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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.


  • Comment number 1.

    This was a great piece of journalism. I enjoy the style you have brought to the Today Programme - very courteous yet very well informed but not a soft touch.
    I admire Bill Gates in many ways but he should not be spared questions on broader based issues.
    I thought your rejoindre after Mr Gates did seemed to somehow (?!) miss the point of the question over China and Google was breath-taking. The intervention of the aide (with the tremendously trans-Atlantic "We're not going there") said a great deal about the Gates team.
    I doubt if you will be getting a Christmas card from Bill Gates and uness you are very good at holding your breath, I wouldn't expect another interview offer. It was worth it though.
    What happened after the recorder was switched off?
    Result: E Davis 3 W Gates 0
    Well done.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great interview, Evan and very interesting follow-up blog post. Surely this raises you to R4 God-like status? It certainly does in our house!

  • Comment number 3.


    I fear you are seeing this from a media perspective rather than a commercial point of view.

    The interview was based around the context of the Nigeria visit which given the history of medical interventions in parts of that country was a great success.

    What you performed was what is known in the commercial world as an ambush. A meeting is set up on the basis of one context only to be turned into a meeting on something else on which the ambushed party is not briefed. In the corporate world it is the sign of a manipulative executive seeking to achieve a political point.

    What Gates and his team should have done is kick the question away. I saw Peter Mandelson do this yesterday when interviewed by Andrew Marr. He just said I am not talking about that now. But then Mandy is a consummate performer, well worth watching just for his technique.

    I doubt if you or anyone at the BBC will get another interview with Gates.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hello Evan
    I am very much enjoying "Evan Loves Tax". I work as an independent communciations consultant for one of the Big Four firms. It would be good to get you involved in an international client/partner summit in 2011. I will try to figure out how to follow you on twitter. Maybe you could follow me @manwith3heads also? One way to keep in touch.

    Blogged about you today (why not):

    Hope to keep in touch anon...

    Mark Johnson
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Evan. Great post.

    I wonder what is Gates reaction to the recent Cablegate leak which revealed the fact that China was trying to hack into Google servers. Of course, several months ago when this 'speculation' was released by the mainstream media, China officials denied those claims. Now we can see that they lied (nothing surprising).

    Will you have another opportunity to interview Mr. Gates? Would love to see his reaction to this. If you do, I'd gladly re-publish the interview on my blog and I'm sure other bloggers would love to hear some 'exclusive reactions' from the world's richest man :)

    Darren Main


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