Tuesday, May 22, 2007


It's time for the BBC to abandon it's policy of presenting it's leading interviewers as 'impartial'. I want Paxo to be forced into a dialogue.

This does not mean that I agree with Jim Gibney – an Irish republican writer – calling for the BBC to hire journalists to reflect the views of the electorate.

It may not be a view Gibney would have held a few years ago, but you can see why he’s on this one now. Reluctantly, I can see his point, though in the context of Northern Ireland, I can’t share his conclusions.

But it does raise a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time. The way that bureaucrats are given free rein to stifle political discussion in the name of freedom of expression is an old chestnut here. But what about the façade of impartiality that we are forced to accept from the BBC’s flagship news programmes?

Does Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys’ supposed apolitical stance actually work in the public interest?

I would argue that it doesn’t for the following obvious reasons:

  1. Enforced impartiality makes a virtue of negativism. Actually being in favour of a particular line of policy naturally involves making choices. These are rarely universally respected, and it will forever be the yoke of public office. Taking a line on almost any controversial aspect of public life will always make you enemies. Interviewing a politician from an ‘impartial’ perspective always allows you to have the best of both worlds. You can put the critical points from both sides without formally endorsing them. You never lose an argument and never make enemies. Everybody wants to be like you.
  2. And if everyone wants to be like you, no-one wants to be like the poor sap on the sharp end of this. It’s like that ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ question. It always degrades politics. In this context, the fact that a reasonable percentage of the population still vote is proof of the low esteem that the public hold journalists in - despite the advantages that they hand themselves.


Evidence break: To illustrate this, I’m going to take a fairly random sample – the last interview with a politician that I heard on the Today programme a few days ago now (I’ve got to the point of avoiding it, but I overheard this 8.10am interview the other day while getting ready for work one day last week).

Humphrys is interviewing Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling. Darling is widely seen (by kremlinologists) as being part of Gordon Brown’s camp, and it is rumoured that he will be offered the Chancellorship when Brown finally takes office as PM.

15 mins and 20 seconds into this (realplayer required) clip, he starts in on Tony Blair’s apparent dishonesty in failing to serve a full term as Prime Minister. In 2005, Blair did say that he would serve a full term, though I distinctly recall him leaving himself plenty of wriggle-room about an orderly handover. Certainly, I doubt that anyone concluded from what he said at the time that he would definitely serve a full five years and leave Labour having a leadership election at the same time as the national poll.

So Blair has ‘grievously misled’ us all.

Now, fair dos here; Blair should have known better. He should have known that journalists will always prefer lazy kremlinology to the honest reporting of public policy issues, and that – in making any statement about his future – he was exposing himself to a ceaseless frenzy of speculation. Which he duly got - and he's acknowledged his mistake here.

But for the representative-in-chief of a press corps that has spent the last two years obsessing about exactly when Blair will go, the pretence that he was ‘misled’ is completely dishonest.

Had Blair said ‘I will stand down in May 2007’, he would have had two years being called a ‘lame duck’. What’s more, Humphrys seems to cling to the quaint view that politicians don’t need to manage information, and that untimely revelations don’t make it all-but-impossible for a government to govern. The fact is, he knows just how powerful he can be, and this interview is just a playful flexing of those muscles.

Of course, Darling challenges him, saying (paraphrasing) ‘if Blair today announced he was going to stay on for a full term, you’d be asking him why he wasn’t standing down and leaving his successor enough time.’ Tellingly, Humphrys denies this emphatically, and - he must know - dishonestly.

The coup de grâce is where Humphrys says (of Brown)
JH: “Has he asked you to be Chancellor? A yes or no will do.”
What is the purpose of this question? Does Humphrys expect an announcement? Or a denial? Of course not. He knew that Darling would have to field the question, saying that the decision was with Brown. But Humphrys then replies
“Why did I think you’d say that.”
All the usual fare, you may say. And you'd be right. Politicans certainly don't deserve an easy time. They should be cross-examined. But - in this case - the end result is for the interviewer to paint his interlocutors as dishonest and himself as the ringmaster - the honest broker. And this is the rule here, rather than the exception.

In fact, he knows that government business is routinely been disrupted by media obsessions with Westminster gossip. It is never reported as such, of course, but if you ever speak to a civil servant who is responsible for any initiative, they will tell you just how impossible this kremlinology makes their work.

He also knows that there are some questions that even the most candid of (sane) politicians can't answer. It's like the classic demagogue at the old Roman circus. Looking around at the crowd, deciding whether to offer the thumbs up or not. These people are spectacularly powerful, without ever having to demonstrate that they add anything to public life.

So what would things look like if these ringmasters had to declare their hand, and politicians could actually have a conversation with them? Taking the earlier part of the Alistair Darling interview (above) where he is challenged about closing local Post Offices. It could go something like this:
Q: Why are you closing these Post Offices down?
A: Because they're losing tons of money and people go elsewhere for the services that they used to offer. What would you do instead?
If Humphrys had to reply to that question, rather than being able to offer the (Policeman-like) get-out, "I'll ask the questions if you don't mind", it would be an interview that I'd like to hear.

I doubt if any of the ringmasters would enjoy the long careers that they get at the moment.

It would fulfil the BBC's 'mission to explain' better than they currently do as it would show people that decisions aren't simple binaries, and that trade-offs matter. It would also satisfyingly damage most pressure groups, because they thrive on the spectacle of politicians being ridiculed.

A decent conversation would even reduce the stranglehold that political parties have over public life. So, I move that inteviewers should have to say what they would do on a matter of policy if they are asked by an inteviewee.

To allow this, the BBC needs to drop it's untenable claim to impartiality.

Whaddaya say?

*** sorry that this post was so long. I'm trying to be concise - honest. I'm no good at it. ***

Apropos of this, David Halpern was on the wireless this morning explaining the background to the whole Grammar School debate. He had real information to impart about the background to the policy discussion. They gave him about 30 seconds before they cut him off.


Aidan said...

While there are plenty of reasons to moan about written Press coverage of politics, it does seem the case that the broadcast versions escape a lot of challenging - interviews such as those you mention, all over the airwaves really, do seem more a kind of self-conscious performance by presenters, and there's only so far they can surely argue that it's only because their interviewees are inevitably going to be lying back or at least self-serving... or that the Prime Minister will debase or remain evasive throughout his Press conference sessions so they might as well just holler a very stagey "When are you going to quit?" or "Why are you so rubbish?" or whatever, for the sake of a money-shot for that evening news bulletin's two-minute slot...
Sure, it's tricky to muster up too much sympathy for those poor politicos on the receiving end, or track back to an (imagined? I dunno) era of: "So, Minister - what would you to tell us?" But having quite so many slavering presenters conducting snappy, snippy, sniffy interviews, then providing an even-smugger precis as "explanation" to us dumb viewers all the rolling day afterwards, does feel a little wearying and perhaps counter-productive after a while as well.

dd said...

In fact, he knows that government business is routinely been disrupted by media obsessions with Westminster gossip. It is never reported as such, of course, but if you ever speak to a civil servant who is responsible for any initiative, they will tell you just how impossible this kremlinology makes their work.

I've been a civil servant and have been responsible for initiatives and this isn't how I remember it. What disrupts things is not so much media obsessions with Westminster gossip as government obsessions with media gossip. Constantly reacting to the news cycle in this hypercaffeinated way is a development that was brought into British politics by the Labour Party in 1997 (Michael Howard's comments about Alastair Campbell are substantially right in this regard). Government departments like the Treasury which don't care so much about what the media think of them (and even more so, the Bank of England, where Mervyn King is always absolutely fantastic at dealing with hostile questions and being prepared to defend his case) don't have this problem. It's a specific problem of the current maangement of the Labour Party, not a general pathology of the British media.

In all honesty, Humphreys has been smoking his own product for a few years now, but Paxman is much better.

Paulie said...

I'd partially concede some of those points dd. I'm not sure that it was *introduced* to British politics by the Labour Party though. And I'm almost certain that - if the next election resulted in a change of government, that the Tories would 'de-introduce' it either.

It was, I would argue, a fairly rational response to the changes that happened in the media in the 1990s. If you've ever heard Blair / Campbell / Mandelson speak to Labour Party gatherings about media relations, they've always warned their audiences not to underestimate how 24hour rolling news has changed things.

If Labour have overcompensated, I'd suggest that it was partly because of the perception that a newsmanagent failure was one of the defining features of Old Labour, and something that had to be seen to be changed in order to make the party electable again.

Certainly, robust departments within government - ones that can't be pushed around by the PM - tend not to worry about these things anything like as much as those that are. Neither do the departments that have briefs that journalists don't have an expectation of understanding. If you can't explain a subject to your readers, the tempation to write a juicy bit of knocking copy tends to diminish to nothing.

The part of government that *does* sustain damage from poor news management is the PMs office - and I'm told that it is never unhappy alone.

Tom Freeman said...

Obviously Humphrys and Paxman do have their own strongly held views, and the level of harrumphing and scorn often gives these away, so the idea that they’re genuinely impartial is a joke.

But all the same, I think it is reasonable for interviewers to affect (as best they can) an impartiality. Very simply, interviewers aren’t wielding governmental power and aren’t going to be in a position to do so. This makes their views inherently less relevant than those of politicians, and so increasing the focus on, say, Paxmanite foreign policy would be a waste of the viewer’s time. Would it really help to discover that a guy who works in the media doesn’t have a coherent antiterrorism strategy?

Maybe one way to create more of an equal contest of views would be to have more ‘double’ interviews, with two politicians putting up contesting views. These tend to be done as attempts to provoke heated spats, but if the interviewer could act more genuinely as a clarifying referee, it might help to make the politicians engage with each other’s arguments more and establish where the points of agreements and disagreement are.

Another thing I’d like to see is interviews being carried out by specialist health/business/transport/etc correspondents rather than the generalists, whose lack of knowledge in specific policy areas means they miss important questions to focus more on issues of personality and politicking.

Paulie said...

Correction to the previous comment of mine here:

"I'm almost certain that - if the next election resulted in a change of government, that the Tories would 'de-introduce' it either."

The 'would' should, of course, read 'wouldn't'.


Unity said...

For starters, there's a brilliant analysis on the nature of the relationship between media and government/politics in Robin Cook's 'The Point of Departure' that's well worth reading.

As far as the Beeb goes, I think its important to retain a considerable element of impartiality in approach for sociological reasons.

As I see it the BBC anchors the UK news media to a median point in reporting which is not necessarily entirely impartial - genuine neutrality is difficult to achieve when most events and issue aren't, themselves, neutral - by which shapes our perception of what is reasonable in terms of news reporting.

Its that aspect of the Beeb that largely keeps Fox News style operations out of the UK broadcast sector - Daily Mail TV News just wouldn't work in the UK because the bias and propagandising would to too obvious when compared to the Beeb. All of which is why the likes of Paul Dacre, etc. are so keen to try and knock the Beeb of its pedestal.

What there is, which I do think is damaging, is a pernicious feedback loop in which the media's obsession with gossip and novelty feeds into a political culture which panders to that to grab the headlines, which then reinforces the media's obsession... its a vicious circle that need to be broken.

In Cook's book he recounts a conversation with a journo who asked the government's priorities for the next term of office (this was in 2001) and was told they would be controlling inflation, low unemployment and investment in education and health.

The journo replied by asking Cook, rather disappointedly, what was new about any of that?

Nothing, of course, but that's the point - real policy and real change takes time and doesn't spawn cheap headlines.

To a considerable extent it seems to me that its politicians who need to take the bull by the horns here and change the way they approach the media - actually fight back a bit, express opinions and even go 'off message' if it makes the point they want to put over.

Chris said...

So if a politican asks Paxman what he would do, when Paxman replies is he expected to give his personal opinion or the opinion of the corporation? Since there chaps are meant to be representative of an organisation as well as the general public when they're asking their questions. Should the BBC set up its own policy unit?

I'm also not sure it's a process with only two players, the media and the politicians. The public have to shoulder some of the blame for, ie, wanting the soundbites and not wanting the in-depth analyses. Possibly two publics to blame here, the few who are political (and who probably get some thrills from the gossip) and the general public who like headlines.

I think that the whole 'going off message' thing is as fraught with ambiguity for/from the public as the 'I'm listening' trope mentioned two posts down. It's another thing that's easier to call for than to endure - as with the listening, you have to accept that listening doesn't equal agreeing, so with the unspinning straightalk you have to accept that you may hate what it being said even more now that it's not sugercoated. And both are seldom rewarded as much as you might expect.

Ivan said...

Enforced impartiality makes a virtue of negativism. A

God, what would you have instead - Fox news? Endless battles over whether a presenter was right wing or left wing? Change of presenters when political control changes? At the end of the day, the presenters are not elected to do anything and, while they may be painful at times, they do a job. They don't have policies and it would be a bit daft to expect them to answer questions back about policy. Or maybe you think we should elect presenters?
I think you're a bit close to the whinges of politicians, who are complicit in how we've come to behave and what we've come to expect.

dd said...

Obviously Humphrys and Paxman do have their own strongly held views

Paxman yes, Humphreys to be honest not so much; he has a lot of saloon bar why-oh-why ism (which he sets out at length in his bloody awful book which I am still angry at having paid ten quid for), but in terms of his interviewing he is pretty much as Paulie portrays him; mindlessly obsessed with cheap gotchas. He frankly passed his sack-by date about five years ago.

Paxo is more of a man after my own heart; he's difficult to place on a straightforward political scale but his criticism is almost always broadly fair and people who don't tell lies usually come away quite well from his interviews. I actually bet he could probably hold his own if Paulie's suggested reform came to pass.

The government just needs more Mervyn Kings (full disclosure: I am ex BoE and a paid up Merv groupie; Deputy Governor Paul Tucker is actually even better). Merv is fantastic at just throwing it straight back down the neck of interviewers and, if necessary, humiliating them for asking stupid questions. As a result, he is more or less revered by the press. I am actually quite optimistic for a Brown government on this score as Gordon has more than a touch of Merv to him; Blair has always had that lawyerly (in the pejorative sense) tendency to try and push his rhetoric out just a little bit further than he can actually support.

In this context, Jack Straw has actually dealt very well with the media when he had a proper job; I always thought it was a shame that his talents weren't used for good instead of evil.

Paulie said...

A few of the comments here have assumed that a call for individual interviewers at the BBC to abandon the pretence of impartiality is the same thing as endorsing Fox News or calling for Paul Dacre to be news editor-in-chief.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not what I'm advocating.

I do like the idea of more specialist reporters doing more refereeing between different viewpoints (and encouraging a more conversational exchange than the current spitting matches that we get when this happens) but it doesn't completely answer the way that impartiality makes you look more attractive than your interlocutors (thereby being unavoidably relatively damaging politicians).

The way to avoid the 'Daily Mail / Fox News trap is to promote a more diverse range of viewpoints among partial anchorpersons. Instead of having two or three star performers (as Newsnight / Today have) they could have a rotating group of a dozen lower profile interviewers - reflecting the spread of perspectives.

dd said...

This is roughly what happens when Newsnight does economics and business coverage by the way; although they try to keep a lid on the party-politics, it is pretty obvious that Stephanie Flanders is a Washington Consensus neoliberal, Paul Mason is borderline Stiglitz-crusty and Evan Davies is ... more difficult to read, but I'd say somewhere halfway along the axis between Jeff Randall and sanity. Mason's blog is also well worth reading as a substitute for the Nick Robinson one you're not reading any more.