BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Apology for Andrew Tyrie

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Gavin Allen | 18:01 UK time, Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tonight the BBC has apologised to the Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie. For those of you who haven't seen it, here's what we said:

"Last month we carried some reports from the Conservative Party conference which fell below our usual standards. Our reports gave a misleading impression that Andrew Tyrie MP had been influenced by a Downing Street official to say something he did not believe to be true. We have apologised to Mr Tyrie for these reports".

Mr Tyrie gave this response within the past hour:

"I am extremely grateful to the BBC, and for doing this without needing to make a formal complaint. They have accepted that they made a mistake - we all make them - and apologised. As far as I'm concerned that is an end of the matter".

Before the Conservative conference Mr Tyrie had criticised the government's long-term economic growth strategy as being, in parts, "incoherent and inconsistent".

After the chancellor's conference speech he spoke warmly about it.

Steve Hilton put his arm round Andrew Tyrie's shoulder as they held their conversation

The BBC aired footage on that day which appeared to show Mr Tyrie being led away for a private chat by Steve Hilton - one of the prime minister's closest advisers. He was then asked by the BBC's James Landale whether he had been "nobbled" and responded “I think you know me well enough, James, to know the unlikelihood of that.”

Some of our reporting suggested that this encounter was evidence that he had changed his view as the result of pressure from Downing Street.

After Andrew Tyrie contacted us some days later, however, it became clear that he had indicated to the BBC before meeting Steve Hilton - and having heard the chancellor's speech - that he welcomed George Osborne's policy announcements.

He said the chancellor had responded positively to his critique and moved substantially in his direction on several issues such as re-examining the employment tribunal system and re-assessing the government's unilateral targets for reducing carbon emissions. And it was Mr Tyrie and not Mr Hilton who had initiated the conversation which had been caught on camera.

The BBC regrets that the footage was not shown in its proper context which happened as a result of it being broadcast and commented upon swiftly and before some extra editorial checks could be made.

The most widely viewed reports of the incident on the BBC's News at Six and Ten did not assert that Mr Tyrie had changed his views under pressure - they asked whether Mr Tyrie had changed his mind about the government's economic policy because of the chancellor's speech or because of his meeting with a senior Number 10 official.

Nevertheless we regret that mistakes took place and that the footage was not shown across the BBC in its proper context. There was never any intention to deceive our audience but we now accept that the impression created by the coverage taken as a whole was misleading. As a result we have decided to take the unusual step of apologising on air. We are glad that Mr Tyrie, for his part, accepts our apology.
Our journalistic reputation is built on trust and on this occasion, we got it wrong and we have apologised for that.

Gavin Allen is editor, BBC Political News.

Question Time, 27 May 2010

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Gavin Allen | 21:00 UK time, Thursday, 27 May 2010

In his speech, The Trouble with Trust, the BBC director-general Mark Thompson called for greater transparency in the BBC's dealings with political parties:

"There are steps we should take to make our own dealings with politicians and other public figures more open to scrutiny. When A refuses to debate with B or sets other conditions before an interview or debate, there's often a case for letting the public know - for example, via the Editors' Blog..."

So here goes. This week, for the first time in my three years as executive editor of Question Time, we were told by Downing Street that a cabinet minister would only appear on the programme if another member of the panel was replaced. According to No 10, a senior member of the cabinet was available to do Question Time but only if Alastair Campbell was replaced by a member of the shadow cabinet.

Very obviously, we refused and as a result no minister appeared, meaning that the government was not represented on the country's most-watched political programme in Queen's Speech week - one of the most important moments in the Parliamentary calendar.

No 10 stated that the objection to Alastair Campbell was that he was not an elected Labour representative or a front-bencher. Not only is Alastair Campbell one of the most senior and influential figures in the Labour movement - an architect of New Labour - but Labour ministers regularly appeared on Question Time panels when the then opposition was represented either by someone outside of the front bench or by an unelected panellist - sometimes even a prospective Parliamentary candidate. It is not an argument or an objection that bears scrutiny.

It is a fundamental principle of our independence that politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel. It is for Question Time, not for political parties, to make judgements about impartiality and to determine who is invited to appear in the interests of the audience. Parties are free of course to accept or reject those invitations, but they do not have a right of veto over other panellists. Licence fee payers rightly insist that the BBC must be free from political interference.

Gavin Allen is executive editor, Question Time.

Nick Griffin on Question Time

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Gavin Allen | 19:59 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

The claims made against Question Time by various publications and commentators are clear: it was a "typical BBC conspiracy". The audience was clearly "rigged" to ensure a "lynch-mob mentality". The "usual Question Time format was changed" to focus entirely on the BNP and to "ignore general topics of the week". David Dimbleby pursued a "personal attack against Nick Griffin". And the "publicity-seeking" programme "did it all for the ratings".

So much for the charges. The reality is a bit more straightforward.

qt_wide400.jpg

It was Question Time. With a lot more people watching than normal. And a lot more column inches written in advance about it than normal. And significantly more demonstrators outside the venue than normal. But otherwise, in all the core elements, it was Question Time as normal.

As in any Question Time week, members of the public guide producers on what's to be debated. The programme is driven by the questions submitted by the audience itself. And unsurprisingly, they chose to focus on topics that were in the news this week - immigration, Jan Moir's article on the death of Stephen Gately, the BNP's co-option of historical figures and, yes, Question Time itself.

What, no post strike? No Afghanistan? They were on the list of issues to be debated. But, from the weight of questions, other topics galvanised our audience more, and there simply wasn't time to get to them. This isn't a stopwatch tick-box format. A question might take ten minutes to debate. Or twenty. It is the audience and its members' engagement in an issue which leads the content of the debate. They demand their say and ensure that answers are properly scrutinised.

That means editorial fluidity and flexibility. As in Grimsby and Salisbury earlier this year, occasionally one topic dominates, because the public just doesn't want to move away from it. Back then - as you may have spotted - it was MPs' expenses. This week, it was the BNP and its beliefs and policies, albeit encompassing questions on race, Islam, homophobia, immigration and Churchill. So we didn't change the format. Questions, and debate, just are the format. And again it's the audience which guides it.

And so to the "rigged audience". The audience, as always, was made up of a broad cross-section of views and backgrounds reflective of the location. That would be the same whether we were in Liverpool, Llandudno or - as in this case - London. Every week, they're encouraged to participate and to ask probing questions to provoke debate. So: were BNP supporters invited and allowed in? Yes. In fact, they made more than one contribution to the discussion. Was that enough? Did they applaud sufficiently or counter the boos directed at their party leader? Hard to judge. But who needs to? That's the thing about people who come to see Question Time - they have minds of their own.

As does David Dimbleby. His job was not to "get" Nick Griffin, or to "expose" him as a racist and crush him in public. It was to chair a debate. Which he did, brilliantly. That meant giving not just the audience members their say, but panellists too. All of them. And probing panellists - all of them - on past policy, utterances and beliefs. So David did indeed forensically grill Mr Griffin on everything from the Ku Klux Klan to the Holocaust. And likewise Jack Straw was questioned over government immigration policy. Sayeeda Warsi on civil partnerships. Not ganging up against one member of the panel. Just robust questioning to achieve clarity. It's what the audience expects - every week.

Chasing ratings? Question Time has been going for 30 years and has very healthy viewing figures, rising to a recent record peak throughout the past series. The decision to invite Nick Griffin onto the programme had nothing to do with ratings. It had to do with our obligation to show due impartiality and the fact that only now has the BNP crossed a particular electoral threshold in securing European parliamentary seats. (See a previous post by my colleague Ric Bailey.)

But the key manner in which this was Question Time as normal is that it was unpredictable. Week in, week out, none of us involved in the programme has any idea how the audience will react, what will anger or amuse them, whether this or that panellist will shine or sink or even whether a cat called Tango will wander behind the set while we're on air (Google it. You'll get the drift).

But amid all the normal unpredictability, one question remains the same every week. Did it work? And, as is the answer to everything with Question Time, you decide.

Update 1515, 24 October: The document that appeared in both the Daily Mail and on its website today is not, contrary to the claim by the Daily Mail, the same document issued to members of the Question Time audience.

The version of the instructions printed in the Daily Mail has Nick Griffin's profile first - the version issued to the audience had Jack Straw's profile first.

There was only one instruction guide given to members of the audience and it is the same format as issued every week. The BBC instructions always begin with the panel member from the government - in this week's case Jack Straw.

On the version printed in the Mail, the Nick Griffin entry has been placed over that of Mr Straw.

As a result, Mr Griffin's entry appears twice in the version on the Mail's website and Mr Straw not at all.

Gavin Allen is executive editor, Question Time.

Lively debate

Gavin Allen | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 16 January 2009

"Great fun tonight with the audience at each others' throats," texted Annie, from Westhill. Interesting definition of fun. It was about 15 minutes in to the Question Time recording in Leeds when I started to wonder what I'd do in the event of a riot. There isn't a box on the otherwise-comprehensive BBC compliance forms for that. I did check.

Question Time logoAfter all it's not often that David Dimbleby is forced to have a microphone removed from above an audience member because she's refusing to obey his request to stop arguing. "Don't shake your finger at me," he said calmly, dismissing her complaint that another side of the argument had been allowed to speak for longer than her.

But Annie the texter had a point. The best Question Time debates are invariably when the audience feels passionately and gets truly involved in the arguments. Climate change vs economic growth at Heathrow. Israeli self-defence vs Palestinian bloodshed. Green shoots of recovery or Brown debts of despair. It's safe to say there were a fair few cats let loose amongst the watching pigeons. And the pigeons pecked back with heartfelt heckles, some pantomime hisses, spontaneous bouts of applause - it all helped fire up the panellists and the energies fed off each other.

David DimblebyAnd when the feeding got too frenzied, there was David to firmly intervene. "You must stop when I ask you to stop," he told the impassioned finger-wagger. And the joy is that Question Time audiences invariably do. Cities being bombed, jobs being lost, runways being built - the most enraged Angry of Leeds was still happy to wait in the queue until given the nod by the chairman.

"David is enticing us to get worked up," complained James, another texter. "It rather belies the real point of fuelling good rational debate".

But to his credit David didn't. He enticed people to get involved, taking more than 20 different audience points and ensuring their questions and concerns got addressed. And the audience - in the main - respects the rules. They weren't whipped up and didn't need to be. They were naturally opinionated. It was lively and vehement, but it was still rational debate. And surely healthier democratically for people to sometimes overstep the mark than never to dare go near it in the first place.

So no riot this week. The compliance form is safe for now.

But it's Crawley in six days. Will they pick up where Leeds left off? Will they go for the throat physically and not just metaphorically? Will David pull back the microphone in time? Find out in next week's instalment.

Gavin Allen is editor of The Politics Show and executive editor of Question Time.

Seeing eye-to-eye

Gavin Allen | 12:10 UK time, Thursday, 25 September 2008

You wouldn't know it from their lemon-sucking body language and name-calling, but John Prescott and Charles Clarke did actually agree on something on The Politics Show this week.

Politics show logoWhen the former deputy prime minister wasn't calling the former home secretary a "bitterite" who was "selling Labour short" - and in return being accused of, electorally, "walking into a wall" - they took time out from standing toe-to-toe to see eye-to-eye over tax.

Specifically, a hike for the rich and a break for the poor.

For John Prescott, this would "draw the line and show the difference between us and the Tories."

For Charles Clarke, it would "shift taxation to a fairness basis."

Charles Clarke and John PrescottOr as one viewer in our audience put it more baldly: "income redistribution and doing something for the basic people who support the party."

All of which essentially meant the same thing - we help the poor, David Cameron helps himself and his rich friends.

And Gordon Brown was also happy this week to paint demon eyes on the Conservatives.

"Yes friends," he warned in a doom-laden Jaws theme tune kind of way, "they would even take away Sure Start from infants and their parents." - A rather less rhythmic echo of Thatcher Thatcher milk-snatcher.

For Labour activists, at least it's a core truth that if you're poor, you're better off with Labour.

But policy-wise is it actually true?

In his anxiety to be "on the side of people on middle and modest incomes", Gordon Brown is accused of neglecting the very poorest and leaving the door open for the Conservatives to nip in and steal New Labour's oldest clothes.

Minimum wage, Sure Start, New Deal - water under the bridge say the Tories.

We're the "party of the poor" now.

Not just in backbencher Iain Duncan Smith's trips to the streets of Easterhouse, nor in attacks on 10p tax plans and Vehicle Excise Duty but, they say, through hard policies: from prisoner rehabilitation and welfare reform to free schools and recognising the value of marriage in the tax system.

This weekend on The Politics Show, we'll test that claim with their former leadership contender David Davis and residents on one of England's poorest estates.

As the party prepares for its conference in Birmingham, could tackling poverty - and not cutting tax - prove its electoral trump card?

And, if it works, an enduring one too?

John Prescott would certainly have something to say about that.

Waiting in the wings

Gavin Allen | 15:50 UK time, Thursday, 18 September 2008

Forget the cliche: a week must feel a terribly short time in politics for all those rebels racing for the exit in time to be today's shock resigner and tomorrow's news cover.

Gordon BrownSuch urgency and so many people queuing up to go.

Quibbles over "resigned vs fired" aside, it's an unhappy departure list for Brown backers.

And more in the wings waiting and wilting.

There's admittedly no shortage of weeks to choose from, but is this, in time-honoured journalistic fashion, Gordon Brown's "worst week since becoming prime minister"? Well possibly.

But as far as historic party resignations are concerned he's got some way to go yet (not that I imagine he's too keen to try).

Ten left government and called for Tony Blair to go just two years ago.

Eight Conservatives resigned over Suez in 1957.

Twenty four abandoned Labour altogether in 1968 over planned social services cuts.

Cast your own vote, but in terms of significance it's probably hard to beat the 1981 Limehouse Declaration when Labour - albeit in opposition - split altogether and the current Lib Dems (after a rename or five) were born.

But every cloud...

Because even before the swirl of latest resignations, The Politics Show had decided to bypass government spokesmen this weekend.

No chance therefore of being caught inviting a minister on for an interview only to find they're an ex-minister by the time you get to conduct it.

Instead, we'll be in Manchester for a live debate with a panel of already long confirmed "exs".

Ex-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, ex-Home Secretary Charles Clarke and ex... well, ex-Gordon Brown-cheerleading-columnist, Polly Toynbee.

And ex men (and women) certainly do talk.

No kremlinology required over interpreting their words, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it to us last week.

I wonder what they - and our invited audience of Politics Show viewers and conference delegates - will make of all these resignations.

I'm confident they'll all have a few words of advice for Mr Brown...

Political relaunch

Gavin Allen | 16:49 UK time, Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The Politics Show is having a relaunch this Sunday. What could possibly go wrong?

Ok, so relaunches have had a rather negative press in recent days, but the prime minister's experiences offer us a few timely tips.

First, the perils of over-selling and under-delivering. So this weekend will see a few changes to the programme titles and set backdrop, but no big deal. Just a gentle reminder - in the form of photos of viewers' homes sent in by our audience and a new logo - that we're about politics from Downing Street to your street. But really, calm down. Nothing to get excited about.

Politics Show set

Secondly, the dangers of giving out mixed messages. To be clear, whatever my deputy may say over tea from home, this relaunch is not prompted by the programme being in its worst state for 60 years. More than 1.1m viewers every week can't be wrong.

Third, don't be swayed by radical demands to change course, to appeal directly to the so-called "core vote". The presenter Jon Sopel will not suddenly be lurching into policy wonkery and Westminster-speak - we remain a politics show for the many not the few.

And finally, no-one's fooled by headline-grabbing short-term gimmicks. So no new series giveaways: instead our reporter Max Cotton will continue to tackle viewers' real grass-roots political concerns - whether a pensioner with her family's citizenship or, as in this week, a Brixton youth worker at loggerheads with his local council.

So a new Politics Show. Bolder. Brighter. Still no verbs. Still no tie.

I wonder what one of our guests, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, will make of the relaunch...

Honest politician

Gavin Allen | 09:45 UK time, Friday, 6 June 2008

Lying is rather frowned upon in the House of Commons. Indeed it's assumed that since no MP, honourable as he or she is, would stoop to such levels, it's deemed unparliamentary language to even accuse someone of being a liar.

Politics Show logoBlackguard, git, guttersnipe and other vicious slurs are also on the banned list, but they were less on David Cameron's mind on Wednesday when he ridiculed the prime minister. "If a company director got up and read out a statement like that, the authorities would be after him," said the leader of the opposition - that's "Gordon Brown's a liar" to you and me.

And you and me probably wouldn't be that shocked if MPs did lie - after all the popular approach to politicians is perhaps best summed up by the "Why is this lying bastard lying to me" school of thought beloved by some journalists. It's unfair of course, but the age of spin and selective use of stats has left many voters rather jaded.

So what a delight when a politician is brazenly, shockingly, in-your-face honest and decides to tell it like it is. The former Education Secretary Estelle Morris who resigned when she realised she just wasn't good enough, the late Alan Clark who gabbled through a ministerial speech on equal pay and "found himself sneering at the more unintelligible passages", startled by the "sheer odiousness of the text". And now, as highlighted by the Politics Show this week, Mike Russell.

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Mr Russell is the environment minister in the SNP administration at the Scottish Parliament. Called a few days ago to make the closing speech in a debate on "Moving Scotland Forward", custom and courtesy might have expected him to praise the previous speakers or applaud the quality of the contributions. Thankfully for us, not a bit of it. He told a wide-eyed Parliament that the debate had been pointless, uninteresting and useless. It was political theatre. And, gloriously, he declined to take any interventions from other MSPs on the basis it would waste everyone's time still further, adding: "My intention is to get through this and then I want to go home".

Does this make it into the top ten most honest political moments? It would be an interesting list - if a tad short, you might fear. "It is appropriate for ministers to tell the truth and that's what I intend to do," said the candid Mr Russell. The only worrying thing for us voters is that a politician feels he has to spell that out.

Power to the people

Gavin Allen | 10:20 UK time, Wednesday, 21 May 2008

"Paxman on steroids". Not (yet) a newspaper headline - thankfully, so calm down Jeremy - but instead a somewhat curious ambition. It's what Politics Show's panel member Bob declared he wanted to be when grilling MPs over their expenses and allowances. We'd invited a trio of viewers to investigate the system, question politicians and experts and then draw up their own conclusions as to what could be deemed fair in the eyes of the public (and not just in eyes of the MPs who currently decide).

Politics Show logoAcross two programmes and two weeks, Bob, Margaret and Jude got stuck in and ended it by sitting face to face on air with the deputy Labour leader - and member of the Commons' own expenses inquiry team - Harriet Harman.

And the panel's conclusions, printed out on a handy pledge card for Harriet, were far from the noses-in-trough, sack the lot of 'em type she might have feared. A £36,000 pay rise for starters. "What will Kelvin McKenzie's tabloid front page look like?" replied one MP, astonished at the prospect. "He will whip our backsides over this" (which we took to be a concern rather than an aspiration). But to balance the salary hike there'd be no second home allowance. Receipts for EVERY expense. No family members could work for an MP. And performance-related pay.

Harriet Harman with panelThe panellists argued intensely amongst themselves over the finer points of pay or second homes allowance, and threw direct and difficult questions to their interviewees. And to their credit, MPs from all three main parties took part. Not quite pumped-up Paxman in the end - Bob conceded it was harder than he thought, to be so tough in the flesh when an MP can be so charming - but pulling no punches, rather than Punch and Judy, nevertheless. Isn't that how Parliament's meant to work? And did it make a difference? Well it did to the Politics Show trio, who felt better informed as a result, if eager to probe still more. And enlightening, if awkward, for the politicians too. Whether Harriet Harman truly "listened" will only be known when her own report comes out this summer.

And the Politics Show's panel, with a new line-up, will be used again. Of course it's only a snapshot, and one limited by the time it takes to make TV, linking shots and all ("I like the research but not the TV thing at all," said a frustrated Margaret), but it brings our politicians in touch with at least some of us. What better way to make politics accessible than by giving everyone access to the policy-makers. So if you want to join up, analysing a policy of your choice and debating with the politicians, e-mail us at: politicsshow@bbc.co.uk. No steroids required.

Fat fight

Gavin Allen | 17:15 UK time, Tuesday, 8 April 2008

I'm fat. Officially.

After three months of pounding the streets and just hours before I set off on the London Marathon, this is slightly disheartening news.

Politics Show logoBut the BBC's fat calculator doesn't lie - and after a rigorous diet of lager, red wine, pot noodles and pork pies (there must be some carb-loading in there somewhere, surely?), I'm officially 25.58 on the Body Mass Index.

That tips me, or heaves me sweatily, into the "overweight" category. Fat, to you and me. And unless I've got very heavy glands, it isn't glandular.

But don't mock just yet - check out your own BMI here first.

The question is what, if anything, to do. And should I be doing it alone? After all, the government's very keen to help. "Tackling obesity" is the war du jour.

There are ministers, taskforces, committees and tsars all sipping tap water and foregoing the biscuit plate as they thrash out solutions to Fat Britain.

But are my love handles - and there's handle room there for a whole lotta lovin' - really a matter for Gordon Brown? Do we really need to be told about fruit and exercise, not curries and pints?

I know it costs the NHS billions every year. I know 90% of my fellow men - assuming I'm still around to be amongst them - will be obese by 2050.

Overweight boyBurgers for kids are a form of child abuse. Every snack bar should have traffic light alert warnings. This is a fat fight to the death. And on, and endlessly on.

But does it all work? And does it even matter?

On the Politics Show this Sunday we'll examine whether the government's right to spend millions of pounds trying to educate the public into eating and living healthily - or whether diet is one choice people should be allowed to make for themselves, regardless of the consequences.

Ultimately, is obesity just not a matter for government? The Health Secretary Alan Johnson will join us to chew the fat with our resident couch-potato Jon Sopel, so let us know what you'd like Jon to ask him.

And don't forget we're on air a bit later this week - 2pm - to give the likes of me plenty of time to trudge round the marathon course.

Now, where's that packet of chocolate hob-nobs?

Side-stepping the question

Gavin Allen | 10:15 UK time, Wednesday, 30 January 2008

It's the broadcast equivalent of being beaten over the head with a very heavy economics manual. Repeatedly. After a while it becomes a tad wearing. You duck and weave, to try to avoid the crashing blow, but back comes the manual with an inevitable thud. And there's Gordon Brown wielding it relentlessly. He'd like you to know that inflation and interest rates are at a low level in this country. And the economy's stable. And as luck would have it we're in a very good position to withstand any global economic downturn. Hold on, what was the precise question again? He doesn't care - thud, here's his answer.

Gordon Brown and Jon SopelThe interview that Jon Sopel conducted with the prime minister for the Politics Show this weekend addressed the economy, street crime, welfare reform and Europe among other topics.

The questions were thoughtful and serious and so were the answers. But any resemblance between the two was entirely coincidental.

Instead the interview became a traditional Two Ronnies sketch in a modern setting: prime minister answers his own question, again and again, with no comedic results whatsoever. But maddening though it is for Jon and the production team - hours of finely-honed questions battered into submission by the weighty manual - can you actually blame Gordon Brown for playing the straight man? In short, no.

Our job is to analyse and test and hold to account. But it's not his, so why should he play our game? Why play mouse to our cat when he can sidestep the traps and instead tell the viewers directly what he feels they need to hear?

He made absolutely sure he got his message across. The economy's in safe hands. And so are our streets. And British sovereignty. While the media generally hails gloom and recession round every corner - failure, disaster: great story! - politicians deal in triumphs at every turn. No wonder, as Mr Brown told us, being prime minister "is the best job in the world".

Luckily for us, non-answers and side-stepping can still make for an interesting interview and Jon did a fine job trying to nail the proverbial jelly to the wall (no offence, prime minister).

Let's be clear: we are absolutely committed to the in-depth extensive interview - and Gordon Brown's welcome to come on again. But if the long-form exchange is going to offer more than a short-form interview on an extended loop, then we might need to re-think how we get answers to the actual questions we (repeatedly) put. That's our job and it matters, as our viewers made clear from their responses. The question is how to achieve it. A clunking fist is, I fear, not an option.

Paranoia of politics

Gavin Allen | 09:28 UK time, Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Such is the paranoia of politics. On Thursday we thought we'd been handed that rare Westminster gift: a gaffe on a platter (though in this case for platter read e-mail). Now I'm beginning to wonder.

politics_show_logo.jpgAhead of a Clegg-Huhne Lib Dem leadership debate at the weekend, a Huhne office researcher had helpfully sent us a briefing note on the policy differences between the two contenders. It was entitled "Calamity Clegg".

So much for positive politics and one party united for liberalism. Instead here was one camp united in bitterness against the other, openly lambasting them as a disaster, a flip-flop candidate who couldn't make his mind up one week to the next. Poor naive researcher, sure. And we felt for her. Briefly. But thank you God - this was too good an opportunity to miss.

Could we reasonably reveal the contents of the e-mail? You bet - it hadn't been sent as an off-the-record document and hadn't even been directly solicited. And it threw light on what one candidate's team really thought.

Maybe, mused our presenter Jon Sopel, we'd get Chris Huhne to apologise publicly on air for such a personal attack?

Chris Huhne and Nick CleggNot a bit of it. Instead Nick Clegg looked alternately surprised, aghast, irritated and finally insulted as Chris Huhne meticulously disassociated himself from the contents of the e-mail and then proceeded to lift attack phrases from it. (You can watch the debate here.)

And the daggers were still there in the green room afterwards - the potential stab in the back made all the easier by an apparent determination not to look at, let alone talk to, each other.

So, a thoroughly bad day for the Lib Dems? Perhaps. But winning is everything and I've been wondering if it was all a cunning plan and we were the stooges. Flick through the newspaper coverage yesterday - what's the phrase that sticks in the mind from every broadsheet and half the tabloids? Huhne apologetic? Huhne red-faced? Huhne humbled? Nope. Calamity Clegg. You might think that's as good as a free press release from the Huhne camp to the one in 1000 of you who'll be eligible to vote in the contest from this week.

I would ask the Lib Dem researcher - but either way I'm guessing she couldn't possibly comment.

Today's 50th birthday

Gavin Allen | 12:20 UK time, Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Is fifty the new forty? Or even the new thirty? Anyway we're facing it. Collectively. The Today programme will have been broadcasting for half a century this October - on the 28th to be precise.

The Today programme logoBut rather than bask in the glow of a golden anniversary we thought we'd share our celebrations with those who share our birthday. We're inviting those who are also turning fifty on 28 October to get in touch. And, should the birthday mood take them, to blog their memories and contribute to an online scrapbook of the Today Generation.

Gradually over the next few months we hope to build up a picture of what today's fifty-year-olds have seen, and how the country has changed as they've grown.

Some have already started blogging - it's all very much in the spirit of Web 2.0, so they write and post pictures and video as much as they want, and then we showcase the best bits on our website and eventually, in October, on air.

At the moment the main focus is on childhood during the 60s and the first news events they remember - the earliest seems to be the very cold winter of 1962-63 - just like the floods, the weather made the news and lodged in the memory of five-year-olds.

More members of the Today generation - born on 28 October 1957 - are very welcome to join in. There are contact details here on our website if you'd like to get in touch.

But just as anyone does when they reach a significant birthday, we've been looking back, contemplating the highs and lows and how we've evolved and "grown". When we found out some of our colleagues in telly wanted to make a programme about us, we felt we were being treated like royalty - only better, we hope, in the light of recent events.

But our blushes of humility were replaced with those of shame when we realised we couldn't look back on our achievements as comprehensively as we'd have liked because we didn't have the tapes. It's an old BBC problem, due sometimes to over-diligent spring cleaning, sometimes to careless filing. Whatever happened, we haven't got a recording of that first programme from 28 October 1957. It feels a bit like finding your mum has thrown away your first lock of hair, or your dad didn't bother to stick the first photo of you in the family album, but we're bearing up and no fingers are being pointed.

Instead we're asking around to see if anyone else has a recording of that very first programme. There's always a chance a radio enthusiast was taping new output back in 1957, and if anyone did we'd love to hear from them. We know Petula Clark was interviewed and one of the correspondents, Reg Turnill, who made a report for that first ever edition has contacted us to say he has a copy of his script. So we're piecing it together slowly, like bit of pot in an archaeological dig. If you have any fragments of the first ever Today programme, do get in touch.

Feelin' groovy

Gavin Allen | 22:05 UK time, Wednesday, 11 October 2006

My arse. Just don't go there. A reasonable if unnecessary request under normal circumstances you might think. But this morning we did go there, throwing caution - and perhaps wisdom - to the wind for a brief discussion on slang: from my arse and innit to sucks and yo. Incautious because Today listeners love a bare-knuckle word fight. And sure enough the e-mails soon came raining in: helpfully, if forcefully, defining what is and is not slang and whether it is or is not a good thing.

todaylogo.jpgIt certainly seemed a good thing to the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. He told us yesterday - albeit indirectly - to "get a life". On the same programme Salman Rushdie had backed Jack Straw with an emphatic "veils suck". In the wake of "Yo Blair!" what is it, we mused, with these influential people of power, resorting to such slang and rejecting the Queen's English?

So we put this to Sir Clement Freud, former MP, gameshow guest, professional eater and - we handily explained - an expert on these matters. But then, who isn't? We all speak, after all, and bandy slang terms around constantly. What's to be expert about? Or, as listener David Haines pointed out, "What is slang anyway if not metaphor and simile in action? Words like 'phlegmatic', 'spectacular', 'glamorous', 'nice' were all effectively slang at one time. The uses and meanings of words change over time. Get over it!"

Would that we could. But those e-mails keep pummelling in. Most lambast us as hypocrites for querying slang, and then indulging in it ourselves elsewhere in the programme - dumbing down, ditching a concept, Brits, unmarried mums.

And slowly it dawned on me. As ever, I realised, the nation should be thankful for John Humphrys. Whereas his role once was to be the unwitting spark for World War - no Today radio signal and the nukes are launched, went the myth - now his far more daunting but still unwitting lot in life is to sound the death knell of a slang term. Because if it crawls unremarked into John's script, then it can't truly be slang any more - or at least not baffling slang, and what's the point of slang unless it baffles John, Clement, Salman & co?

And so, at 8.14am today, "bangs for your buck" was - lest there be any lingering doubt - officially no longer a slang term. John used it without sarcasm in a question. Likewise, little over half an hour later he wondered "what's your problem with that?" to a guest. Chalk it up - another slang term turned and gone over to the other side. And don't let John's doubt confuse you. "Some people say 'wicked' meaning yes," he marvelled, before wondering: "or maybe that's out of date now."

Wonder no more John. Clearly 'wicked' must be toast, and well-burnt, if you even THINK it's acceptable slang. And so, as ever, I urge roving listeners to tune to the Today programme and to listen and learn from our arbiter of the acceptable. As far as slang's concerned, you heard it here last.

Incidentally, but inevitably, I was tempted to write this entire piece in slang. How witty and cleverly self-parodying that would have been, I figured. But then a reckless listener did just that, addressing "the Today Massive" and liberally employing terms such as "Big up", "groovy", "daddy'o" and "respec". With such a lead to guide me, I instantly decided not to go there. Again.

News tampering

Gavin Allen | 17:36 UK time, Monday, 21 August 2006

Cricket is only a game! The e-mailer, complaining to us at the Today progamme that the ball tampering row was our lead item, wanted us to be crystal clear about this - as if the exclamation mark wasn't emphasis enough - and demanded we give him, and our other listeners, a break! (Two exclamation marks in one sentence is a surefire shorthand for You're Wrong!).

The Today programme logoAnd this listener wasn't alone. Or, indeed, wrong himself. It IS only a game. But that doesn't mean it can't, just occasionally, qualify as general news too. Some blokes booting a ball into a German net four times 40 years ago was also only a game, but I'm assured it grabbed a few headlines at the time, and rightly so. Running orders don't always have to be solely about events that alter society for decades to come, or retain significance beyond the notoriously stunted news cycle (although Moore & Co did pretty well by that standard too, as it happens).

Sometimes, a news story is a news story - even a headline news story - because it fires passions or generates debate or is just inexplicably interesting. And that's it. The father who threw himself and his children off a balcony in Crete, killing his son and injuring his daughter, is only a bloke. But he's news. As is that Gunter Grass SS-soldier-turned-author chap. It makes us curious, makes us want to find out more, makes us ask questions and try to crawl towards some tentative answers in our humble mission to explain. Oh - and entertain.
In the case of Tampergate - yes, I know it won't catch on, but someone's going to grasp wearily for the cliche, so it may as well be me - there was no shortage of entertaining questions. How do you tamper with a ball? What does a ball do once tampered with? Why doesn't rubbing it against your groin qualify as tampering? In fact why doesn't rubbing it against your groin qualify as illegal?

Fourth Test at the OvalBut, protests another listener, it is not the most important thing that's happened in the last 24 hours. Perhaps not. But then, what was? Another military death in Afghanistan? New selection procedures that could propel more Conservative Party women and ethnic minority candidates into Parliament? Saddam Hussein's genocide trial? Well, yes to all that, which is why they were all lead items today - with Saddam occupying the main 0810 slot.

But cricket was important too. Not life-threatening, not career-enhancing, not nation-building, sure - but just good old-fashioned interesting to a swathe of listeners who wanted to know how, why and whether this was cricket's blackest day ever, whether the Pakistan team had cheated and what would happen as a result. Events were moving in our time - we interviewed a representative from cricket's world governing body, and an umpire from the ECB clarifying the rules - and even Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf was moved to ring his cricket team captain to pick up a few pointers on what was going on.

And isn't that what news should be all about - learning about something new? Something that matters - to him and her if not to you. Finding out something you didn't know before? This was the first Test match in history to be abandoned due to cheating, or at least - according to the umpires - to a reaction to being caught cheating. Why shouldn't we help our audience understand how it had all come about and what its consequences would be? Because, chorus the complainants, it's only a game. "You have ghettos for overpaid men's 'sport' at around 25 past the hour," bellowed one. "Please confine all such items to these slots."

In other words, I don't care, I don't want it and I don't care if other listeners want it. But that's the odd thing about sport - our listeners tend not to take it or leave it so much as love it or hate it. There's very little indifference. To the chuck-it-in-a-ghetto-ers, sports fans tend to be tiresome stattos forever fretting about a pig's bladder or slab of willow or ping pong thing, while many sports fans label the ghetto-ers news snobs who are out of touch with the effort and vigour and heroism that sport provides.

Snob or statto: which are you? And which is right? Luckily, it doesn't matter - both are characterised by opinionated self-confidence. As is news. It's not an art. It's certainly not a science. It's just a judgement about what matters and what interests and what bears further analysis. News, in the end, is really only a game. And, like cricket, what a beautiful maddening game it can be.

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