It was difficult to miss the story that kicked off the Bank Holiday weekend. Dominic Cummings, chief aide to the Prime Minister, was found by a joint investigation by The Mirror and The Guardian to have travelled 250 miles from London to Durham in order to self-isolate near his parents. As the story continues to unfold, the nation’s very own Rasputin-in-waiting is attracting growing criticism from all sides, with calls for his resignation building.
The story broke on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was trending on Twitter, above the — much punnier — #Dominicgoings. The reason? A double backlash against her response to the story, primarily based on accusations that she was acting, as LBC’s James O’Brien put it: as ‘crisis management PR for Dominic Cummings’.
‘Source says his trip was within guidelines as Cummings went to stay with his parents so they could help with childcare while he and his wife were sick – they insist no breach of lockdown’.
She followed this tweet up, by directly quoting the Labour response, reporting the backlash among Conservative MPs and noting that the debacle ‘raises obvious questions of one rule for Downing St., one rule for everyone else’.
Thus, her response to the event was along the lines of; report Cummings’ defence, report the opposition to this defence, and give a less-than-hot take on the story. Not hugely interesting, and not hugely detailed — but then she wasn’t involved in the original investigation. Her initial contributions to the coverage were, like most of the immediate reactions by journalists, reports of the responses of the major actors in the story, rather than eviscerating and accomplishing revolutionary deep dives into the events. She may have been the leading BBC face during Brexit, but during the pandemic she has been partly replaced by medical correspondent Fergus Walsh and health editor Hugh Pym. While she may not be front and centre of the pandemic coverage, if Kuenssberg is acting as a spin doctor for the government, her performance so far is pretty lacklustre.
So why have O’Brien and others taken such umbrage at her coverage? Well, the word that really seemed to grind the gears of Kuenssberg’s critics was ‘source’. Several journalists from multiple news outlets later retweeted the government’s official statement, which was along very similar lines to the statement given by Kuensberg’s source. But by reporting the statement of an unnamed source (whom some have suggested may be Cummings himself) rather than the government, Kuenssberg has been singled out as a Tory cheerleader.
We’re all familiar with these ‘sources’ — much like your friend who says one thing to you in private and another when they’re holding a government briefing. They’re mysterious and potentially unreliable gossipmongers. They are also, sometimes, absolutely crucial.
Critics of these sources argue they undermine accountability mechanisms, blur the line between professional and personal relationships and co-opt journalists into the very structures they are supposed to report on and scrutinise. Ideally, these sources would speak out directly rather than via journalist gatekeepers. They would be held accountable for their claims. And they would be able to do so without fear of retribution.
But British politics is not ideal, nor is British media. Unnamed sources may be frustrating, but they are also an important window into the machinations of politics. British politics is adversarial, and while there may be advantages to this, the downside is that politicians and political actors are often forced to pick a side and stick with it. Cabinet ministers are coming out en masse to support Cummings, but a ‘senior minister’ (also known as a ‘source’) told Sky’s Political Editor Beth Rigby that Cummings had to go because he’s ‘damaging the team and the policy’.
It would be wonderful to live in a society where sources could speak out without fear of losing their job, where ‘senior ministers’ could be named and not limited to sending snarky texts to journalists, and where the BBC’s path to impartiality was clear. But as O’Brien and other critics of Kuenssberg — such as Alistair Campbell — are well aware, this is not the society we live in. Until we achieve this utopia, ‘unnamed sources’ will continue to be an important means of holding the government to account, and journalists will continue to be their primary means of making their voice heard.
For the time being, ‘sources close to’ are the chink in the partisan armour; the fleshy underbelly of the big party beasts. If we are to rely on and praise them when they criticise the government, we cannot dismiss them when they do not. While we do not live in an autocracy, we also do not live in a society of trial by Twitter. Cummings is entitled to defend himself — it would be frankly bizarre if he had not. He chose to do so via a journalist, who reported his defence, and then reported the response to the defence. There is a separate issue, which is how journalists navigate Twitter as a medium which prioritises soundbites and doesn’t always allow for context and nuance.
Kuenssberg has fallen foul of this before, and by tweeting the source in response to Crerar, Kuenssberg’s tweet could be interpreted as a challenge to the Daily Mirror’s political editor, rather than an addition to a rapidly evolving story. But reporting the comments of a source who is integral to a story is not propaganda, even if the source’s views are, to put it mildly, irrational and infuriating.
I am all for O’Brien’s democratic utopia, but until we actually live in one, undisclosed sources and the journalists who report on them are here to stay.