BBC BLOGS - Today: Evan Davis

When disagreements occur

Evan Davis | 11:42 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010

You might have heard the interview with Bill Gates.

It was at the end of a two day trip to Nigeria which had proceeded smoothly; we were there at the invitation of the Gates team, the only press to be attached to the entourage, and we had been given generous access to Mr Gates himself and entry to many of his engagements. It was a trip entirely devoted to his efforts to help eradicate polio from the country.

The interview went to plan until the end, when time was running short and I asked Mr Gates a couple of questions about his view of China and its censorship of the internet. He was clearly annoyed by the questions. They were asked in a cheeky and challenging tone, and they were right off the subject of the day.

His aide intervened (you could just hear that) and although the interview did carry on, the mood in the room was far less congenial than it had been.

It's worth asking what happened, both to help understand this particular case and how these kinds of things work in general.

This is one of those cases where there had been some advance discussion about the interview and its scope. That is often the case, but by no means always.

In this case, I think both sides would acknowledge that it had been agreed there would be a substantial interview with Mr Gates, and that it would include questions -but not a majority of questions - that went well beyond polio or philanthropy.

I think both sides would also agree that we had suggested various subjects that might come up (such as Microsoft and its relationship to Apple) but at no point had any warning been given about questions on China.

There is then room for a disagreement about whether it was reasonable to ask impertinent questions on that unannounced topic.

I think I can summarise the view of the Gates team fairly: they saw the questions as at best discourteous and at worst as a trap, an attempt to spring a surprise on someone who was unprepared. Either way, it is not right for broadcasters to behave that way.

To us, the China issue seemed like an interesting and reasonable one to raise, and within the agreed rules that the interview would range beyond Gates Foundation concerns. At no point had we said we would not ask about China.

Now, it is not normal for us to spell out in advance specific difficult questions that we wish to ask. For me, the main principle for broadcasters has to be that if people stand to benefit from an interview, they should be prepared to face some downside as well. That's why it would be wrong for interviewees to choose their questions and why it would be wrong for interviewees to choose what is broadcast (or to veto broadcast by allowing staff to break an uncomfortable interview up.)

If we agree not to surprise people with occasional difficult questions, the public will get an entirely skewed view of things, with a self-selecting sample of easy interviews.

Some would say we should never agree to terms and conditions: that we should not even have conceded that most of the interview would focus on Gates Foundation and related development issues.

I disagree. I think that condition was not one that would have constrained us much on a trip to Nigeria. What we should never concede are unreasonable terms. And I think we should do our best to be transparent about conditions that have been imposed where they do constrain us.

Indeed, in my view, it would have been quite reasonable for the Gates team to specify "no questions other than those relevant to Nigeria". But if they had done so it is highly unlikely that we would have taken up the invitation to go. One of our motives in going was to get up-close and personal with one of the richest men in the world.

The issue in this case is really whether the interview was within the agreed rules or norms. I think it was. Others can take a different view.

It might in fact be a simple matter of culture clash. For Gates, it seemed beyond the pale. For UK broadcasters (who are perhaps more feisty than their US counterparts), it just seemed like an ordinary day's work.

Davos for beginners

Evan Davis | 07:33 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Davos village

This is my fourth trip to the World Economic Forum and the trek here is becoming all too familiar - a plane to Zurich, followed by a three hour train journey into the Swiss mountains (on three different trains, each smaller than the one before).

The Davos elite get cars direct from the airport, but I'm told the road has been blocked by an accident and the journey is taking about as long as ours.

Whatever mode of transport one takes though, the journey is a visually stunning one but is sufficiently circuitous to make one wonder if it will ever arrive anywhere - which nicely symbolises the World Economic Forum itself.

Because what will occur over the next five days is not a very focused event at all. It is a festival of debates, dinners and drinks parties - private meetings and whimsical talks, all spread across a medium-sized secure ski resort. Like the journey up here, it is well worth viewing if you get the chance.

But beginners to the World Economics Forum have to understand there is no single Davos experience, and there is no single Davos community either. There are numerous tribes who interact only at a minimal level.

Preparations for the World Economic ForumThere are the bankers and economists (in greater abundance than last year); the foreign policy wonks; the NGOs and social entrepreneurs (the WEF is big on doing good); there are the big corporations (whose subs pay for the event) and there are always a few presidents and prime ministers. (I won't refer to them as politicians; when they arrive in Davos, they are all treated as global statesmen.)

The great thing about the event is that by holding it in this location, one of the coldest and most slippery places on the planet, everyone is forced to wear big boots and bulky coats that make them look like the Michelin man. The event thus strips the most portentous people of their dignity.

The theme of the forum this year is "Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild". Rebuild what you might ask? Well, it's the world that the conference organisers have in mind. The forum never lacks ambition.

However, for the Today programme the biggest theme of the week is probably that of rebuilding the global financial system.

It had seemed possible that the world was succumbing to the temptation to engage in very little reform of banking on the dubious grounds that you do nothing during a crisis as the system is too fragile. And you do nothing after the crisis as the system seems to work.

The WEF Congress CentreIn fact though, President Obama's announcement last week on banking has put radical reform back up the agenda. Regulators and bankers will meet across the atrium here and ideas will undoubtedly be exchanged.

A second theme is the world economy after "The Great Recession" (the phrase being used by the conference organisers). Since this time last year, extreme measures have been taken by governments and central banks and the treatment has worked; the world economy has stabilised and things have gone rather better than many feared.

Alas, now we have to work out how to cure the world economy of the treatment - in particular the fiscal policies that have left embarrassing deficits.

Indeed, one might argue that if the original problem in the world economy was that jobs and output were underpinned by unsustainable private borrowing and spending, we have only improved things with unsustainable government borrowing and spending. It's as though we've cured ourselves of heroin addiction by weaning ourselves onto methadone.

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The policy challenges created by government deficits and loose monetary policy will be much talked about here.

Needless to say, there are many other themes too.

In the wake of the Port au Prince earthquake, I'll be interested in a session here on making humanitarian assistance more effective. Surely we can prepare for events better than we have done. The only problem for the forum is that many of the people you would want to hear from on this issue are probably still busy working out how to help Haiti.

Finally, aside from the serious issues here, there is a pretty well-constructed programme of scientific and artistic activity. There are expert-led sessions on everything from alzheimers to extra-terrestrials to viruses. Psychology and neuroscience have had a presence here for many years and 2010 is no exception, with lectures on imagination and perception among other topics.

And cultural figures are always a big feature too. We will be interviewing the charismatic Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Margaret Atwood who are both in town for the week.

There's certainly a lot to do in five days and a lot to talk about.

It is of course easy to be cynical about this event. It can be seen as a junket. And this year in particular, it can be seen as a forum where the people who got the world into trouble have the temerity to think they can plot a way of it.

Of course it is both these things.

But it's still very interesting.

Fighting election boredom

Evan Davis | 09:10 UK time, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

If we're going to have four months of this, we'd better make it interesting.

We listened to the Conservative and Labour parties as they sprinted through the starting line of the election race on Monday, romping through about four issues before tea time.

If this campaign is to be a marathon, one can only observe that they're burning through their glycogen at an alarming rate. If they don't pace themselves, they could end up hitting the wall three months in and limping towards the election itself at a slow walking pace.

David CameronBut more importantly, by yesterday morning a lot of us were wondering how the rest of us would remain engaged with such a long campaign. Richard Littlejohn is surely not alone in the sentiments he expresses in the Daily Mail: "Five more months of this nonsense! Wake me up when it's over".

Well it's easy to be jaded, particularly for those of us in the media who watch unhealthy amounts of rolling news. But believe me, expressions of election boredom are themselves going to be very tedious in a day or two. We should stop them now.

Instead of articulating our fatigue with it all, it's our job to make the election interesting. A failure to do so is our failure more than that of the politicians.

The truth is that this election is surely the most interesting since at least 1992, mostly because we don't know what the result will be. As my colleague Jim Naughtie has pointed out, every outcome one can imagine is fascinating, whether it be a surprise Labour victory, a hung parliament which might bring the Lib Dems into government, or a new Conservative administration.

Of course, if the main parties do now spend several months bickering over tiny policy details and disguising significant ideological differences, the election campaign will feel dull.

But here's the thing: an election is not just a chance for the parties to have their say. It is best viewed as a national experience. A time for us all to take stock of the issues and to argue about how to deal with them. As we have the mother of all fiscal deficits at the moment, we have at least 178 billion things to argue about.

Now I'm not suggesting that 46 million UK voters will think it's fun to talk about the fiscal maths for several months. We'll have to do better than that. But it's hardly arcane. It's not detached from the daily lives of real people. It's not just the talk of the Westminster village.

Gordon Brown and Peter MandelsonProfessionally run political parties in an election campaign may want to avoid saying too much about the issue. After all, telling people the nasty things you will do is often a way to lose friends. But just because it isn't easy for them to say much, doesn't mean there isn't much to say.

In particular, there is nothing to stop us bringing in voices who are not professional politicians to comment on the issues, raise questions, and deconstruct events. Anyone who listened to the Today programmes last week, guest edited by luminaries such as David Hockney, PD James and Tony Adams, will know that on public policy issues, having a broad cast of speakers makes for a good broadcast.

Psychologists, philosophers, comedians... I wouldn't be at all surprised if they had a perspective worth listening to. Personally, I hope they'll play a part in our coverage of Election 2010.

I certainly don't want to argue that covering the campaign is not a challenge. If the parties duck the questions, lock away their mavericks and regurgitate clichés, it will be difficult to cover in an engaging way. But we should not forget that it's there to be made interesting. It's not their election - it's everybody's.

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