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10 May 2017

Theresa May’s cosy sofa interview sets a worrying precedent for the BBC

Politicans have always sought more friendly formats, but broadcasters should resist.

By Roger Mosey

Politicians love sitting on broadcasters’ sofas. Instead of the pesky Today programme or the tenacious Channel 4 News, they get to show what all-round regular folk they are – chattering about their favourite music or what they did on their holidays or who in the family puts the bins out.

Journalists generally find these soft formats pretty grim, and especially if they’re chosen as an alternative to a more rigorous interview. The BBC’s editorial policy team, charged with ensuring fairness and impartiality across the organisation, have traditionally taken a similar view. They have become used to political parties trying to circumvent the traditional news circuit, and they have done a valiant job in resisting some of the more blatant attempts to gain political advantage with cosy formats.

Politicians are keen to reach audiences which normally would run a mile from them. Hence the kind offer when I was at BBC Sport from Tony Blair – delivered via John Motson – to appear on Football Focus reminiscing about Newcastle United. Then there was the campaign from David Cameron’s team to get him on air during the Olympics. I woke up one morning to find the prime minister pontificating about the Games on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 in an interview that we thought we had explicitly forbidden – but which had been achieved through some personal contacts with the programme team.

So was it a surprise to see Theresa May and her husband Philip perched on the One Show sofa? Yes, it was – because this is in the heat of an election campaign, and it’s one in which the PM has declined the BBC’s offer to appear in a leaders’ debate on prime time television. There are, of course, plausible arguments for going ahead with the broadcast. It was a scoop to get the first interview with the PM’s husband. If the BBC hadn’t done it, a rival broadcaster would; and there is room for a gentler approach to politicians during the course of a campaign. James Lansdale’s kitchen interviews in the 2015 campaign were a conspicuous success; and the BBC will grill Mrs May in a multitude of formats before polling day.

But the arguments against are formidable too. I’m guessing that some executives’ hearts were in their mouth as they watched Matt Baker and Alex Jones stepping into what is for them deeply unfamiliar territory; and the usual nods and interjections of approval are awkward when they’re facing a politician seeking election. What puzzles me more is that the interview was accepted as a husband-and-wife format when the other potential prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn, has reportedly not agreed to do the same. Since there is no obligation on Corbyn to turn up with his spouse, and she’s entitled to her privacy, it creates a potentially unfair contrast for him with the marital duo offered by the Conservatives.  

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So what we ended up with was something that was certainly an interesting watch, and the acres of newspaper coverage this morning confirm that it was a triumph across all platforms for whoever came up with the idea. It was certainly a winner for Conservative Central Office. But it’s an uncomfortable precedent if potential prime ministers are expected to appear on chat shows with their plus one; and in particular it will be harsh if Jeremy Corbyn gets more stick for landing on the One Show sofa on his own.