Tuesday, December 21, 2010

BBC journalist gets Cable the wrong way round

The BBC Radio 4 PM programme considers whether Business Secretary Vince Cable can survive telling undercover reporters he has "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch.

Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith says NO, and gives his reasons.

Smith then does a bravura 180 degree turn when BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reports the opposite.

Listen to the programme for 3 minutes from about the 32 minute mark.

Here's the transcript:

Eddie Mair: Well let’s talk more about Vince Cable. As promised, our Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith joins me from Westminster. ... Do you think Vince Cable can survive?

Norman Smith: Bluntly, no. I think the likelihood is he will be forced to resign. And at the moment, as I understand it, he’s locked in talks with Nick Clegg and others, and I imagine that is precisely what they are discussing: his resignation.

Because it seems to me his position as Business Secretary is fatally compromised. You cannot have a position where the Business Secretary is engaged in some sort of political grudge match, political vendetta, against an independent commercial organisation.

Never mind the idea of adjudicating over the BSkyB deal, because if he were to continue in that role it seems to me absolutely certain Rupert Murdoch’s lawyers would be all over it. There would be a judicial review. And it would be completely untenable.

He has also, it seems to me, compromised his position in government, by failing to tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg about these remarks. And so they went through the charade, at the news conference this afternoon, of lauding his position.

And there must be questions too, I would imagine, about his personal judgment, in making such indiscreet remarks to two complete strangers.

Now, set against that you have to say that there would be huge reluctance to see him go, because he is such a crucial member of the Coalition: he’s the second most senior Liberal Democrat. He would be the second Liberal Democrat to be forced out, after David Laws. So it’s a balance: when you look at all the things against him, I would say the pressure is for him to go. If they decide they’re willing to take that hit, then they could keep him. But I imagine it would be very difficult to keep him.

Eddie Mair: (10 seconds later) ... We’re just hearing from your colleague Nick Robinson that he will not be resigning from the Cabinet, Vince Cable; although it is still unclear whether he would stand aside from taking that BSkyB responsibility.

Norman Smith: Well clearly the balance is moving in the direction that it would be too damaging to lose him. And that, you know, perhaps, is an indication of how crucial he is to Nick Clegg. Because if he went, that would deprive Nick Clegg of another seasoned and experienced Liberal Democrat figure to fight the Lib Dem corner in government. He would have to be replaced by another Liberal Democrat one supposes, and there aren't a vast number of heavyweight Liberal Democrats to put in that position. So I imagine the view is being taken that actually, for all the difficulties, for all the problems, for all the question marks surrounding him, potentially the price of losing him would be even greater.

Eddie Mair: Norman Smith at Westminster, thank you.

What's wrong with this?

Aside from Norman Smith's skill in finessing the situation, there are a number of things that concern me about this exchange:

1. Smith shouldn't have framed his response as representing his own personal judgment on Vince Cable's behaviour.
Smith puts forward as his own personal views that Cable's "position as Business Secretary is fatally compromised"; that Cable is "engaged in some sort of political grudge match [or] political vendetta"; that Cable adjudicating the BSkyB deal would be "completely untenable"; that Cable "compromised his position in government, by failing to tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg about these remarks"; that the news conference was a "charade"; and that Cable's surgery conversation was "indiscreet".

There were plenty of such views hurtling around Westminster and the blogosphere today. These views are what count, not Smith's. So framing his response as summarising these views rather than as giving his own opinion would not only give a better appearance of impartiality but also a better account of the political situation.

My guess is that Smith was busy trying to keep up with developments in a rapidly changing situation and had insufficient time to prepare what he was going to say on PM; and so in his haste he framed his response as his own opinion, using phrases such as "it seems to me" (a phrase used three times), "I think", "I imagine" and "I would imagine".

2. Smith should have provided proper balance.
The views he expresses are all arguable. There were plenty of alternative views going around Westminster and the blogosphere.

Yet the only balance Smith provides is in noting that Cable is a "crucial member of the Coalition". That's a reason why Cable should stay, despite all the arguments given as to why Cable should go. It does not offer a challenge to any of those arguments. Smith does not report any opinions that Cable's position was not "fatally compromised", that Cable's remarks were hyperbole rather than reflecting a vendetta, that Cable might continue as Business Secretary so long as he passed the BSkyB decision to another minister, and so on.

The balance Smith presents then is between "He should go" and "The Coalition doesn't really want him to go", rather between "Many are saying he should go because X, Y, Z" and "Some are saying X, Y and Z aren't as bad as all that."

Were such alternative opinions expressed to Smith? How widespread were they? Who knows? Well, that's what we have Chief Political Correspondents for.

To be fair, there is not much time available in such news programmes to offer real balance. And summarising a range of sophisticated views in 90 seconds is hard. But Smith's account would be far more nuanced and interesting if he had made an attempt.

3. Smith should have been smarter about predicting the future.
This is easy to say after the event, but at the time this looked like Smith was going out on a limb. In response to Mair's question "Do you think Vince Cable can survive?" Smith could have said something like "Some are saying it very likely that Cable will be forced to resign". But instead Smith gave his "blunt" opinion "No". The outcome then undermines Smith's credibility, and by extension the credibility of the PM programme.

Should Mair have asked the question? Some people don't like journalists engaging in speculation, and would disapprove of Smith suggesting that that meeting between Cable and Clegg was to discuss resignation. I don't have a problem with such speculations, so long as they are interesting and more often accurate than not. Questions about "what will happen next" - and the implications - are what many of us are discussing. They also make for a much sharper programme because they force us to test our understanding of the situation.

The problem here was not that Smith was wrong: lots of people were predicting that Cable would go imminently. But Smith should have realized that the outcome was far from clear cut and that we would know very soon. So he needed to have distanced himself somewhat from the prediction.

In conclusion...

I think it was worth looking at this episode in detail because it points to a number of traps that news programmes need to navigate.

Firstly, Norman Smith could have looked a twit for saying Vince Cable wouldn't survive and then having to backpedal furiously two minutes later; but (in my opinion) he just about gets away with it.

Secondly however, Smith should be reporting views from Westminster, along with providing some analysis. He shouldn't be framing his response as representing his own personal judgments. He should be providing critical balance. And he shouldn't be going out on a limb with tricky predictions in a rapidly changing situation.

One danger of these traps, in my view, is that after the event it could look as though, according to the journalist, Cable should have gone.

Update 28 May 2012

Photo © BBC
Norman Smith's impartiality has now been brought into question by the Government's Director of Communications, Craig Oliver. There are remarkable similarities with the incident I outline above. I have posted further analysis here.

I've also attempted in that new post to respond to an objection to my discussion above, raised by a commenter on Guido Fawkes' blog:
What do you mean by "providing balance". I just read the transcript you linked to. Smith was giving his opinion as a political commentator on what he though the outcome would be.
He indicated the kind of things he thought would be under consideration and said he thought he would have to resign. After stating that opinion he said
"Now, set against that you have to say that there would be huge reluctance to see him go,"
The news then came in that it was announced he would be staying in the cabinet. Smith then carried on taking into account the news that had just come in. The outcome was not as he had anticipated but it did not mean the factors he had related would not have been be under consideration.
Your headline here seems to be "BBC reporter is not infallible and can't predict the future".
Is this really the kind of "evidence" that gets you so heated about the BBC?
As I see it, infallibility, predicting the future, getting heated, etc. are irrelevant. The key point is that Smith sees balance as fair-minded judgement between alternatives rather than as fair reporting and analysis. A fuller response is in the new post.


  1. What struck me in reading your post is that there is a parallel between the situation in which Vince Cable found himself and your commentary on Norman Smith's reporting of it.

    According to a 'rational' reading of Cable's behaviour, there are many "shoulds" that he failed to observe 'for someone in his position'. Similarly, your commentary on Smith's report identifies a number of other "shoulds" that might reasonably be assumed to apply to journalism of this nature.

    But Cable and Smith are both human beings. And unfortunately - or fortunately - human beings don't tend to operate in line with generalized "shoulds" but rather according to their in-the-moment sense of what is required - for better or worse.

    In the specific situations in which they found themselves, both Cable and Smith would have been acting in ways that sought to preserve their sense of identity; that gave them a feeling of competence and self-worth; and so on - even if they weren't conscious that they were doing so at the time. And as we've seen, following their actions, many commentators are seeking to rewrite these important aspects of their 'selves' in less than flattering ways(especially in Cable's case).

    Equally interesting is that, in choosing to interpret their behaviour in one way rather than another, those commentating are similarly doing so through a 'personal frame' that seeks to preserve their own sense of identity, competence and self-worth etc, in relation to individuals and/or communities that matter to them.

  2. Hi Chris

    I'm sure you're right. In commenting on this episode I've attempted to be fair about interpreting Smith's behaviour, as I would have hoped Smith would attempt to be fair in interpreting Cable's behaviour.

    Questions of identity, expectations of what is required and so on have, I would suggest, notions of fairness operating as key considerations. This applies to politicians, journalists, bloggers, or pretty much anyone I think.