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 weekend’s Andrew Marr Show, but it seemed that he was about to be disinvited. “He won’t be doing Marr until we have confirmed and announced a date for the Neil interview,” a BBC source told the Guardian—emphasising that the corporation would not let Johnson pick and choose where he appeared. This was a somewhat novel strategy because individual programmes are required to balance their airtime across a campaign—so the Marr show needed to have all the party leader interviews in the same way that they were required on the Neil programme. It would be rare territory for the BBC to refuse to allow the PM to appear on one programme because he wouldn’t commit to a different programme.
But now, having briefed the media about its intentions, the one thing the BBC had to do was abide by its word. No Johnson with Neil, no Johnson with Marr. It therefore came as a surprise to see a BBC statement on Saturday which said that “in the wake of a major terrorist incident, we believe it is now in the public interest that the prime minister should be interviewed on our flagship Sunday political programme.”
The argument here seemed very weak—not just to me but to other former editorial policy figures and to many current BBC journalists. “Bad on every level” said one senior employee, while “outrageous” was the verdict from a former leading light in the news division. The awful terrorist incident, which we in Cambridge feel particularly keenly, had happened on Friday; and the prime minister had been interviewed by the BBC then. There was not the continuing national emergency that there was after 7/7. But most of all it was extremely unlikely that Johnson would not turn this platform into an entirely political interview—which was precisely what he did when he turned up to face Andrew Marr. It was hard to discern anything uniquely prime ministerial that could not have been covered by an interview with the home secretary instead.
This BBC climbdown, in the face of what we can only assume was intense pressure from the Conservatives, matters a great deal. Consent for the licence fee depends on robust and independent journalism, and the BBC has seemed too wobbly of late. We also saw in plain sight last week a deeply worrying attempt by the Tories to bully Channel 4, when the party took against the “empty-chairing” of the prime minister in a debate about climate change. Johnson’s place was given instead to a melting ice sculpture. A source told BuzzFeed news that “If we are re-elected we will have to review Channel 4’s public service broadcasting obligations,” with a clear threat about what happens if a broadcaster steps out of line.
In these tough times, the media must be tough too. It should be explicit about what pressure it faces; and prepared to enlist the public to back it. The BBC news release about the Marr interview said the corporation’s “first priority must be its audience.” It’s time the broadcaster made those words real, rather than hollow.
Roger Mosey is a former head of BBC television news and now master of Selwyn College Cambridge