Prime minister’s questions has totemic status in Westminster but is often given a far greater weight by political pundits than it really deserves.
But this week’s exchange between Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak on Gary Lineker and the BBC was far more illuminating than most. It told us something new about how Labour intends to approach the national broadcaster.
Each week, leaders are selecting an audience: perhaps their own restless MPs, or perhaps the priority is pithy retorts that can be turned into social media fodder or clipped for snippets on music radio bulletins.
For Starmer this week, the intended audience was very small – a group of executives in W1A, home of the BBC headquarters.
Senior Labour insiders say there is a definitive change in tactic towards the BBC that has been forming over the past few months. It is a far more muscular approach than some – including a number of shadow cabinet ministers – have previously been comfortable with.
The party intends to call out government bias in the broadcaster where it believes it exists or when lines of questioning appear to have been influenced by the narrative of the rightwing press.
Previously, there has been considerable squeamishness about complaining of “BBC bias” or sounding conspiratorial. There are concerns from some in the party that it should be protecting the BBC, rather than pointing out flaws.
But one senior Labour adviser said there was a recognition the party needed to make more of its own case about impartiality and argued many of its concerns were shared by BBC staff.
That thinking has been crystallised by the revelations that the BBC chair, Richard Sharp, made introductions to the Cabinet Office for a friend who then facilitated a £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson.
It has been compounded by the Lineker row and the pressure brought by Conservative MPs – and the apparent double standards applied to the football presenter versus Alan Sugar’s support for the Conservatives.
There has also been private incandescence at BBC emails leaked to the Guardian that show editors asking reporters to reflect Labour’s U-turns over pandemic policy, on the bidding of No 10.
Labour in government had no qualms about applying pressure to the corporation, though senior former staff at the BBC, including the former correspondent Jon Sopel, say they believe editors protected reporters from that pressure in a way the leaked emails suggest they do not in the same way.
“It is unacceptable to send people messages saying ‘ramp up the scepticism’ re Labour,” one senior figure said.
But the frustrations go beyond that, to a general feeling that Labour comes under scrutiny in areas the Conservatives would not. Most frequently, that is on the economy and mistrust about Labour’s numbers, despite the evidence of the last few years of Conservative-led economic crises.
One particular bugbear is what the senior Labour team feel is a focus on Starmer’s 10 pledges by BBC interviewers. It is a valid focus – Starmer has rowed back or disavowed on multiple promises he made when he campaigned to be Labour leader, infuriating many on the left of the party.
That criticism is something Labour is prepared to accept, but the party argues nothing like the amount of similar pressure has been put on senior Tories such as Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt who made similar broken promises in their campaigns.
Sunak has made it clear he does not see himself bound by a single pledge, whether it was tougher rhetoric on China or an abandoned promise on GP charges. Hunt promised to cut corporation tax but as chancellor has just put it up.
It is arguably not the most edifying of complaints to have – but it is a real irritation.
Increasing the pressure on the BBC over impartiality is also an important marker in advance of the election, when Labour expects Starmer to come under extraordinary pressure itself from papers including the Daily Mail.
He has weak spots, some of which are valid such as the 10 pledges or his backing for a second referendum, but other grubbier charges are likely to be unearthed again such as one of Johnson’s favoured attacks that he failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a charge that has been disproved.
“We cannot do much about what attacks the Mail run,” one senior source said. “What we can do is push back when these baseless talking points are brought up by the BBC.”
The ultimate problem is the Conservatives in office have far more power over the corporation than a Labour administration does. No one seriously thinks Labour could threaten to abolish the licence fee or make Alastair Campbell chair of the BBC, in the manner Johnson once attempted to install the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore.
The question is whether Labour is prepared to maintain this vigour for impartiality if Starmer gets into No 10 – or if his government applies pressure and makes friendly appointments in the same way.
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