Today programme this morning: How BBC ‘gotcha’ questions hurt democracy


by Robert Sharp    
11:57 am - January 7th 2013

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Did anyone hear the BBC Today interview with UKIP leader Nigel Farage this morning? I was tearing my hair out at the inanity of it all.

Presenter John Humphrys repeatedly asked Farage whether he wanted to be Prime Minister and whether he thought UKIP would soon be in Government. This is a no-win question for the Interviewee: if he says ‘yes’ he will be accused of being delusional. If he says ‘no’ he is accused of lacking ambition and not worthy of a person’s vote.

So, like all minority party leaders, he was forced to give an evasive non-answer.

This is ‘gotcha’ questioning from Humphrys, and reveals nothing about the matter at hand: why are UKIP doing better in the polls?

There may be instances where ‘gotcha’ questioning is appropriate – for example, to highlight a contradiction in a Government policy. However, the electoral paradox that Farage must confront is not of his making.

Instead, it is a feature of the political system. There is no value in wasting broadcast time trying to get Farage to explain this. Voters are savvy enough to understand the conundrum. It is patronising to suggest that Farage is somehow pulling the wool over their eyes.

Single issue parties seeking protest votes is an entirely legitimate use of representative democracy. Any kind of electoral success brings influence and an audience, and so can be an aim in itself , not just as a route to power.

When Humphrys and the BBC portray such political activism as fringe or Quixotic, they are being unhelpful to the voters and to the issues. And when this journalistic cynicism is practiced at the expense of actual scrutiny of UKIP’s policies, it is downright harmful and wrong.

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments


1. Richard Carey

I agree with the OP. Humphreys is a bit of a bore in the interview. I think Nigel did okay. It’s at around 1hr33 in the programme btw.

The link to the BBC iPlayer for today’s Today is here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pnmg3

It has got to the stage where live comedy shows on BBC radio have started to make jokes about Humphrys and his enhanced interrogation techniques.

Several times now, I have switched off Humphrys interviews on the BBC Today programme when it became impossible for those being interviewed to respond to a question put before Humphrys interrupted to put another question. On at least some of those occasions, I have not been naturally sympathetic to the views of the subject of the interview but I did want to hear what they had to say and Humphrys made that impossible. IMO Humphrys has long since passed his sell by date.

Bang on. I moaned out loud at the time that it was one of the worst interviews on the programme for months. If Humphreys wants to skewer someone like Farage he only has to grill him on a few of the serious issues that UKIP go bonkers about, but instead we get this nonsense. It comes to something when I’m begging for Evan Davies to be the interviewer in a situation like that.

It comes to something when I’m begging for Evan Davies to be the interviewer in a situation like that.

Um. Evan Davis’s interview with George Osborne was similarly embroiled in pointless unenlightening gotchas. The Today modus operandi seems to be for the presenters to go all out to “win” their interviews with politicians. It generates a good deal more heat than light…

Today has become tabloid radio. It can no longer be considered as “setting the agenda” though inertia means it’s still taken seriously in some circles. Sad really. Ironically it was better under Rod Liddle.

7. Shatterface

Couldn’t agree more.

Thanks for the positive comments and RTs.

Agreed, but I don’t think its fair to describe UKIP as single issue now. They have a whole range of policies to disagree with. It may be the case that europe is the one that over-rides everything else, but the vast majority of politicians only have 3/4 issues they are truly passionate about anyway.

Typical of the MSM and the Westminster Village. Humphrey’s is a village elder, and as such can only do lazy questions that obsess on issues like positions in the Village greasy pole.

“Do you want to be Prime Minister?” is a village obsession. It plays to the Village narrative of who’s up?, who’s down? Who’s ambitious? It also is a simple question that needs no research.

11. gastro george

Europe is not even the highest priority when UKIP supporters are polled. It’s immigration, which tells you enough that you need to know about them.

Back on topic – totally agree. Humphrys is a self-parody now.

Couldn’t agree more with the OP. Newsnight too has long been home to childish point scoring passing itself off as political interviewing, Paxman being a particularly egregious example. It can, of course, be jolly fun when it’s happening to someone you despise (like Farage) but it really does a disservice to the democratic process across the board.

It’s not just Humphreys who does it though. Also this morning Nicky Campbell was talking to Rachel Reeves (I think). He didn’t even do much preamble before he immediately jumped in with the “is this going to be your policy at the next election, yes or no?” question and then he spent the rest of the time asking why she refused to issue spending plans 2 1/2 years before an election and on a short radio interview.

No politician of any party will ever answer that question outside of an election campaign so it’s pointless asking it. By asking it Campbell essentially took over the interview and I’m not sure Reeves even got to express (without interruption) the reason she was on the radio in the first place.

14. Man on Clapham Omnibus

So what’s new. If you go to State media for your information more fool you.

15. Chaise Guevara

@ 14 MoCO

Who should you go to, then?

Every Today presenter hopes that his interview will be the main news item by one o’clock.

I’m surprised Humphrys doesn’t just interview himself – it’s obvious that he knows so much more than any of the people he interviews, because he’s correcting them after a third of a sentence.

It would be better just to hear him hold forth than to have his wise commentary constantly interrupted by elected politicians.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy http://t.co/9c7vF53N

  2. Jason Brickley

    Today programme this morning: How BBC ‘gotcha’ questions hurt democracy http://t.co/Tf4iiDRs

  3. Jack Donaghy

    Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy http://t.co/9c7vF53N

  4. Sunny Hundal

    'Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy' http://t.co/ekcY4IdH by @robertsharp59

  5. TeresaMary

    'Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy' http://t.co/ekcY4IdH by @robertsharp59

  6. Claire Spencer

    To be honest, 'gotcha' broadcast journalism outweighs the good kind, & not just at the BBC: http://t.co/7vVw5XPB (via @sunny_hundal)

  7. Jim Jepps

    Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy http://t.co/9c7vF53N

  8. malgosia skawinski

    Hear Hear! (am no UKIP, btw) MT @sunny_hundal 'Today programme this morning:How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy' http://t.co/vT8pnqNj

  9. Tom Webb

    'Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy' http://t.co/ekcY4IdH by @robertsharp59

  10. bill bold

    'Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy' http://t.co/ekcY4IdH by @robertsharp59

  11. David Wilkinson

    John Humphrys' "gotcha questioning" of Farage bad for democracy – downright silly and uninformative: http://t.co/g5tr9AXS (agreed)

  12. Steven Fielding

    'Today programme this morning: How BBC 'gotcha' questions hurt democracy' http://t.co/ekcY4IdH by @robertsharp59

  13. Downbytheriver

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  14. leftlinks

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  17. NORBET

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