Magazine article The Spectator

Spat for Today

Magazine article The Spectator

Spat for Today

Article excerpt


Spat for today

Michael Vestey

Before Christmas, when the row over the government's attempts to cut benefits was raging, the Today programme sent a female reporter to talk to claimants. She interviewed a man in Liverpool who couldn't work, he said, because he'd once injured his back playing football and the only jobs available involved lifting heavy objects. So he claimed disability benefit.

Normally, BBC programmes tend to slant these reports in favour of the claimants; at least they did when it was a wicked Tory government snatching from the poor to help the rich. 'Victims' were lined up to whine into a microphone and we were generally left with the impression that the government was cold and heartless. What interested me about this particular item was that the reporter was actually trying to find bogus claimants or at least those exploiting the system.

There was a marvellous moment when she asked the Liverpudlian on benefit, `Do you still play football?' There was a telling pause. Well, yes, he replied shiftily but that was different. Now, it's possible that, if the Tories had tried to rein in the staggering benefits rackets the way this government appears to be trying to, Today might have gone looking for such people to ask them similar questions, but somehow I doubt it. There would have been no shortage of genuine hardship cases, though.

It was a very good item. The man in Liverpool alone demonstrated that benefits were being paid to people who didn't deserve them. It set me thinking about one of the unnoticed elements of the John Humphrys, Harriet Harman interview the same week. Most of the controversy has dwelt on the spat between Today and the government, with Labour threatening to boycott the programme if interviewers aren't more respectful. Political parties falling out with the BBC is pretty standard stuff and quite healthy. We need to worry when politicians are pleased with the corporation's coverage.

It is amusing that this has happened so soon into a Labour government but it will occur again. No, what interests me about this particular interview was not just that it was rather poor - I was none the wiser at the end of it - but the angle from which Humphrys chose to zoom in on Harman. She is clearly an inept cabinet minister and Humphrys was right to pursue her when he sensed she was prevaricating, though his interruptions, as always, were too frequent. Humphrys believes that an interviewer should play devil's advocate, asking questions he thinks the listener would put if they were present. Jon Barton, the outgoing editor of Today, said as much when he appeared on Radio Four's Feedback before Christmas. …

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