Consent for the licence fee depends on showing integrity in tough times, says a former head of BBC television newsby Roger Mosey / December 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
Election campaigns are inevitably a time when media organisations and politicians clash. The future of the country is at stake, and so is the future shape of our public service broadcasters. But this campaign seems to have been particularly nasty: fuelled by aggressive tactics from the parties, and amplified by social media. As is often the case, it’s the BBC which has found itself most in the firing line—though the imbroglio over a set-piece interview with the prime minister appears to have involved a few shots being fired into its own feet by the corporation’s management.
The latest battle was about the BBC One interviews by Andrew Neil with the party leaders. Two pieces of context may be useful here. The first is that since the broadcasting era began, politicians have dodged appearances they might find uncomfortable—and Boris Johnson isn’t alone in picking and choosing the formats that are to his advantage. The second is that these interview series often have a speculative element when they’re being planned, and not everything is nailed down. My recollection from 2005, when I was head of television news, is that we didn’t have acceptances from all the leaders when we launched the series fronted by the then chief interrogator Jeremy Paxman. But the main players did, in the end, submit to their half-hour in the hot seat.
It is reasonable to see that kind of scrutiny on BBC One, the nation’s most popular channel, as part of the unwritten contract between the electorate and those want to lead the country. But this time round it had been much tougher to get Johnson to face Neil. The prime minister’s reluctance was doubtless strengthened by Neil’s evisceration of Jeremy Corbyn last week, where Neil showed the forensic skills that would give any future interviewee sleepless nights. It would now be thoroughly unfair to Corbyn, who must have committed to his broadcast on the basis of equal treatment, if Johnson does not subject himself to the same kind of grilling.
Initially, this seemed like business as usual: a joust between a broadcaster and a political party. But what took it out of the ordinary was a decision within the BBC to talk tough. The prime minister had been booked to appear on this past…