Sunday 13 March 2016

Interviewing by numbers

What can be said about bias on this morning's The Andrew Marr Show? 

Well, plenty - if Twitter's anything to go by (not that it usually is). 

As ever, the accusations have been flung from all directions and have wildly contradicted each other: Corbynistas have accused 'Tory Marr' of letting Gideon get away with lies and being mean to John McDonnell; a few Tories have accused Andrew Marr of pro-Labour bias for being too nice to John McDonnell; and plenty of people have claimed that Andrew Marr was far nicer to John McDonnell and George Osborne (both Remain) than he was to (pro-Leave) Boris last week. 

Last week, with Boris, interruptions were the thing. Everyone was counting interruptions. 

This week there were definitely fewer interruptions. George Osborne, by my reckoning, was interrupted 33 times. (Last week I made it 58 interruptions against Boris). John McDonnell was interrupted just 3 times (and a couple of those seemed accidental). 

John McDonnell was first questioned on whether he's a Marxist who wants to overthrow capitalism, and whether he's really a Labour Party man. He was then questioned on whether his latest policy announcements are any different to those of Ed Balls and whether he's the same John McDonnell he used to be. Then came an exchange on whether Yanis Varoufakis is advising Labour or not. (Mr McDonnell said 'not'). Finally came a section on the EU referendum. Andrew Marr's line of questioning here was to present various left-wing reasons to support a Brexit and imply that Mr McDonnell's heart was really in backing 'Remain'. Nothing was pushed. (Was Andrew Marr attempting to give John McDonnell enough rope to hang himself?) 

With George Osborne, Andrew Marr questioned him over whether the economy has gone badly wrong, on further cuts ("where people are already screaming in protest across Tory England"), on the cuts to disability benefits ("You’re taking a lot of money out of the pockets of some of the most vulnerable people in this country, disabled people"), on whether motorists should pay more tax, on tax cuts, on the failure to cut the deficit, on the "sweetheart deal" with Google (none of which was exactly helpful to the Tory chancellor)...

...and then on the EU referendum.

The first question to the ironically-initialled GO here was 
Now, you have talked about this being an unstable and dangerous world at the moment, possibly on the edge of another financial crisis, so people are worried about that. And there’s a series of threats around the world that you have outlined. Lower than expected Chinese growth, what’s going on in the Middle East and so forth. But one of those threats is Brexit. Do you still think it was a brilliant idea to hold a referendum?
Knowing that Mr Osborne is strongly pro-Remain, that's not the first question I, were I an 'impartial' broadcaster, would have put. The 'risk' claim is a main claim of the anti-Leave camp. 

What followed was a series of questions, like those to John McDonnell, that (devil's advocate-style) put pro-Brexit arguments to an anti-Brexit interviewee. As with the questions to John McDonnell though, they weren't put with much force (unlike those to Boris last week), leading me to think that Andy's heart wasn't in it. 

As evidence for that claim, here's one exchange from the interview: 
AM: Let’s talk about the risks of staying in.
GO: I’m all for Britain connecting itself to China, to North America, to, you know, Brazil and the like. I’m all for us to do ...we don’t do enough of that. But we have to recognise that we are part of the European continent, 50 per cent of our...
AM: We’re not actually part of the European continent, we’re off it. We’re off it.
GO: Well, you ask most schoolchildren which continent is the United Kingdom in and they’ll say Europe.
AM: It’s an island.
GO: It is indeed an island. But we are – we’ve learnt to our cost over many centuries that we are deeply affected by what happens just across the English Channel. And you know, if you look at Britain -
That really felt like flippant, half-hearted 'going through the motions' to me - so much so that it may have helped George Osborne's pro-EU argument (with undecided types who don't instinctively hate 'Gideon').

I did appreciated AM's probing of the Turkey question though, as that's something that very much interests - and worries me. (Inevitably they both skirted around the real fear people have about Muslim Turkey joining the EU). I remain un-reassured. 

The programme also featured firmly pro-Brexit author Frederick Forsyth and, to be fair to the programme (as I always try to be), he was given the space to expound his pro-Brexit reasoning...

...and an on-fire Peter Hitchens managed to sneak in a few pro-Brexit points during the paper review (alongside the new Guardian political editor and a former BBC economics correspondent).

That supports a clear point: I don't think there can be any (reasonable) grounds for complaint (so far) as regards the balancing of guests, Leave-and-Remain-wise, on The Andrew Marr Show.  

It's been pretty much spot-on so far. 

Given how much scrutiny it is under that's hardly surprising, but it's still to be welcomed.

As ever, however, it's the structural points that matter - and the questions asked. This week's EU-referendum-related questioning was noticeably less targeted and intense than last week's questioning of Boris.


  1. Marr is a disgrace. Did he challenge Osborne on Laws' revelation in today's paper that Osborne (together with Hammond) actually feels immigration to the UK isn't high enough? That's what I would have started with: "Before we go any further can I get you to clarify your position on immigration. David Laws said you wanted more."

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. My apologies, Craig, I must have written my comments about this in the thread below as you were writing this. I see we saw much the same thing.

    You noticed Marr's heart wasn't really into his anti-EU questions to Osborne. I saw it as play-acting, asking the questions because he had to, and pretty obviously hamming it up for effect. I had to leave after that and didn't watch the rest.

  4. 'Guardian political editor and a former BBC economics correspondent)'.

    Are they on some kind of exchange programme? Asking for a Newsnight boss.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.