If you are an avid consumer of viral tweets, you might believe there is every reason to censure Fiona Bruce, the host of BBC One’s Question Time. On last week’s episode (9 March) there was a discussion about the prospect of Stanley Johnson being awarded a knighthood in the resignation honours of his son, Boris Johnson. One of the panellists, the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, referring to an incident in which Stanley Johnson broke his wife’s nose, called him “a wife-beater… on record”. Many tweets since have centred around Bruce then appearing to defend Johnson, saying “it was a one-off”.
When referring to domestic violence, “it was a one-off” is the sort of phrase that makes you wince, not least when issued by a BBC broadcaster charged with impartially conducting a debate on the nation’s politics each week. Is, say, three broken noses the minimum requirement to designate someone a domestic abuser? To this end, Bruce ended up issuing an apologetic statement and announced she would step back from her role as an ambassador for Refuge, a domestic violence charity.
Except, that is not quite the full story. In the full video clip, what Bruce actually says is: “I’m not disputing what you’re saying, but just so everyone knows what this is referring to, Stanley Johnson’s wife… said that Stanley Johnson had broken her nose and that she’d ended up in hospital as a result. Stanley Johnson has not commented publicly on that. Friends of his have said it did happen but it was a one-off.”
[See also: Mutiny at the BBC: “Almost everyone has left. No one does any journalism”]
This less snappy account matters because, as Bruce and other journalists since have attested, there is considerable pressure on broadcasters to give legal context to claims made on-air, most of all at the BBC which is, as its treatment of Gary Lineker demonstrates, abundantly cautious by nature.
No doubt “one-off” appears clumsy in relation to so sensitive a topic. And it is true that Bruce’s contextualising might have been overzealous — what Alibhai-Brown said was unlikely to cause Johnson to set his lawyers on Broadcasting House. But to intuit this and consider the tricky definition of slander in a split second, while chairing a live TV debate, is no mean feat. Especially if, as has been speculated, an editor was instructing her through an earpiece to make the clarification.
Survivors of domestic abuse are very often women who have had their experiences discounted multiple times by the police, courts and society. Bruce appearing to do the same would have regurgitated their trauma in a very real and painful manner. But we are deceiving ourselves if we make Bruce a scapegoat for this unfortunate reality: her words were the result of stringent legal constraints on the media, unknown to most of the public.
More disappointing is the fact that the charity Women’s Aid published an unmitigated criticism of Bruce’s words. Even as Refuge admitted that the words “were not Fiona’s own and were words she was legally obliged to read out”, it accepted Bruce’s resignation because of the “impact” of her words. But impact is not everything. Intentions matter too, as does the truth. What if, when we think only of perceptions and feelings, we short-circuit the logic? In this case, there is a danger that our righteous anger is misdirected towards Bruce, a woman who has campaigned against domestic abuse with Refuge charity for over 25 years, for what was at worst a misstatement – rather than Johnson himself, the one who committed domestic abuse.
[See also: Is Boris Johnson coming back?]