LIZ Truss, the International Trade Secretary, is not known for setting the heather alight with her public appearances. To date, she is probably most famous for a speech condemning the amount of foreign cheese imported into the UK. Her stilted delivery caused much mirth in the media, with the Huffington Post website labelling the address “the best dairy-based rant you’ll ever see”.
Yesterday, Ms Truss was the UK Government’s Minister for the Sunday shows. With most of the English editions of the Sunday papers applauding the Prime Minister’s “victory” over the European Commission on vaccine supply, she had a relatively easy shift, her interviews as featureless as the stark white background on her video call.
BBC dismisses third tranche of complaints
That would have suited Downing Street just fine. It might even have met with a sigh of relief from the Marr team. The programme has hardly wanted for controversy lately. Since last November there have been complaints about three interviews conducted by the Glasgow-born Marr. Allowing for the Christmas break, that is quite a run.
Is there something particular to The Andrew Marr Show, or its titular host, that makes it a target for complaints?
The first batch of complaints arrived after he interviewed Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on November 29. Marr had said that when it came to the First Minister’s record on Covid, education, and the Alex Salmond row, there was a “gap” between presentation and reality.
The BBC did not agree that the interview was biased or unfair. It ruled: “The Andrew Marr Show is known for its rigorous and in depth interviews in which politicians and others in positions of power are held to account. The FM was asked a range of challenging questions as were the other politicians interviewed. Every interview is different but we believe each showed the scrutiny, detail and due impartiality the audience would expect.”
Next came complaints about a clash with Ed Miliband, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, on December 13. Marr was accused of interrupting too much and defending the Government over Brexit. The BBC did not agree, repeating the “each interview is different” line as it rebutted the claims.
Protests over Marr-Miliband interview rejected
Most recently, complaints were made about Marr’s interview with the Prime Minister on January 3. Again, they mainly centred on interruptions and perceived bias. Again, the BBC response said the show was known for its rigorous interviews, etc. Again, the complaints were rejected.
The broadcast regulator Ofcom received 967 complaints against the BBC as a whole for “due accuracy” or “due impartiality/bias” in the first half of last year (response to Freedom of Information request). That does not give an exact picture of the volume of complaints because cases only go to Ofcom after they have been through the BBC’s own system. By the end of the first week of January, for example, there had been 1712 complaints to the BBC about the Marr-Johnson encounter.
This is not the first time the Marr show has made the headlines for the wrong reasons. In 2019 the BBC apologised for the presenter wrongly accusing Home Secretary Priti Patel of laughing about a no-deal Brexit. The year before, there had been a heated encounter with Shami Chakrabarti, then Shadow Attorney General, during which Marr said she was trying to patronise him.
In Marr’s defence he had a long, distinguished career in newspapers before switching to broadcasting. Like fellow Scot Andrew Neil, he has interviewed enough politicians to fill the benches of the Commons many times over. With such experience comes confidence.
Add to this the obvious preparation Marr does, and his determination to get answers for viewers, and you can see how interviews can become lively. Moreover, in the cases of Johnson/Sturgeon/Marr he was dealing with experienced politicians able to stand their ground.
‘The will always strive for balance’
Post-interview protests, from individuals or parties, have become an accepted part of the cut and thrust of politics today. Some shows may see complaints, particularly if they come from different points on the political spectrum, as a badge of honour, or a sign that they are roughly getting the balance right. If everyone is grumbling no-one is being shown favouritism goes the theory.
Social media adds to the impression that there are more complaints about interviews than before. There is no need for the unhappy viewer to go through what can be a relatively lengthy process of lodging a complaint when a tweet, complete with video clip, will make their point.
As to why viewers protest, one has to believe they genuinely feel an interview has been unfair. For some, complaining will be a case of “supporting the team” regardless. Parties and governments may complain to put the record straight, or to fire a shot across the bow of a broadcaster in the hope their man or woman will get an easier interview next time.
Perhaps the increased willingness to complain is part of growing consumer confidence in general. People speak out about interviews because they can. Whether they feel it does any good is another matter.
As for the programme that bears his name, it still attracts the biggest names on the Sunday circuit, and the most attention. Marr is certainly not complaining about that.