BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Brown and Marr

Barney Jones | 10:35 UK time, Thursday, 11 October 2007

There's been some talk - and criticism - this week of our role in the PM's announcement that there would be no election this year. And I'll admit that the way the news emerged was a bit odd. And no, if I had been orchestrating events it wouldn’t have been done it that way.

The Andrew Marr ShowBut that’s simply a matter of sequence and timing. If the interview had been live (as requested by us) we wouldn’t have had the slightly bizarre spectacle of the media pack - including the Beeb’s own political editor – waiting outside Downing Street while the PM unburdened himself inside, and then let Marr relay what had been recorded a few minutes earlier.

First charge: The BBC allowed itself to be used in a dodgy-Brown-spin operation. It was improper for a single journalist to agree to an interview, knowing that some really important news was likely to come out of it. Nonsense! Print and broadcast journalists do interviews week in week out hoping to get a scoop. It rarely happens. On Saturday it did.

Was the Marr team explicitly told in advance that the PM was ducking out of an election, but this news should be held till Sunday morning? Absolutely not. Was there a clandestine agreement that key information that came out of the interview should be held till later? No – a couple of key clips were aired on BBC news within minutes of the interview being concluded, and Marr gave a summary of Brown's most important answers live on News 24.

Second charge: That Marr was selected because he was 'a patsy' and duly gave the PM a pathetically-soft ride. Well I’m not going to cough to that one am I? But then look at the facts. And more importantly the transcript (or watch the interview).

Presumably the PM’s people wanted a vehicle where there would be time for him try and explain himself - and where this would be done to a mass audience. The Andrew Marr Show specialises in long interviews with top politicians. It’s what we do, week in week out. And around 1.5m people are viewing at any point in the hour. On an average Sunday, that’s more than the other four weekend current affairs TV shows put together.

Brown was charged by Marr with bottling out, dithering, changing his mind because of the polls, responding to a very strong Tory party conference, having dreadfully mishandled the whole episode and having gone back to the old ways of spin when he had promised a fresh new open and honest way of doing politics. Brown didn’t run up the white flag, but when the whole lobby pack were let loose on him on Monday morning the very same points were put to him and he didn’t run up the white flag up then either.

Andrew Marr interviewing the prime minister

Third charge: That Marr gives Brown a soft ride and then accords Cameron a hard time. Again, look at the transcripts. Not so. In fact you could argue that by giving one politician ten minutes to respond to a lengthy recorded interview, the advantage is naturally with the politician who has the last word. The Mail On Sunday reported that the PM... "was hesitant and struggled to give coherent replies to Andrew Marr who went out of his way to be blunt". The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts: "Andrew Marr... got stuck in. He biffed the PM about the spin and cynicism of his election teasing and his trip to Iraq. Marr even used that old word 'frit' - Mrs Thatcher’s Lincolnshire expression for cowardice."

Fourth charge: That the Brown team was trying to spin their way to the last. Briefing selected print journalists. Giving the story to one broadcaster they felt comfortable with. Declining to give individual interviews with the political editors of each main TV channel before doing one long interview for a current affairs show. And trying - perhaps ineptly - to manipulate the timing to achieve the best outcome in what was always going to be a sticky situation. In effect behaving as spin doctors have done from Bernard Ingham onwards. Quite possibly – but then that’s not a charge levelled at the Beeb, or the producer of The Andrew Marr Show. And some might respond: it was ever thus.

What's in a name?

Barney Jones | 14:04 UK time, Wednesday, 26 September 2007

A graphic of the Andrew Marr ShowThe Andrew Marr Show started a new run a couple of Sundays ago: Same set, same format, same 9am start time on BBC1, same energetic presenter. And there's a strong line up of guests.

But there is one change from the last run. The programme was always referred to - internally and externally - as The Marr Show or The Andrew Marr Show, though the formal name was "Sunday AM". The title we devised when the programme launched was perhaps a bit subtle.

Andrew MarrAndrew Marr's profile has risen following his successful modern history series, so in the interest of clarity and distinctiveness we'll refer to our Sunday morning programme formally in future in the same way as it's always been described informally. Out with "Sunday AM". In with "The Andrew Marr Show". Big Deal? No. (Sorry Hugo)

The AM logo will remain in the titles as before and I doubt if one in a hundred viewers will notice that we’ve changed anything. Now if we had scrapped the silly little car at the start, or changed the theme music, that would have caused outrage!

Getting answers from the PM

Barney Jones | 11:03 UK time, Monday, 19 February 2007

Persuading Tony Blair to come into TV Centre and do a major BBC1 interview, live, with no restrictions or caveats on the question areas is an achievement. Getting the PM to say something new on one of the key issues of the day is another matter altogether.

Sunday AM logoJon Sopel, battled valiantly last month trying to get the prime minister to say when he was leaving office, who would succeed him and how much his closing months were being overshadowed by the Cash for Honours enquiry. Very pertinent questions received pretty un-illuminating responses. So, how to get some answers that would leave viewers wiser about government policy, the PM's intentions or his legacy?

First, we decided to limit the area of questions to a small number of the topics that would - in an ideal world - be raised. Getting answers on inequality in society after ten years of a Labour government, the Iraq war, climate change and the PM’s legacy - leaving out other great swathes of domestic and foreign policy. Giving Andrew Marr time to question the PM closely on those issues that were raised.

Secondly, we tried to stick with it when the interviewee was gently veering off in another direction, and answering a question that was subtly different to one he'd just been asked.

Thirdly, we aimed to curb Andrew's natural inclination to intervene while the PM was talking. We were hoping to avoid the tetchy exchanges that might still fail to produce that elusive illumination.

blair_garfunkel_getty203.jpgSo, what success this Sunday? That's more for the viewer to assess than the producers (you can watch the interview here). However, the PM did talk animatedly about inequality in society, denying David Cameron's assessment. He did admit that he was "devastated" by the killings in Iraq, and did indicate that he expected the British plans for troop withdrawal to continue even if the Americans were busy pouring in more troops. And he did map out his commitment to climate control indicating that this would be a focus of attention post-Downing Street.

And was it too sugary at the end? Both Art Garfunkel and the PM both had reservations in advance about sitting down and chatting - on camera - with the other. In the event, after an interview that was a bit scratchy at times, it seemed right to end with a minute of warm exchanges. And you could argue that finding out that the PM still plays guitar "most days" adds something to the sum total of human knowledge. Well, just a bit.

Thundering attack

Barney Jones | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 26 July 2006

So, I was pilloried by The Thunderer on Monday - that's Stephen Pollard's column in the Times - for having such enthusiasm for Hezbollah that I must in fact be the leader of this organisation.

Sunday AM logoQuite a damning attack on a long-standing and relatively anonymous staffer steeped in the ethos of objectivity and fair play. An ethos perhaps not applicable to columnists who earn a living from being provocative; making waves.

But what to do? The news of this full-frontal attack reached me rather late in the day. After working in Television Centre most of the weekend, I headed off for the wilderness of the Brecon Beacons on Sunday evening, with my teenage son. Come Monday lunchtime, arriving at a hilltop that picked up a faint mobile phone signal, I learned of the damaging denunciation.

Andrew Marr and I agreed that since the piece was wrong in detail, as well as broad implication, a response was essential. He prepared a brief eloquent letter and I offered a more detailed lumbering explanation. An amalgam was eventually submitted to the Times letters page and appeared on Wednesday morning.

marr1_203bbc.jpgThe programme on Sunday 23rd (which you can currently watch here) was not, as stated by Pollard, "mostly... given over to events in the Middle East". It was centred on a long interview with the deputy prime minister, the first live TV interview since his personal and political life imploded three months ago.

Attacks for being too tough or too soft on Prezza I anticipated. Masterminding Hezbollah was a surprise.

The sole interview with any player with a direct tie-in to the Middle East was with a minister in the Lebanese government. A brief interview with a woman who is not aligned with Hezbollah, whose husband was assassinated in a bombing she believes was associated with Syrian factions, and who was questioned by Marr about the culpability of Hezbollah for the mayhem now engulfing her country.

With Israeli troops massing on the border, the interview seemed entirely appropriate and was followed by a live link with the BBC's man in Jerusalem for an overview of the diplomatic manoeuvres and the Israeli government’s stated response to the British minister – just arrived – and the American minister – arriving shortly.

peres1_203bbc.jpgThe previous weeks’s programme was rather more Middle East orientated. It featured a substantial interview with the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres (watch it here), followed by a briefer interview with the former Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi (watch that here). And earlier in the month, the acting Israeli ambassador to London was interviewed on his own.

Zionist plots on these occasions? Don’t be absurd!

Pollard also lambasted us for the paper review. It started with the Middle East, as many papers did, but covered a host of other topics including domestic politics. The two reviewers were chosen to reflect different facets of UK politics, as they usually are. A former Tory MP and a current Labour MEP. In the minority of the review that was devoted to the Middle East, both indicated that they thought the Israeli response disproportionate. In an ideal world we would have two reviewers with differing views on this contentious subject. However the fact that these two distinguished figures both happen to share a perspective does not, surely, disbar them from comment.

The Beeb doesn’t always get it right and this blog is one forum for those of us charged with producing programmes to put our hands up and say “sorry”. Indeed it’s essential that we all consider carefully what we do, strive to follow the BBC guidelines and admit when we’ve got it wrong. I’m convinced, however, that the Pollard attack was unwarranted.

And I think that a visit to the Sunday AM website, which hosts transcripts of all the interviews - and a record of who appeared each week - will reassure most viewers that our record for fair play remains intact.

AM and PM

Barney Jones | 14:26 UK time, Monday, 15 May 2006

The agonising in the 48 hours before broadcast centred on two things: securing the main political guest and overcoming the endless technical obstacles that seemed destined to scupper plans to broadcast live from an office block overlooking Tower Bridge.

sundayam_140x100.jpgThe technical problems of outside broadcasts often dwarf the editorial issues and so it was this week. Could we twist sufficient arms to get access to the offices of 'Visit London' :floor to ceiling glass with a stunning view of London? Yes, but a process of tortuous negotiation proved just as tough as securing an interview with the PM. And on that front we failed.

As so often, the editorial opportunities looked rich at the start of the week. The PM was interested. So was the Tory leader. Blair's insistence that he wanted to cut thought the "Westminster froth" and talk policy made us more hopeful. And Cameron's success at PMQs and good poll ratings also augured well.

There was a long-standing promise of the first broadcast interview with the deputy prime minister... and aides to the new home secretary and the new foreign secretary were both interested in the prospect of a session with Marr. With so many alluring possibilities it was perhaps inevitable that every one would have evaporated by Friday afternoon. Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer to the rescue.

As it happened, the Human Rights Act and its unintended consequences was a huge story by Sunday, so Falconer looked on the money - addressing an issue that featured in almost every Sunday newspaper editorial. And how were the vital minutes spent before we went on air? Trying to fix a bust Autocue and working out how to get the American ambassador's heavily armed motorcade anywhere near our building when it turned out a vast cycle rally had been routed precisely where the men with curly bits coming out of their ears hoped to park the US limos.

Telling Ken to stuff his congestion charge is one thing, mowing down women and children out for a Sunday bike ride was judged a diplomatic incident too far. Of course a solution was found eventually and the show went on air with a full set of guests, with autocue and with a good story. Who could ask for more?

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