Has my criticism of the BBC’s coverage of Brexit led to my ‘famine’ of TV and radio appearances, asks ALASTAIR CAMPBELL?
Heaven knows how long it is since I have written a column here which did not feature the names of the prime minister or the leader of the opposition.
As my Christmas present to you, and given plenty of others will be mentioning the M-word and the C-word elsewhere in the paper, I have decided to make this a TM-JC free zone. Blindly loyal fans of the BBC look away now…
‘Why does Alastair Campbell get so much airtime? He was never elected,’ is the response of some to any television or radio appearance I might make. ‘God, he must be raking it in,’ is another, (obviously amid the many tweets and posts saying what an articulate demolisher of the Brexit myths and eloquent promoter of the People’s Vote campaign I am).
The money moan is easily dealt with. Unless there is huge inconvenience, I never ask for payment for television news appearances, so I am only ‘raking it in’ if you count the fares of the cabs broadcasters send to drive you to their microphones.
On the airtime quantity issue, I could easily give the moaners even more cause for moaning. When politics is in turmoil as now, it is not much of an exaggeration to say it would be possible to fill my whole day going from studio to studio, camera to camera.
As the bookers will confirm, I say ‘no’ far more often than I say ‘yes’ – partly because of other things to do, partly because it can get both tiring and boring endlessly being asked the same questions and hearing yourself give the same answers.
Partly because there are certain formats I don’t like – paper reviews, for example – and some programmes and pundits I just can’t be bothered with.
I have kept a rough tab of recent Brexit bids, and have clocked, 21 from Sky News, 19 from LBC, 18 from Talk Radio (Julia Hartley-Brewer loves me too much), nine from Good Morning Britain, nine from RTE, seven from CNN and Channel 4 News, five from Deutsche Welle, four from France 24. Radio 4 Today programme – so-called flagship of the BBC – none.
There is definitely a BBC thing going on, or not going on should I say. The only BBC national outlets even to match Australian and Belgian TV are Newsnight, BBC World, Radio 5 Live and the News Channel.
Today, big fat zero. Indeed, if my memory has not failed me, until recently the only times I have been asked on the programme in 2018 were to talk about sport. The above analysis is not a complaint, as I am not short of other ways to get into the debate, but an observation.
It does seem strange that while most serious media seem to think I might have something worthwhile to say, the Today programme is not among them.
Older readers will know that 15 years ago, my dispute with Today led not just to my own biggest personal crisis in politics, but one of the biggest of the entire Blair years, when a reporter’s broadcast led to the suicide of the man he claimed as his source, and to a major public inquiry which, had it found contrary to how it did, might have led to the end of the Blair government.
That row, surely, cannot still be the reason for my Today programme Brexit famine now.
So, is it the ‘unelected’ point made in Moan 1, above? If so, that doesn’t seem to concern those other BBC outlets, or foreign and independent media. And though it is true, and right, that most political interviews are with ministers and MPs, many are not.
Television presenters are not elected. Journalists, pundits, academics, quango heads, NGO chiefs, generals, diplomats, former civil servants and celebrities and most of the others who are given a platform for their views and expertise are not elected.
I wonder therefore whether it might be the fact that I have not been backward in coming forward to express my misgivings about the BBC’s coverage before, during and after the June 2016 referendum.
The Andrew Marr Show is another famine zone, and again I wonder if that might be related to my public comments about the way the Brextremist media and MPs appear so often to set its agenda.
A few weeks ago I did get a call from the Today programme asking if I would be interviewed on December 22, when David Dimbleby (funnily enough, his final season was the first in years I wasn’t asked on Question Time too) would be guest editing. ‘Happily,’ I said. ‘About Brexit?’ No, not really. About whether there had been a decline in the quality of politicians. ‘OK,’ I said.
Now, this could be entirely coincidental, but shortly after I tweeted the above television and radio bid stats last week, the producer called to tell me I was no longer needed.
They had got writer Robert Harris instead. I won’t take it personally, and I am sure Robert will have insightful things to say.
But it will be interesting to see whether I will be allowed into the Humphrys Radio Gammon sanctum once the referendum campaign (‘inevitable’ – copyright John McDonnell) is under way.
They can’t do Iain Duncan-Smith, Owen Paterson, Nigel Lawson, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab, Isabel Oakeshott, Fraser Nelson and Co every day. Can they?
Showing what a grown-up paper we are, the editor had no compunction (and didn’t even warn me, the bastard) publishing Caroline Criado-Perez’s criticism of my exchanges with Times columnist Jenni Russell in one of the Newsnight interviews.
Yes, yes, yes, Caroline had a point, I went over the top, talked over her too much, and as a result was unlikely to have won many floating viewers to my side.
I was partly irritated at being out on a Friday night listening to a bizarre lead story interview with Maurice Saatchi claiming to be able to save the country with a one-page parliamentary bill he called ‘Remain Plus’.
But the irritation went off the scale when Russell, as so many commentators do, started to talk about ‘people’ as some homogenous mass all thinking the same thing.
Presenter Emily Maitlis said the Times columnist had been asked on because she had written about dinner party guests who had come to her house, and all reported that their taxi drivers had not changed their minds about Brexit.
As David Schneider tweeted, it was ‘beyond parody’, and certainly not sufficient for the use of ‘people’ as a descriptor of a universal viewpoint.
That being said, it was not my finest broadcasting hour, and plenty of friends as well as enemies have told me so. ‘Alastair Campbell told to shut up in Brexit debate’ was the most watched item on the BBC news website the following day – rarely a good thing. Though, as Maitlis observed, it was hardly the first time, so not really ‘news’.
Keeping things incestuous and in-house… I took Tim Walker of Mandrake to task on Twitter when he said of Tony Blair’s latest speech: ‘Every speech that Blair has made about Brexit has been spot on.
The clever thing to have done, however, would have been for him to get someone else less controversial to deliver them: it’s sad people will not listen to him on account of something that has nothing to do with this.’
My reply: ‘The point is many DO listen. Not least EU leaders. Show me another voice that can 1) make a big argument coherently and 2) cut through to population at home and opinion formers/leaders abroad. Fingers in ear whataboutery is a big part of our dumbed down debate. Challenge not pander!’
Within two hours of TB’s speech being released, I had reactions from people in the teams of both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
So it is important Tim, and any of those People’s Vote supporters who think ‘what about Iraq?’ should disqualify Labour’s most successful ever leader from speaking about Brexit, reflect on this simple point – we do not have many voices on our side who can cut through both to reasonable opinion in the UK, and to EU leaders who continue to have a vital role in the debate about our future. Tony is one of them, and it would be folly for him to stay silent.