Investigations Spotlight

Politics: Off Grid

An employee at Broadcasting House reveals the inner workings of Auntie Beeb‘s factual programming.

When Donald Trump decided to withdraw troops from Syria, the Today programme held an interview to address the situation. Sitting in the studio and offering comment on the government’s strategy was not the Prime Minister, or the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, or a junior minister in his team – or even anyone who attended Cabinet. It was Jeremy Hunt, who no longer held any role in government.

The story around the BBC’s Millbank offices was that Dominic Cummings, newly enshrined within Downing Street as a sort of executive super-spad, had ordered a boycott of the show and enforced a temporary ban on ministerial engagement.

Being denied access to a minister by an officious young spad is nothing new for political reporters. On any given day producers will spend hours attempting to flatter relevant politicians into studio chairs. Some are cagey and require persuading like John McDonnell; others, like Chuka Ummuna, will jump at the chance for any sort of press coverage at all.

Political broadcasts often operate with only a single day’s preparation: issues arise in the news, suitable guests are immediately pitched and briefs are drawn up for presenters. But during the last few years this process became increasingly haphazard as the number of credible political voices diminished with every passing week.

The main reason for this is, of course, the all-pervasive issue of Brexit and the pressure it has put upon MPs and journalists alike. Traditionally, Westminster voices in opposition are especially keen for any opportunity to show their constituents how involved they are in the political machinations of the day, and only too glad to comment on the misdeeds of the incumbent party.

But Brexit has cast a strange spell on party politics and forced many politicians into a dilemma that belies conventional left/right distinctions. To comment publicly on Theresa May’s government was to comment on her deal or her negotiations. Very few MPs could afford to alienate one half of the Brexit debate and even if their constituency might have permitted it, their party whip might not.

As such, the task of the political producer – to drum up panels of relevant and interested politicians for public debate – became almost impossible. Broadly speaking, there were only two types of guests for producers to choose from: Brexiteer evangelists or slick and power-hungry London Remainers. That the discussion surrounding Brexit should be conducted from these two extremes has become accepted as a sort of national truth, but it certainly doesn’t reflect the real make-up of Parliament or the country.

Both sides of our desperately stretched Overton window managed to whip up a virulent caricature of their opposition, then more or less contented themselves by tweeting about it for a few years. There are far more MPs and commentators with level-headed approaches to Brexit than anyone following our press coverage would imagine: we just couldn’t get them in front of a camera.

A large portion of blame for this disappearing act falls at the feet of the politicians, who effectively empty-chaired themselves for fear of giving an insightful interview. But the BBC played its own anxiety-laden part in the confusion too.

Under the leadership of Tony Hall there was a commendable focus on balanced viewpoints on all political shows. Gone are the days of all-male panels discussing a crisis at a female refugee detention centre. But the manner in which this diversification was put in place by production staff swiftly descended into farce. A whiteboard would be marked up with a clumsy and often indecipherable grid system. The grid would revolve around a set of key identities such as ‘woman’, ‘Northern’ or ‘POC’. These would then be cross-categorised with political stances such as ‘Brexiteer’, ‘Tory’ or ‘progressive’. Our task would then be to ensure that any proposed panel contained a complete balance of all these attributes. This was before any of the guests had even been confirmed — if our only ‘progressive, Northern Brexiteer’ dropped out, then the whole puzzle needed redoing.

On daily programs, where a different panel needed to be booked five days a week, there were countless reports of these grid meetings descending into the sort of charade that certain right-wing columnists dream about. One particularly notable incident came when in order to find an ‘authentic’ Northern voice, all plausible interviewees who displayed any obvious erudition were vetoed. In their place, Danny Lockwood was slotted into the identity sudoku, as his tone was seen to more directly signal his real Northern identity. Several producers thought fit to mention that said individual was, in fact, a Tommy Robinson-supporting reactionary, whose past achievements include mocking the ‘Zorro’ outfits worn by Muslim women in his local Batley. But the grids didn’t have any disqualifying categories. Boxes could only be ticked, not crossed.

There is an understandable nervousness about criticising these sorts of practices. Mainly it is seen as a simple way to provide material for the reactionary commentariat who have no desire to see any diverse voices in journalism at all, and will amplify any criticism in the name of their now familiar masquerade of ‘rationality’. No doubt the daily whiteboard fiascos will provide exactly such ammunition.

But there is no easy way around the obvious complications caused by the policy. Covering Westminster means covering MPs and the historic imbalance of that profession has only recently begun to correct its course. If the only non-white voice we could find to come on the show at a moment’s notice on a Monday morning happened to be a conservative Remainer, the grid would demand balance and we would have to spend hours on the phones, searching up and down the country for that rarest of political piece of political syntax: ‘leave, left’.

It should be noted that this progressive approach does not apply to BBC hiring practices or indeed attitudes towards their own staff. The bulk of their news operations are still dominated by white Oxbridge-educated men of a certain age, and the treatment of young producers and researchers can be questionable at best. One female producer told me that when she reported rape threats shouted at her by yellow-vests filming in the dark she was simply told it was ‘part of her job.’ Of course, when Anna Soubry and Owen Jones were accosted by the very same group of people only a week later, there was a meticulously balanced on-screen panel to bemoan the alarming state of public discourse.

Ironically, the main beneficiaries of the BBC’s attempts at progressivism have been the ERG. The tacky celebrity enjoyed by almost any senior politician means that established figures can only be reached via power-hungry spads and professional press teams. This creates yet another barrier to securing such individuals. The ERG on the other hand have no press agents at all and are very happy to provide the ever vital ‘leave’ voice which the grid demands. The sheer number of times Mark Francois was booked over the last year boggles the mind. Along with Andrew Bridgen and Peter Bone, he was given far more air-time than almost any of the hundreds of more measured leave voices around Westminster.

But the truth is that the ERG were candid and honest about their positions, and willing to discuss potential angles of interview or group debate with journalists who call them directly. They certainly did not have an eye on potential book deals to be secured after the election or reality TV contracts, like a certain Tom Watson.

When we were able to cajole a bigger name onto a show – I’ve been told by several producers that they were instructed to use powers of flirtation more than of negotiation – there was always a boozy familiarity between presenters, writers and MPs that demonstrated the perils of establishment thinking more clearly than any TV panel ever could. The close connections between journalists and politicians are as vital to the functioning of the BBC as any other news outlet, but there has always been something slightly dubious about the extent to which these connections dictate BBC coverage. Certain politicians can only be reached via the phones of certain senior journalists and their interviews are given as friendly favours, which almost inevitably means that those same politicians are in for a chatty and gentle time on camera. Off-camera, a highly influential Westminster social circle revolves around trips to various houses in continental Europe, where various MPs and the journalists who are supposed to report on them have long been playing just as hard as they work.

Work in British politics is hard – and has been doubly so over the last few years – so it is understandable that an embattled solidarity develops between the press and the objects of their scrutiny. Without those parties on the Mediterranean I’m sure that many stories and interviews wouldn’t have materialised. But it is hard to stomach the ceaseless talk of impartial, representative journalism when the content of our shows frequently depends on which London politician fancies a drink after work.

The sudden announcement that Tony Hall would be stepping down has understandably filled the BBC with anxiety about its future. The common theme of the office rumour mill is that this was a tactical martyrdom, carried out to make room for a more Tory-friendly candidate to renegotiate with Cummings et al. These rumours reflect the general perception of Hall as someone who knew the BBC needed to stay palatable to a long-term Tory government, who would gladly see it stripped for parts and sold to the highest bidder. So when those same Tories complain about leftist bias within the BBC, most senior journalists within the organisation start to get very twitchy.

The idea of Hall’s diversity drive was this: firstly, it could be presented as a solution to the establishment liberalism which had so badly failed to predict the populism that fuelled Brexit; at the same time, it was intended to address the historic imbalances of class and race which still mar so much modern political reporting. In the end Hall’s initiative was a solution to neither problem. While the BBC was busy failing to change its structures and work practices with whiteboards, the most complex and unorthodox period of politics in a generation simply blew past the one group of people who were supposed to shine a light on it.

Indeed, the only news programme that consistently drew attention to and engaged with what in BBC-speak are described as ‘under-served’ audiences – the Victoria Derbyshire show, has been unceremoniously axed. This is an absurd move to make, especially when the organisation is obsessing over how to demonstrate that it can speak to audiences beyond the educated metropolitan elite. To add insult to injury, BBC bosses didn’t even tell their award-winning presenter that she and her team were getting the chop. She read about it in the Times.

Criticisms of the BBC began to flood in almost immediately after the election. Mainly there were accusations of bias – specifically of a left-leaning favouritism that had unfairly targeted Tory views. However, the truth of the matter, seen in production meetings and panicked late night broadcasts, is that the BBC currently possesses very little idea of how to present politics at all.

My colleagues love pointing out that the BBC is accused of bias by both left and right – as if this is proof that such accusations are baseless. But these criticisms simply reflect a total dissatisfaction with the news. A handful of MPs, deeply enshrined in London’s literary and intellectual circles, treat the BBC like a university common room. By default these individuals are Remainers. To continue booking them (drinking with them), the production staff must then secure the presence of their leave voting, far right opposition. Then a meeting must be held about the fact that both guests are white (they almost always are). That’s where we’re at right now.

Rub out the grid and start again.


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