss this week about Twitter’s plan to allow tweets to contain up to 10,000 characters, rather than the current 140. The beauty of the medium is its brevity, nobody wants to read pages and pages of text from slightly unhinged commenters, and so on, etc.

There’s some merit to the sentiment, but it ignores the fact that there’s no limit on the number of tweets a user can send. If I’ve got 500 characters’ worth of stuff to say, I can (and very occasionally do) do it over four tweets. I get the same amount of information out, and people reading it get four tweets popping up rather than one. Allowing me to put all 500 in one tweet achieves the same effect for me and improves the outcome for them, whether they want to read it or not.

Conversely, the character limit does sometimes cause a minor version of what free speech campaigners call a chilling effect. Most of my tweets are on politics and sport. While the latter can usually be done in 140-character chunks, as part of a back-and-forth chat, the former has layers of nuance and presumed starting points that (I feel) quite often need to be restated and refuted, depending on who I’m talking to. And then I might decide that actually I’m not going to bother. As I’ve said before on this blog…

“You can say a loud, nasty thing in 140 characters. It takes longer to add the necessary qualification and say “I’m not a nutter, and I enjoy your writing and the insight it provides, and I don’t think you’re part of some elitist cabal, but I don’t agree with your point…”. If we try to condense it, we lose the nuance, and get dumped in the bin marked CORBYNITE. If we do it over five tweets, we dump ourselves in the bin marked “green ink”. So we don’t bother.”

The world won’t suffer without my input, but on the other hand I like to have a contribution to a debate where I can. Perhaps a few more characters in a tweet wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

The case of Steve Doughty’s resignation provides an up to date example. Before Thursday evening, I was vaguely aware that a chap I wasn’t sure if I’d heard of had resigned from a junior shadow cabinet role live on the telly. Fair enough, I no doubt thought, if that’s the kind of showboating he thinks will help his party or himself in future that’s entirely up to him.

Then came a blog from a member of the BBC’s Daily Politics team, of the type that lots of BBC production staff put out from time to time, giving viewers an insight into how their programmes are put together. The team were very busy on Wednesday morning trying to confirm rumours of resignations, and very proud when they got exclusive news of one on their programme.

Some, however, questioned the process. Has the BBC finally abandoned all pretence of impartiality and hoisted the Conservative flag above Broadcasting House? Or is this a fine example of the traditions of the scoop, allowing Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg to line up alongside Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the journalistic pantheon?
Neither. Obviously. And this is where the nuance comes in. On Twitter, if I say “Do you not think the BBC should at least look at whether that breached its obligations?” (87 characters, plus probably at least one username), I need to qualify it at some length. Which is pretty much what happened here.

Since that exchange, I’ve read a lot from people saying “Kuenssberg is incapable of hiding her bias”, and a lot from people saying “This is what journalism is. Why can’t you see that?” Both are, in my view, varying degrees of wrong.

I don’t believe that anyone at the BBC sets out to use their position at the corporation to advance their personal political beliefs or biases. If they did, they wouldn’t last long. I’ve got some experience of people who work in positions that explicitly require them to be neutral, and I reckon that most of them will, if anything, err slightly against their own viewpoint in order to be seen to maintain fairness and neutrality.

But I also don’t believe that it’s the job of the BBC to “make an impact” in the way that the Daily Politics team clearly set out to do. The blog, now deleted, twice mentions making a big impact. Yes, the journalists will argue, this is precisely what we intend when we break stories. We want to make public something that has current importance, to bring it the maximum attention.

Of course the Daily Politics wanted to keep the scoop for themselves. That’s why they were relieved to have Doughty “safely in [their] green room”. And that’s why they led their programme with the news as soon as they came on air….no, wait. They didn’t lead it. They didn’t even trail it in the “coming up later” way that every programme does ad nauseam. They waited until 11:55am, five minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions began, to introduce Doughty, and for Neil to ask “Are you considering your position?” *innocent face*

That seems to me like moving beyond bringing a story the maximum attention within the boundaries of your own programme, to timing it to deliberately “wrong-foot” something happening in Parliament, and to actually influence the outcome of events rather than reporting them. “Do you not want the BBC to break its own stories?” ask several journalistic tweeters. Yes, but do I want it to enhance or create them, especially in a political context? Probably not.

Why was the blog deleted? Somebody in authority must have thought that it was problematic. (Although, as an aside, deleting anything from the internet these days is next to pointless, at least when it comes to stuff that won’t end up in a courtroom.) I’ve seen a couple of references to sections and paragraphs of Codes and Charters, but none of them translate to something I can paste here to say one way or another if anything might have been breached. The relevant paragraphs on impartiality are all concerned with having all viewpoints on the programme, and indeed this defence has been used given the presence in the studio of Lisa Nandy.

But the nuance is such that even to attack or defend on the basis of impartiality misses the point. A good question to ask is “would you raise the query if this happened to the Conservatives?”, and for me the answer is “fairly sure I would, yes”. The fundamental point is whether the public service broadcaster, with all its special responsibilities, should orchestrate the method and timing of its breaking of a story in order to exert an influence on related events.

It’s an incredibly fine point to consider. It doesn’t sit anywhere near either end of the argument. It’ll almost certainly get lost in the shouting, and everyone will be able to slope off under cover of artillery fire. Maybe internally, though, an editorial committee somewhere will just tweak a guideline to make clear what’s acceptable and what’s not.

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