All BBC interviews are equal, but some are more equal than others

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Commentary by G.A.Ponsonby

Last week was George Osborne budget week. BBC Scotland gave us full-on coverage. Osborne’s announcements saturated broadcast and online output, as it should have.

BBC Scotland’s coverage of the budget was considerably more in-depth than its muted Scotland Bill coverage.  This was probably due to the disgraceful behaviour of the UK Government which seemed to take great pleasure in ignoring the democratic will of the Scottish people.

John Swinney: grilled on GMS
John Swinney: grilled on GMS

As ever, part of BBC Scotland’s budget coverage came in the form of radio interviews.  I listened to two on Thursday morning. They were the interviews of Scottish Labour’s sole MP Ian Murray and SNP MSP John Swinney.

I was particularly interested to see if differences in approach to both interviewees would be taken by whoever conducted the interviews. Would the SNP face more interruptions, as has been the norm in recent years? Would Labour face the same forensic and probing interrogation as the SNP? Would both politicians be grilled for the same length of time?

First up was Labour MP Ian Murray.  His full interview can be heard below:

Second up was John Swinney. His full interview can be heard below:

The first thing to note about both interviews is the length.  John Swinney is subjected to questioning for 8 minutes 26 seconds from the moment his interviewer introduces him to the moment Swinney stops talking.  Using the same criteria, Ian Murray’s interview lasts 6 minutes 10 seconds.

So immediately we have a difference in approach. The SNP interviewee is quizzed for longer than his Labour counterpart – over a third longer. There is no obvious explanation for the duration of both interviews to differ so markedly. Swinney is of course a Scottish Government Minister, but on this occasion he, like Murray, is an opposition politician.

Ian Murray: Lightly poached
Ian Murray: Lightly poached

The second thing to notice is that each interview is conducted by a different presenter. Murray is questioned by Hayley Millar whilst Swinney is questioned by Gary Robertson, who is a far more aggressive inquisitor than his female colleague, and whose preparation often appears to be very thorough, with an incisive tone.

So, before the interviews even begin, the time and personnel allotted to each politician by the Radio Scotland producer places Swinney at a clear disadvantage. Ian Murray has been given a shorter interview with a less challenging presenter.

But what of the content of the interviews, were both parties pressed equally? Were both Murray and Swinney given equal opportunity to respond to questions?

Let’s look at Ian Murray’s interview.

The Scottish Labour MP is asked a total of six questions. He is interrupted by Hayley Millar only once. The sole interruption appeared within one second of her asking a question and was more a belated addendum to her original question. Hayley Millar does not repeat any questions to Murray, regardless of whether he avoided answering them or not.

Now let’s look at the Swinney interview.

The SNP MSP is asked a total of nine questions, three more than his Labour counterpart. He is interrupted five times. Unlike Labour MP Murray, whose sole interruption came right at the start of an answer, all of Swinney’s interruptions come as he is in full flow. Gary Robertson, seeking clarification, repeats questions to Swinney on more than one occasion.

Again there is a very clear difference in the way the two interviews are conducted. Swinney is asked more questions, not surprising since his interview is far longer. He is also pressed more and interrupted more.  Swinney, despite his interview being one third longer than Murray, is interrupted five times more often than his Labour counterpart.

Why is this so? Why was Ian Murray not pressed on any of the questions posed by Hayley Millar?

In her second question to the Labour MP, Hayley Millar brings up the issue of the minimum wage. She highlights the fact that Labour pledged to make it £8.20 an hour by 2020 but that George Osborne has topped that by pledging £9.00.

In his reply Murray first cites research showing that some families will in fact face cuts to their income. He then wanders off in a tangent and ends up attacking the SNP over affordable housing.

But the issue of the minimum wage arose in the recent Scotland Bill debates and presented a clear opportunity for Murray to be pressed. The SNP want it devolved, but Murray opposed the move.

Here is what Ian Murray said in the Commons:

“We have to be extremely cautious about not undermining the national minimum wage by devolving it to Scotland.”

“[…] the national minimum wage has become a maximum wage for too many people and we have to drive it up across the United Kingdom to eradicate poor pay. I caution the hon. Gentleman that there is a danger that we will undermine the national minimum wage across the United Kingdom if we fragment it.”

He added:

“The Labour party will fight for the national minimum wage not to be fragmented and undermined in a race to the bottom.”

When the issue of the minimum wage was brought up by Hayley Millar she should have been ready to confront the Labour MP with his Commons statement and his party’s stance on devolving the power.   Currently the Tory Government receives recommendations from the Low Pay Commission on the level of the minimum wage, however Tory Ministers have the final say. Murray should have been asked if he was happy for the Conservative Government to retain the power over the minimum wage, rather than allow the Scottish Parliament to control it.

Another devolution related question caught my attention. At 03 mins 09 secs of his interview, Murray is asked what the Scottish Government should do with its new powers if it wants to, “limit the impact from this budget”.

Hayley Millar asked:

“Well you’ve suggested that the Scottish Government should use the powers that Holyrood is due to take on over tax and welfare to limit the impact from this budget.  What exactly would you want the Scottish Government to do?”

The Scottish Government’s lack of power in the area of welfare is one the key issues running through the Scotland Bill debate. The 56 SNP MPs at Westminster have been stymied by the UK Government, in some cases aided by Labour, as they seek to amend the limited new powers coming to Scotland.

But Murray avoids the question. In a 50 second unchallenged reply he talks of an amendment he sought for the Scotland Bill that was voted down, despite SNP support. Murray explains that he wanted the Scottish Government to have the power to “design its own welfare system”.

This was an opportunity for Millar to press the Labour MP on his party’s refusal to back control over welfare to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but she doesn’t and simply moves on to her next question.

Murray’s final question, when asked about the pace of deficit reduction, turns into an anti-SNP rant.  I have to admit to having no knowledge of any admission from Nicola Sturgeon that the SNP’s election campaign was ‘not true’ with respect to Labour or Tory cuts.

Ian Murray is given what most people would describe as an ‘easy ride’.  Hayley Millar appears to have no clear idea as to the purpose of the interview or any material in reserve ready to challenge the Labour MP.  The presenter seems to read the questions to Murray by rote and doesn’t react, regardless of his answers.

If a producer is speaking in her earpiece then he or she gives no prompts to the presenter to press Murray, who sails through an unchallenging interview whilst firing off two pot-shots at the SNP.

Gary Robertson
Gary Robertson

By comparison, John Swinney is pursued by Gary Robertson on the issue of low wages and benefit caps.  Robertson is, as usual, well-briefed and has a very clear agenda. He tries to get Swinney to admit the Finance Secretary believes some people will always be on low wages. Robertson also presses Swinney to admit to wanting a benefit cap.

Robertson’s agenda is clear. He tries to force John Swinney to admit to supporting, at least in principle, some of the Tories’ more controversial measures. It’s a mischievous approach but one at which Robertson excels.  He pursues Swinney cleverly, laying the ground, or the trap, like a lawyer questioning a witness. There is a method to Robertson’s questioning.

These are only two interviews on one day in the political calendar – albeit an important day. But they reveal a practice that has been on-going at BBC Scotland since well before the days of the referendum. Interviews between Labour and SNP politicians are almost always conducted in a different style and tone.

Listen to this interview of Nicola Sturgeon by BBC Scotland presenter Kaye Adams, conducted during the recent general election campaign for an example of this practice at its worst.

The Budget prompted several statements from Scottish Labour politicians and officials to the effect that the most vulnerable in society were now being attacked by the Conservative Government. Given that Labour in Scotland campaigned alongside the Tories in order to persuade Scottish voters we were all ‘Better Together’, it was surely appropriate for Ian Murray to be asked if being hammered by the Conservatives for the next five years, and possibly beyond, is still better than being independent.

Will Murray avoid being asked that simple question for the next five years. Sadly I believe the answer is yes.

G.A.Ponsonby is the author of the book ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum