The online reviews for BBC News Editor James Stephenson haven't been positive after his less-than-deft performance on this week's Newswatch. One of the kinder ones said, "James Stephenson is so full of excuses and seems to be skirting each question. He should be a politician. Talk about drowning during that “interview”." Anyhow, here's a transcript:
Samira Ahmed: With me now to discuss this is News Editor James Stephenson. A lot of issues raised. Let's go through some of the specific complaints then. The mini-blimp in the Victoria Derbyshire studio, was that disrespectful?
James Stephenson: No, I don't think it was disrespectful. It was an item - for those of your viewers who saw the item - about the protests. We knew protests were going to be a feature of the visit. The item featured someone who was organising the protests and had brought that mini-blimp with them and someone who was a supporter of Donald Trump in the studio. So it was an item about that and it was part of the production of that item.
Samira Ahmed: The war of words with London mayor Sadiq Khan caused some concern that the BBC's coverage of this focused on Mr Trump's response, the "stone cold loser" phrase, not on the original article the Mayor wrote which the President appeared to be reacting to.
James Stephenson: Well, I think it was a pretty striking phrase, and the timing was pretty remarkable. As we were all preparing to cover the landing of Air Force One into Stansted up came this tweet. We are familiar with President Trump tweeting, but perhaps not tweeting at that kind of moment, right before touchdown on a state visit. So I think, inevitably, it got a great deal of attention in the early hours of the coverage. But then we obviously progressed onto other aspects of the state visit, as they developed.
Samira Ahmed: Was there enough context though around that tweet?
James Stephenson: Yeah, I think they was. As it developed, and certainly as we moved into the packaged form of telling the story, we referenced the fact that Sadiq Khan had attacked President Trump himself, and we know there's been a long-running transatlantic spat between the two of them. So I think the initial news reporting was pretty dramatic...of quite a dramatic intervention at that moment I thought was fair. We developed the coverage as we went along.
Samira Ahmed: We saw a clip there of historian Simon Schama, who was commentating during the gun salute. Viewers complained there were too many anti-Trump voices like him holding forth during the visit. Do they have a point?
James Stephenson: I hear what your contributors are saying. I don't think that was true of the coverage overall. So, for example, we had the American ambassador to the US was on Andrew Marr's programme on Sunday, the day before the visit. Simon Schama is a hugely distinguished historian, British historian, and knows about these events and so he seems like the right sort of guest to have on an occasion like that. I think we know that President Trump is a hugely controversial and divisive president, both in his own country and here, so I think there's going to be a bit more colour to some of the commentary than you might have on a different occasion with a different president.
Samira Ahmed: They were a number of these moments over the course of the state visit, like some of the insulting anti-Donald Trump placards and caricatures that the BBC showed, Politics Live putting up a caption that said 'The Donald has landed' which again some viewers feel just added up to a tone of disrespect. Do you think the BBC might have got it wrong with this state visit?
James Stephenson: I don't think we did. And I think we had a huge amount of coverage on a range of all our platforms - TV, radio and online - of the visit, the many dimensions of it, the state visit with the Queen and the state banquet, the politics of the second day, the D-Day commemorations down in Portsmouth and Southsea. So I think that taken as a whole, I feel we did a very good job. And we've had a lot of reaction to suggest that's the case. The occasional moment of levity, or a script line or two that members of the audience don't like, I'd hope they won't let that overshadow a general perception of what we thought was a good week of coverage.
Samira Ahmed: I suppose what people are wondering is did it all end up with the criticism being too personal about Trump, rather than respect for the office of President?
James Stephenson: Well, I think there is a little bit of a division in the public between those who think that they don't like President Trump and he shouldn't have been afforded the kind of honours that he was - and you saw that reflected with the attitudes of some of the opposition main parties in the country - and those who feel that, as your contributor said, whatever people think about President Trump, it's a state visit with a very close and important ally and he ought to be treated with...as a representative of America and leave aside more of the personality. So I think opinions differ about that. Your contributors have tended to be of the people who thought he should have been shown more, as it were, deference, because of his position. There are many people who are very, genuinely, upset and offended by his views and some of the stances he has taken. So we're trying to report these things fairly and reflect the wide range of views.
Samira Ahmed: James Stephenson, thank you.