BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Empty chairs

Roger Hermiston | 15:51 UK time, Thursday, 12 April 2007

We on "Today" are not so arrogant that we expect Government ministers to step to the wicket and defend every contentious policy decision they’re involved in. They’re busy people, conferring with civil servants, attending cabinet meetings, and meeting constituents and voters: even, no doubt, making policies. And - to be absolutely frank - if they said yes to every one of our requests for an interview, we’d be a little dismayed: politics, both the issues and the personalities, is a key part of our programme, but you can get too much of a good thing.

The Today programme logoBut... there are occasions when there is an overwhelming need to hear an in-depth, forensically-constructed interview with the relevant minister at the heart of the main story of the day. And we on "Today" feel - without being arrogant, of course - that we’re as well-equipped as anyone to carry it out.

Never mind the briefings by No 10, or the relevant department, or even a written statement by the minister concerned, or even (on Day 12 of the "crisis") a sit-down pooled interview done by a correspondent for all outlets. None of this is satisfactory for us. Our listeners demand it, we’ve posed all the questions we think need answering in innumerable morning meetings, and we’re champing at the bit to get the answers.

The "empty chair" is a last resort. It’s not a weapon - if that’s what it is - that we use lightly. But when we believe there’s a clear case for a minister to come out and address a matter of policy for which he has been - contentiously - responsible, then we’ll do it. It’s a statement of frustration, but less of a wish to embarrass, and more of a last-ditch attempt to lure the minister on to the programme.

When I started out on Today 15 years ago, my memory is that ministers would reluctantly troop into studio 4A in Broadcasting House to face the music far more often than their successors do in 2007. An exception was Europe: John Major’s cabinet confined themselves to fighting amongst themselves in private, rather than commit political suicide on the airwaves.

But way back then – apart from Newsnight – we were the only credible news and current affairs programme. In today’s 24/7 media climate, it is easier to slip a doorstep interview, or a statement, into the political ether, and it’ll swiftly make headlines on multiple TV, radio and online outlets, and the minister will appear TO HAVE ANSWERED the questions.

But he hasn’t. Not really, not properly. So the chair in S1 still awaits him...


  • 1.
  • At 04:53 PM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • JG wrote:

What a self-important bunch the Today team are. Do you really think that our elected politicians should march to the tune you have decided will best boost your ratings on a particular day.

I would have thought that one of the reasons they no longer automatically jump when called is the falling standards at the Today program. The same old faces are wheeled out time after time and given an easy ride when their leftist views are in agreement with the editorial line (bias?) of Today. Politicians with different views (right of centre) know they will get a hard time, so is any wonder why they stopped turning up?

  • 2.
  • At 09:02 PM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Anthony wrote:

Oh, come on, you are quite arrogant.

  • 3.
  • At 10:43 PM on 12 Apr 2007,
  • Rob Wise wrote:

I'll lay money on hearing an HSBC spokesman - currently on day one of their Dorset empty chair crisis - on the Today programme before we hear Des Browne gracing the same airwaves.

  • 4.
  • At 09:07 AM on 13 Apr 2007,
  • Alison Finn wrote:

Why are you suggesting all Ministers are male?

  • 5.
  • At 10:03 AM on 13 Apr 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

The policy of legislation by fiat proves that so called Parliamentary democracies like Britain's are not truely democratic at all. With no separation of powers between legislative and executive branches, they hand down the laws and that's it. In the US with it's Federal Republic system, there would be committee hearings with expert testimony, open debate in congress, and politicians on both sides of the issue eager to discuss and debate their point of view in the media to get their message across to the public. Legislators would also hear from their constituents as well as the media pundits about any objections there were both before and after the passage of legislation. Agencies run by the executive branch would be put under equal scrutiny. Even were an interview or two granted to BBC on a particular subject of special interest, this hardly compares or is satisfactory for the public to gain an understanding and acceptance of laws and codes and the thinking behind them. This points out the imperious nature of Parliamentary government, a vestige of Europe's monarchial past. When the President or any group in the US attempts a similar usurpation of power on any issue of significance, the opposition party, the media, and the public are up in arms. The press has been called the "fourth estate" in the US and their importance in riding herd on the three official branches has always been understood and regarded with the utmost value, even when it is abused. The courts are very reluctant to infringe on its freedom and then only rarely in the most extreme cases. The same cannot be said for the BBC, the eight hundred pound elephant in the media room in Britain. It's an elephant which is under the thumb of the government itself and therefore always suspect of being in collusion with it. Britain is democracy with some serious flaws.

  • 6.
  • At 03:11 PM on 13 Apr 2007,
  • James wrote:

I thought Paul Merton had killed off the whole empty chair thing with his tub of lard on Have I got News For You some years back?

If you really believe these questions should be answered, (and of course, they SHOULD) write to your MP, as an individual.

If you really believe these questions should be answered on YOUR radio programme, rather than in the House, or anywhere else, then either do what you have to do to get an answer or stop whining about it like a spoilt kid.

Roger, if you camp outside Downing Street for a couple of nights/weeks on your empty chair and still don't get a comment you'll anyway have my sympathy, respect and support.

I'm not suggesting you use guns, blindfolds and tape-measures, like your Iranian TV peers. But THEY got a story out of people who weren't supposed to say ANYTHING other than name, rank and serial number.

Good luck with it!

  • 7.
  • At 09:40 PM on 13 Apr 2007,
  • Patrick J. Mackie wrote:

It took Mark Norman's piece on colossal squids, slimy monsters from the depths of Antarctic, to get me to salute the BBC's journalists.

I've spent my life as a magazine writer/editor, so my judgement of others' output is severely critical. I'm not easy to please.

CNN drove me batty with their retired generals' analysis of Bush's Iraq war. As though they're going to criticise their buddies and risk their pensions! Talk about one-sided.

Most other offerings on the internet, or in print, seem to be little better than word-for-word repeats of p.r. "information" releases. And, of course, the wall of lies from the White House, and politicians of all stripes, is just shameful.

Thank God, we still have some sense of integrity from the BBC.

  • 8.
  • At 10:00 PM on 13 Apr 2007,
  • MD wrote:

I am really not terribly interested in whether a Minister deigns to go and be interrogated or goaded by Humphreys - a man who positively rings with self-regard.

It makes no difference whatsoever to democracy, which is sadly lacking in this country where we are forced to pay for a BBC which treats the majority with contempt, according to its whim.

There is nothing we can do about this in the short term as we do not have governments or institutions which carry out the wishes of the people - and no swift means of changing things when they don't. So far from being some important champion or solution, the BBC is very much part of the problem. It has an insufferable arrogance towards the people and an inflated view of its own importance.

  • 9.
  • At 08:40 AM on 14 Apr 2007,
  • Nick Mallory wrote:

Why does the Today programme think it runs the country? It's the most arrogant, and increasingly unlistenable, programme on the air. Why should any politician appear on it to be endlessly badgered for not being left wing enough? The naked bias of the show is the issue you should be addressing here. Politicians have better things to do than appear on it, and licence payers, forced to fork out for this Guardianista guff on pain of imprisonment, have better things to do than listen to it.

  • 10.
  • At 11:14 AM on 14 Apr 2007,
  • Mark E wrote:

I see an "empty chair" as an admittance that the government official realy doesn't care what the public thinks.

It takes a big man (or woman) to face the music. However, this kind of honour has never been part of the New Labour policy.

The impression our leaders give is that they see themselves as untouchable. That they should not be expected to answer for their mistakes.

  • 11.
  • At 11:55 AM on 14 Apr 2007,
  • Ron Norton wrote:

The reason they don't accept your kind invitation is the following :-

You have no real interest in getting the truth, your interest is getting them to deviate from their script.

Mr Blair has said it many times, they would love to answer questions freely, but can't, because you and all your journalist friends would crucify them.

Way back then in 1992 for the London audience, I recall the 'AM' on LBC had more listeners than 'Today'

On a national scale (Radio 4)there was also the World at one and of course PM. I'd say PM has probably the best round up with great in depth analysis of the daily events.

  • 13.
  • At 08:35 PM on 14 Apr 2007,
  • greg wrote:

I think that empty chairing is a brilliant idea. There really is no excuse for no-one turning up, if the main polotician cant make it to the interview there should be dozens of other people that would know what was happening that could be interviewed.

The amount of time the foreign office has declined interviews is disgraceful, you should empty chair them every time so we can finally find out whats going on for real; they'll look so stupid they'll have to send someone eventually.

  • 14.
  • At 05:31 PM on 15 Apr 2007,
  • PD Burnett wrote:

With the treatment meted out to politicians (except LibDems) on the Today programme, why would any decent person step forward to become a politician? Just listen to Jim Naughtie on Iraq. You can sense the rise in his anger at anything other than total acceptance that the war was a mistake. The Today programme may use bigger words, but in terms of bias, it is on a par with the RedTops. Not having a minister present, should require the presenter to put both sides of the case, rather than relish the prospect of ramming more specious libdem drivel down our throats.

  • 15.
  • At 01:59 PM on 17 Apr 2007,
  • James wrote:

Let's face it. In two weeks time no-one will remember whether Des Browne, Margaret Beckett, David Cameron, or Willo-The-Wisp was "empty-chaired" by Today.

Read out one of the politician's statements and discuss it without them. An empty chair is an admission of failure. Get on with the debate - with analysts, politicans, whoever. An empty chair is a very crude and an easily forgettable part of the debate.

  • 16.
  • At 12:16 PM on 18 Apr 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

Mark #5

How can you say that with a straight face? Are you seriosuly suggesting that the American people are more free becuase they can listen and watch Fox news? Or CNN? Or in fact any of your bias unregulated propgandaist news outlets?

Democrasy may always need improving here but it is far more democratic than the U.S system. Here people actually know whats really going on.

Incidently, as you are on your high hoarse, we invented democrasy mate in fact the entire American legal and political system are based on the UK one due to the fact we used to rule you.

So stop your racist anti English/EU rantings.

  • 17.
  • At 04:21 PM on 18 Apr 2007,
  • Peter Galbavy wrote:

Me, I liked the tub-of-lard approach on "Have I Got News For You" when that other tub of money wasting lard failed to show...

Perhaps putting something representative in the empty chair (how does that work on Radio ?).

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.