BBC Response to my Complaint over Humphrys Today interview with Blair on Brexit

Rather than posting the full story on Facebook, here’s the concluding exchange BBC’s response to my complaint last month over John Humphrys’ interview with Tony Blair over Brexit.

First their response, then my response to their response, then my original (3rd in this series) complaint.

9 February 2018

Dear Mr Brayne,

Today, Radio 4, 4 Jan 2018

Thank you for your email of 12 January I am writing to let you know the outcome of our investigation into your complaint about the interview on the Today programme with Tony Blair. I understand you believe John Humphrys was unduly aggressive towards the former Prime Minister. I appreciate the extent of your experience in this area and am sorry you were not satisfied with the responses you have received so far. I have assessed your concerns against the BBC Editorial Guidelines and in particular those which relate to impartiality and to how we should treat contributors to our programmes.

As you will be aware, the BBC Guidelines do not speak simply of impartiality but of ‘due’ impartiality. This is defined as requiring that the impartiality of anything the BBC publishes or broadcasts must be ‘adequate and appropriate’ in the context of the output. As you observe, there are specific criteria set out when dealing with guests putting forward contentious views.

              4.4.18

Contributors expressing contentious views, either through an interview or other means, must be rigorously tested while being given a fair chance to set out their full response to questions.   

And again, as you point out, your complaint also engages the guidelines on ‘’Fairness, contributors and consent’’;

6.4.24

We must treat our contributors and potential contributors with respect.  We must not be unduly intimidatory, humiliating, intrusive or aggressive to contributors, either to obtain their consent or during their participation in our output.

It is against these guidelines that I will judge your complaint.

I should begin by reviewing briefly the context in which this interview took place. As the introduction made clear, the former Prime Minister appeared on the programme to discuss Brexit having written a commentary which accused his own party of ‘timidity’ and argued for the British people to be given a chance to revisit the issue once the terms of any new relationship with the EU had been agreed. These were the two main ideas behind the article, and the on-air discussion with the former Prime Minister.

This was a robust, spirited encounter – and there were several presenter interruptions to challenge or pick up on points made in the course of the interview. Having listened carefully to the exchanges I do not believe, however, that they breached either the letter or the spirit of the BBC Guidelines.

Points were made forcefully on both sides. But there was no indication Mr Blair was surprised by the nature of the questions nor put off his stride by the interventions. In the course of a lengthy interview (by Today standards) the former Prime Minister had the opportunity to explain his arguments on the economic reality of Brexit, as he perceived it, and his belief that the public should be given a new vote on any deal agreed with the EU. As a veteran of such interviews, he will have been well versed in John Humphrys’ interviewing style – as are the Today audience. The arguments were clear and I note that on the two occasions when Mr Blair asked to be allowed to finish, the presenter ceded the floor to him.

Arguably the interview was at its most combative over the question of whether Mr Blair was respecting the democratic will of the people in calling for them to be given a chance to rethink their decision. This was at the heart of the argument and I think therefore that it was justified for John Humphrys to pursue the point vigorously even if that necessitated interrupting the former Prime Minister several times.

The Editorial guidelines do not lay down a single ‘approved’ form of interviewing. It is left to individual presenters to decide the most appropriate method according to the nature of the interview, the guest and the responses given. What matters is that every guest should be effectively challenged with a proper line of questioning relevant to the arguments at hand and that they are given a fair chance to respond.

For these reasons I do not believe you have identified a significant breach in BBC Editorial Standards and cannot uphold your complaint. This will be the BBC final view on your complaint unless there are reasons to modify or amend it in light of any comments you may wish to make.  If you do wish to respond to this finding, I would be grateful if you could send your comments to me by 22 February 2018.

I should also explain it is open to you to ask the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, to consider your complaint.  You can find details of how to contact Ofcom and the procedures it will apply at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/how-to-report-a-complaint.  Alternatively, you can write to Ofcom, Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 9HA, or telephone either 0300 123 3333 or 020 7981 3040.  Ofcom acknowledges all complaints received.

Yours sincerely,

Dominic Groves

 Executive Complaints Unit

My concluding reply

Dear Mr Groves,

Thank you for taking the time to explore my complaint in more detail and to set out your response. While you will not be surprised that I disagree with your conclusions, I recognise there is little purpose in formally taking this any further at this point.

I have been gratified by the extent of support from present and former BBC colleagues for the challenge I raised, admittedly within the closed bubble of Facebook’s BBC alumni community with its just 500 or so participants. And as we all know, John Humphrys will in due course be moving on, and others with a style of interviewing perhaps more conducive to healthy democratic debate will be taking his place.

I have been most impressed, for example, by Nick Robinson’s recent handling of even the most difficult issues, for instance in his interview the other day with Charles Grant and Jacob Rees-Mogg. A model of polite challenge and respectful, neutral refereeing from which Humphrys, in his remaining time, would do well to learn.

I know I might sound like an old fogey, moaning from the sidelines of a game he’s no longer playing, but Humphrys – while admittedly sometimes brilliant – represents to me on the whole a style of combative and self-important, self-aggrandising interviewing that no longer, if it ever did, serves what journalism needs to be doing, in very difficult and complex times.

Journalism is not a blood sport, nor just entertainment and fun. And as I suspect you know, there are many out here, and indeed within the BBC, who look forward with increasing urgency to a post-Humphrys start to their radio day.

But, again, I appreciate the seriousness with which my complaint has been taken.

Yours

MB

And my original – OK, third in a row – final complaint to the Beeb’s complaints unit, my first ever of its kind.

Dear former BBC colleagues,

I’m writing to pursue my complaint about John Humphrys’ interview with Tony Blair on the Today Programme last week.

The latest reply (of two) from your team at complaints is copied in below, and you will be viewing the trail with the above case reference.

I do not believe the answers I have received so far to be satisfactory, and I write not as one of the green ink brigade from Tunbridge Wells, but as a former BBC foreign correspondent and editor myself (Berlin, Vienna, Beijing, WS Diplomatic and WS European Region) who remains passionate, now as psychotherapist dealing with emotional wellbeing and good and respectful listening, about the very best standards in interviewing and broadcasting.

Humphrys can be, and has been over his career at times, brilliant in his interviewing. Dogged, informed, sometimes even polite. But and increasingly over the years – and this Blair interview was for me with its nasty edge, its brutal interruptions and its intolerance for balanced discussion the final straw, prompting my first-ever official complaint to the BBC – he has defaulted into a kind of self-indulgent, caricature attack mode for its own sake which sets a bad example to other journalists in our profession.

There is of course no objection to the principle of good interviewing laid out in your colleagues’ reply below – pointing out contextual information, bringing an interviewee back on track, being at times, yes, combative.

But I submit that if properly analysed, and not by those on the Today Programme who of course stand by their presenter (often even when they know he has gone too far), John’s interview with Tony Blair would be found to breach the following BBC Editorial Guidelines. I have highlighted the relevant points with comments in brackets:

  • Contributors expressing contentious views, either through an interview or other means, must be rigorously tested while being given a fair chance to set out their full response to questions. (The space for Tony Blair to set out his full response was seriously and repeatedly curtailed by Humphrys.)
  • The public expression by staff and presenters of personal offence or indignation risks jeopardising the BBC’s impartiality. (The questioning in both tone and content repeatedly implied indignation on Humphry’s part.)
  • We must treat our contributors and potential contributors with respect.  (I do not believe, as a listener and journalist myself, that Blair was treated with respect.)We must not be unduly intimidatory, humiliating, intrusive or aggressive to contributors… (Humphrys was in my assessment unduly intimdatory, intrusive and aggressive.)

As I said in my first complaint, the way Blair was interviewed – whatever one’s views about either him or about Brexit – did not serve the important cause of democratic debate in this country. It was, quite simply, bad and counter-productive interviewing, violating many of the principles of good reporting laid out, for example, by one of the English-speaking world’s leading journalism trainers John Sawatsky in Canada, whose research has highlighted how polite and open questioning invariably produces better and more reliable information for the listener/reader.

And, to illustrate my points very simply, I ask you how different would this interview have been, and how much more informative, appropriate, useful and in concordance with BBC guidelines if it had been done by almost any of Humphrys’ Today presenter colleagues, whether Nick Robinson or, in the past, Evan Davies or even now Justin Webb.

I worked for many years at the BBC. I wrote defensive letters to listeners complaining about output (sometimes my own), and I know how the sausages are made, as it were. It’s important that the BBC stands its ground when inappropriately criticised, but this interview was, in my book and I believe by the BBC’s own standards, indefensible. Humphrys has become, sadly and all too often, too like the Emperor whose court continues to insist, while knowing this not to be true, on his magnificence and his (absent) clothes.

Given the long history of listener complaints about Humphrys’ style of interviewing, and the BBC’s long history of defending his style, I do not hope for any satisfactory response to this – I promise my last – written challenge. But it might be good if this was at least aired on Feedback as well as in my own public Facebook posts (link here), as especially with Brexit looming, how politicians are interrogated and how the BBC presents all sides of this discussion is of existential importance to the future of this country.

Yours.

Mark Brayne
EMDR Europe Accredited Consultant, Parnell Institute Training Facilitator, MA, UKCP
http://www.braynework.com http://www.emdrfocus.com
07711 888682

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