Question Time and 'Plan B'

Friday 28 May 2010, 11:38

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

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The row over Alastair Campbell on BBC Question Time panel has caused a lot of huffing and puffing in the Westminster bubble ... though it will probably leave most of the GBP unmoved.

For us journalists, though, it's worth thinking a bit more about it since it's a high-profile and acute instance of a much more common question: who chooses a programme's guests? And how much 'dealing' is acceptable? Especially with government and opposition.

The purist position is as simple as it is impractical and unrealistic. Never do deals: broadcasters choose their guests both for discussion programmes and packages and that's the end of it. It's the only way to maintain and demonstrate your independence.

And while I was a programme editor that was always my ideal. But I also had to deal with the realities of guest bidding and that's rarely the simple matter it seems from the outside. Or even - sometimes - from the inside. I once worked with a presenter who, naively, thought that all we had to do was pick up the phone and the guest we wanted would materialise at the time we wanted, ready to talk about whatever it was we wanted ... even if that was different from the subject they were originally booked to talk about.

"We don't do deals," he used to boom across the office. Except that most of the people he ended up interviewing were the result of some kind of deal - as, indeed, pretty well every guest on every programme has to be.

Mostly a proper and straightforward one: the programme chooses a guest and comes to an agreement a) that the guest will appear at all b) on a particular programme at a particular time c) in a particular kind of appearance and d) on a particular subject/subjects (or on any and every subject in the case of a programme like Question Time). That, like it or not, is a deal.

But the world isn't always that simple. Governments, political parties, interest groups, artists' agents make offers of guests. And then the choice is whether to accept them or not - which can be difficult if that particular subject wasn't on your radar when the offer came. Then you have to decide - is it in the public interest for us to take this guest? Will the audience gain some new insight or knowledge from an interview with this person? The easy decision is to turn the offer down ... but it's not always the right one.

Setting up a discussion or panel is even more complex. Especially a panel or discussion that routinely involves frontbenchers and/or political figures. A lot of other factors and expectations come into play - and you have to be prepared to deal with them.

Often, your first choice isn't available or can't appear for some perfectly good reason. Or the party managers would rather someone else appeared ... and they may have a decent sounding argument for their alternative offer. You may suspect other motives, especially if your first choice of guest has had a rough time recently - which, of course, may well be the reason you want them on your panel in the first place. But you have a choice: hang tough and refuse or ask yourself whether it's in the public interest to hear that party's views, even if they're not articulated by your first-choice guest.

Occasionally, as was - publicly at least - the case with Question Time, party managers will pray in aid of the sporadically and unevenly observed principle of 'equivalence'. And though I've never come across a minister or shadow minister who isn't happy to rough up anyone and everyone vaguely opposed to them, regardless of status, their handlers can be more picky and argue that their man/woman is far too lofty to be confronted by the lowly opposing oik you've chosen to, as they see it, 'go against their man/woman'.

Or that their champion has been elected and the other chap hasn't and speaks for no-one but him/herself.

It can and does become a battle of wills. You, as editor, know how important it is not to let your personal feelings - that you're being manipulated, say, or that you don't want to be seen to yield - get in the way of your judgment on behalf of the audience, the public interest and the national debate. And you certainly can't allow one party to a discussion dictate who else contributes - though, of course, you do have to ensure the best possible discussion for your audience.

The parties know, too, that there's the court of public opinion out there and it will judge them harshly if they're seen to be hiding a wounded minister or shadow or trying to gag an opposition voice they'd rather not debate with. 

I have no special insight into the negotiations over at Question Time - though I know its Executive Editor, Gavin Allen, very well; he used to be my deputy. His account on the BBC Editors' blog reads like a pretty fair summary of his thinking; faced with what seemed, on the face of it at least, an attempt to change the panel his production team had chosen - something he could never allow to happen.

Nor do I have any special insight into the thinking of Number Ten - my hunch is, though, that they were out to set some early ground rules in their dealings with one of the BBC's most important public affairs programmes. And that their initial objection to Alastair Campbell would have been set aside at the last minute - after extracting a bit of sweat from the production team - and they would have offered a minister, though not the one Question Time would have preferred. That kind of brinksmanship was routine when ... errr Alastair Campbell was i/c comms in Downing Street.

That's why it's vital for an editor to have and be prepared to activate a 'Plan B' - which usually means cutting the party managers out of the equation altogether with a reasoned and reasonable alternative guest, one who is free to make up his or her own mind whether or not to appear: in this case, John Redwood. Not a bad call.

As Gavin Allen says, the principle is straightforward:

"... politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel. It is for Question Time, not for political parties ... to determine who is invited to appear in the interests of the audience ... they do not have a right of veto over other panellists."

The tough thing for an editor is to have the nerve and clarity of vision to put that into practice in the real world.

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