As if the BBC did not have enough on its plate after last week’s disquiet over its handling of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data scandal, a most unseemly row has broken out over the amount of access it gets to the Prime Minister - at least, compared with other broadcasters. The assault is being led by Sky News.
She was to appear on The Andy Marr Show™ this weekend. Sky News head of politics Dan Williams had seen enough. “Another interview with Marr and the BBC in the space of a few weeks. Last time we got the ‘BREXIT Dividend‘. Is the PM avoiding others like @SkyNews”. Marr’s former editor Rob Burley suggested it was about audience size.
The “ours is bigger than yours” argument did not cut any ice with Sky political correspondent Tom Rayner. “In this instance, isn't the audience thing a red herring? All channels and newspapers will run the clips/quotes, as would the BBC if she was speaking to Sky/ITV. A fair mix of who gets to ask questions of the PM part is part of ensuring proper accountability”. Burley disagreed. The spat dragged in Beth Rigby.
“It’s a monopoly Rob. Think you’ve had three PM interviews in four/five weeks and she barely takes a Q from us at presser. It’s not good, particularly given head of coms was in your former job” (she probably means Robbie Gibb, and the job that Burley is in now).
What say he to Sky’s senior political correspondent? “I didn’t mind you being annoyed, obviously, but suggestion has something to do with where the director of comms used to work is daft. We are the biggest programme, with a big audience that’s why we do best on Sundays. We always have and we having been going longer than any govt”. Ooh, I’m having an Italian Job moment. Big, y’know … big! BIG!!
Ms Rigby was not interested in merely blowing the bloody doors off. “Perhaps we should do away with plurality then, and just have BBC covering all politics, because Downing Street seems not to want to deal with anyone else (ITV gets the occasional look in).”
Was Burley going to try being a touch more diplomatic? Er, no. “Didn’t say that. Just think there are positive reasons for Marr doing well which are being ignored while Sky feeling sorry for itself. After all May did the Ridge show and Peston in recent times. Fact they get tiny numbers not irrelevant”. His was still bigger than theirs.
Ms Rigby was done with the exercise. “Twice in five weeks. Plus an interview with BBC after Chequers last weekend. Ridge first & last interview with May in Jan 2017. I never even get Q at press conference. Happy to discuss further offline”. At this point, Burley became a little more understanding. Well, up to a point.
“Btw, for many years I worked on and then edited ITV’s programme up against Frost then Marr. So am all for media plurality. Also recognise that audience is the key”.So his was still bigger than theirs. But Sky News people were clearly not happy.
So unhappy, in fact, that Tom Rayner was back with a decidedly barbed observation. “Obviously nobody is expecting you to be anything other than pleased you’ve got the PM. But journalistically, if the audience argument is allowed to be taken as a given, it damages accountability. It’s same argument Trump would use to only give big interviews to Fox News”. Ouch! BBC compared to Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).
And Sky producer Tom Larkin underscored the point: “Since the head of the BBC’s political programmes went to No 10, @theresa_may has exclusively done her set-piece TV interviews with...BBC political programmes. Why not try to reach a different audience? Or take questions from someone other than Andrew Marr?”
It’s not as if Theresa May got an easy ride from Marr today - anything but - although the point stands. One can understand politicians wanting to talk serious politics avoiding the likes of ITV Good Morning Britain when self-promotion artiste supreme Piers Morgan is holding court there, but Sky News? Channel 4? Robert Peston? Come on.
Criticism of the BBC from those of a partisan nature is routine. But after the Corporation’s indifference to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it began to come from other journalists. Now it is coming from other broadcasters. Perhaps something really is amiss.