The Borisguard: Why did the BBC bend over backwards to explain away its own Boris Johnson scoop?

Laura Kuenssberg can always find excuses for politicians. And of course, the right-wing press runs with them.

Here’s a quote from point 8.14 of the UK Parliament’s Ministerial Code:

A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to Government business.

That’s not hugely open for interpretation, is it? Whether a minister — any minister, and that includes the Prime Minister — is talking to someone in person or sending notes via carrier pigeon, if the conversation relates to government business an official should be keeping a record of what’s going on.

The code also states that if a minister “finds themselves discussing official business without an official present… any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event".

It further states that minister “must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias… [and] act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner".

But in reflecting on her own story that Boris Johnson discussed changes to the tax status of Dyson employees with the company’s titular boss Sir James Dyson via text, Laura Kuenssberg tweeted:

It’s the latest example of the BBC’s Political Editor going out of her way to excuse the behaviour of senior politicians. Who can forget her quickly jumping in with a reply to The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar when she broke the story about Dominic Cummings’ eye test extravaganza in Barnard Castle:

It felt then as though she were working not for the BBC but for a Conservative Party rapid rebuttal unit. What’s curious with the text message story is that Kuenssberg broke this one yet seems set on undermining the premise of her own work.

That ministers try to circumvent the Ministerial Code by having chats via text, WhatsApp, Signal and other means does not mean the rules are wrong. It means that the politicians are engaged in deliberate attempts to ensure that the bulk of their machinations occur outside official declarations and beyond the easy reach of Freedom of Information requests.

At the same time that she was finding excuses for Boris Johnson’s behaviour, she also appeared to be running interference for the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Treasury in general, with anonymously sourced statements from the department, presented without any attempt at analysing the claims:

This affliction — parroting statements from ‘sources’ without providing any analysis of whether what’s being asserted is true — has long been an issue with Kuenssberg’s output, especially on Twitter.

It seems to stem from a combination of a twisted interpretation of the BBC’s requirement for ‘impartial’ reporting and a desire to keep on the right side of convenient sources in Westminster. Before he stomped out of Downing Street, box of desk knickknacks in hand — Dominic Cummings was clearly a frequent source for lobby hacks, despite his professed disdain for journalists.

Kuenssberg provided analysis in the BBC’s news story on the Johnson/Dyson texts. She begins:

Lobbying can be absolutely legitimate. It's part of how Westminster lives and breathes. Who would object to a small charity approaching its local MP to ask for help?

There are thousands of different circumstances in which having those discussions is perfectly valid.

Sir James was trying to respond to the urgent call for help at the start of the pandemic, when there was deep and genuine fear that the NHS simply wouldn't have the equipment to look after many thousands of patients at risk.

But Dyson also, understandably perhaps, wanted to be clear about protecting its business from any extra costs or liabilities. (In the end remember, they lost money from the project.)

And the prime minister was heavily involved in efforts to get hold of ventilators and in touch with many businesses as the pandemic took hold.

The tone is emollient — trying to find every excuse for the Prime Minister texting a business leader and Tory donor off the books and offering him specific changes to tax rules — and the focus is wrong.

The specific issue being discussed by Johnson and Dyson is less important than the fact that the discussion happened in secret and via private text messages. We would never have known that what are effectively meetings occurred without the messages being leaked to the BBC.

In this case, the Prime Minister and Dyson are able to point to ‘acting in the public interest’ — although Dyson's ventilators were never actually deployed — but it’s likely that there are other direct and chummy chats with less laudable intentions going on via the Prime Minister’s personal phone.

The problem, in this case, is not the specific conversation but the general trend. It’s not enough for the BBC’s Political Editor to shrug and effectively say, “Oh yeah, they all use WhatsApp and Signal now and that’s just the way it is.” By accepting the erosion of rules in Westminster, the BBC is passively contributing to an increasingly corrupt political environment.

The BBC’s weak and wrong-headed line on the story has left an open goal for the right-wing print press. Leo McKinstry in The Daily Express contrasts Johnson’s behaviour with the David Cameron lobbying scandal and writes:

All this is nothing more than opportunistic claptrap, fake news at its very worst. Disgracefully, Sir James is under fire for trying to help his country, while the Government is attacked for its urgency in cutting through fiscal bureaucracy.

There was no private gain involved whatsoever… Labour's stance is the height of hypocrisy. It now wallows in confected outrage, yet last year was full of praise for the initiative. 

Starmer’s Labour fell into an obvious trap here. Having failed to go hard on much clearer abuses of government procurement during the pandemic, it’s leapt on the Dyson texts and left itself looking opportunistic and lead-footed.

It doesn’t help that former Prime Minister and mahogany-stained mucky money fan Tony Blair defended Boris Johson saying:

We were in the middle of a pandemic and asking James Dyson to make ventilators. I find it hard to get excited about this.

The Sun is able to turn under-the-table texts into the Prime Minister being a super-heroic bureaucracy buster with a story headlined Boris Johnson blasts ‘sleaze’ claims after ripping up tax red tape so James Dyson could make Covid ventilators. In its leader column, it concludes again — in the unmistakable voice of Rupert Murdoch — that Starmer’s attacks on this issue show he simply isn’t up to the job:

It is juvenile, hypocritical, an insult to voters’ intelligence and a rookie error Tony Blair says he wouldn’t have gone near.

A sharp antenna for public opinion won Blair three elections.

At this rate, Starmer, massacred by Boris in the Commons yesterday, may struggle to keep his job.

While Nick Tyrone in The Spectator takes the opportunity to kick Starmer for his hapless scandal seeking:

Can Starmer's top team spot the difference between what David Cameron did and what James Dyson did? It doesn't appear so. It seems instead that they merely think all lobbying is bad, no matter what. It's safe to say this approach won't win them many voters among pragmatic Brits who understand Boris's frantic messages were sent during a national emergency.

To an extent, Tyrone is right. As I’ve written several times before a certain slack, lazy, chummy tone is priced in when voters think of Boris Johnson. When Starmer had the opportunity to call for the resignation of Matt Hancock over more obvious favours for friends and refusal to follow the rules, he simply refused to take it.

Meanwhile, in The Financial Times, the BBC story is given the best analysis anywhere in the media, including from the BBC journalists who broke it. Helen Thomas writes:

Any tale involving the words “James Dyson” and “tax” is guaranteed to raise UK hackles…

… The question Dyson asked was not unreasonable. But the messages between the entrepreneur and UK prime minister Boris Johnson raise more questions for a government consumed by scandal over lobbying and private influence after the collapse of Greensill. It was typical that a government preoccupied with notions of Britain’s buccaneering spirit did not just procure more ventilators in the panic of March 2020, it launched a “ventilator challenge”…

…Did the messages between Dyson and the prime minister risk giving the impression of a special favour? Absolutely: “I will fix it tomo!” “Rishi says it is fixed!!” “I am first lord of the treasury and you can take it that we are backing you to do what you need.” 

Rules about the proper channels, the presence of officials when discussing government business, about objective decision-making and transparent, documented communications are as much about avoiding the impression of undue influence as anything else. 

Yes, text and WhatsApp have changed the way people communicate, even prime ministers. But one can imagine a response here, in tone and substance, that would not have smacked of an unappealing eagerness to make things happen for a chum. And the immediacy of access offered to those with the right phone numbers is all the more reason to have robust procedures around those interactions. If this is sleaze, as Labour alleges, it seems low-level sleaze at best.

Would Laura Kuenssberg have gone beyond the BBC’s impartiality rules if she’d published analysis like the kind offered by the FT? No.

But she would never offer up such a strongly-worded take on the government’s actions and particularly those of the Prime Minister — the risk to her access and easy relationships with sources would be too much.

What could have been a story that shed light on how cosiness can slide into corruption has instead ended up as an opportunity for Labour to embarrass itself and the Conservatives to frame the bumptious, bloviating Boris as doing “whatever it takes” rather than waffling and wavering in favour of a Tory donor.