Page last updated at 07:40 GMT, Monday, 18 August 2008 08:40 UK

Shaun Ley's week

By Shaun Ley
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

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A question about Mr Brown's leadership prompted a press officer to interject
The job of a government press officer is not an easy one.

In an age saturated with media - broadcast, press, and now online - the demands are intense.

Like their counterparts in every organisation, from private business to charities, they're partisans, aiming to put the best possible blush on those who employ them, whilst dealing with my profession, which does not always see their business in the same light.

Government press officers, though, are under one additional pressure which does not apply to anyone else.

Pre-recorded

They have to promote the government position but not the party one. This is easier said than done.

After all, government policy is, by definition, that of the governing political party. So where exactly do you draw the line?

The issue was illustrated vividly on Wednesday's programme, when an unexpected intervention by a press officer during an interview on The World At One turned into a story in its own right.

On Tuesday, knowing that the unemployment statistics were due to be published the next day, we asked the Department for Work and Pensions if a minister would be available to talk about them.

They agreed and offered a pre-recorded interview with the junior minister James Plaskitt.

The next morning, Mr Plaskitt spoke to me from a radio facility in the Department for Work and Pensions offices.

He was accompanied, as is usually the case for ministers (and was so under the last Conservative government as it is under this Labour one), by a departmental press officer.

Just before the interview, the producer looking after this part of the programme, explained that we also wanted to reflect what the governor of the Bank of England had been saying about the prospects for the economy.

Since Mr Plaskitt had not seen that news conference, the producer outlined some of the main points that the governor had mentioned.

Once that was agreed, we started recording. All went as planned, until I asked this question :

    Ley: Are you worried that this collection of economic statistics we've seen today, including obviously the rising unemployment figures, will further destabilise the prime minister's leadership ?

    Plaskitt: I'm not commenting on that issue as I made clear at the outset. It's not about that.

    Ley: But you're -

    Press officer: We're only talking about today's employment figures.

    Ley: Sure, but you're a minister, you're a member of his government.

    Plaskitt: Well, the answer's no.

    Ley: You don't think it will?

    Plaskitt: No.

One point from that exchange needs clarifying.

There had been no discussion before the interview about the Labour leadership; so I'm not sure what Mr Plaskitt meant when he said "as I made clear at the outset".

But was it fair to ask him, when the interview was about the economy ? That same morning, David Miliband had been asked about the leadership during an interview with the Today programme about Georgia.

What would not have been fair, I think, is to have asked him about something he couldn't be expected to speak on for the government - the Common Fisheries Policy, for example.

After about seven minutes, I asked a question, and answer came there none, leaving me to plaintively ask whether anyone could hear me

But general party questions, provided not specifically excluded by prior agreement, seem reasonable.

The prior agreement point is worth underlining.

Under the BBC's editorial guidelines, although we'll discuss question areas, we do not provide interviewees with advance notice of specific questions, for obvious reasons.

Sometimes, the interviewee will lay down conditions and you have to decide whether to agree to them or to refuse, and risk losing the interview.

Prior agreement

An example of that happened on Tuesday's programme. The cabinet minister Yvette Cooper agreed to be interviewed, but her press officer imposed a time limit - five minutes - because she had a series of interviews to conduct in a short time.

Unfortunately, that information wasn't passed on to me. After about seven minutes, I asked a question, and answer came there none, leaving me to plaintively ask whether anyone could hear me.

We could have broadcast that unanswered question, but judged it would have been unfair, since - inadvertently - we'd broken a prior agreement.

Another example which springs to mind involves David Cameron. About 18 months ago, he was trying to promote his ideas on youth volunteering.

David Cameron and Michael Ancram
Mr Cameron had not commented on Michael Ancram's article

It was a couple of days after the former deputy leader of the Conservative Party Michael Ancram published a pamphlet which seemed critical of Mr Cameron's leadership, and to which he'd not responded.

We made clear in the bid that we would ask about that, and his press officer agreed but there was confusion over exactly how much time would be spent on this.

Again, that information wasn't passed on, so I persisted with supplementaries. It was a pre-record, and Mr Cameron objected.

Party political

Afterwards, the press office rang up the programme, insisting we should edit the interview because we'd breached the agreement.

The editor refused to remove the sequence but said he'd bear the dispute in mind when deciding how to edit the interview.

They could then listen to the programme like the rest of the audience, and if they felt the editing was unfair, they could make a formal complaint. We used most of the disputed sequence. Mr Cameron's office did not complain.

So why did the press officer's intervention on Wednesday cause such a flurry of interest from other parts of the media?

In the end, we broadcast that part of the interview because we felt the question was a fair one

First, because verbal interventions, even in pre-recorded interviews, are so rare. It's part of a press officer's job to try to influence how you report a story, but generally they try to do it before or afterwards.

The only other examples I can think of are press officers intervening at the end of a question to warn us that the minister is running out of time.

But what really excited so much interest was that it appeared to be an attempt to shield Mr Plaskitt from a party political question.

That may not have been the press officer's intention (and being a government employee, she's denied the opportunity the rest of us have to defend ourselves), but it sounded close to the line I talked about at the start of this article.

Motives

But what about our motives in deciding to broadcast it ? After all, it was a pre-recorded interview, and we could have edited it out.

One contributor to a political blog suggested "the fact that the BBC decided to use it is actually a jab at Plaskitt for not reminding his press officer of the rules of the game."

So were we having a dig at the minister or trying to embarrass his aide ? In fact we had quite a lengthy debate in the office about whether or not to transmit it, and even referred it up to 'higher powers' to get a perspective from outside the programme team.

In the end, we broadcast that part of the interview because we felt the question was a fair one; we hadn't broken any agreement not to ask such questions; and we felt listeners were entitled to hear it and decide for themselves.

I had one additional concern. What sort of precedent would it set if we removed a question because a press officer objected to it?

Might we be encouraging a tactic to develop in which awkward questions could be deflected by outside interventions?

There's nothing to suggest this is what was behind Wednesday's encounter, but if allowed to take root, it would be a development which could greatly devalue the political interview.

So what happened after the interview was broadcast?

Like Mr Cameron's office, the Department for Work and Pensions did not complain.

Perhaps they took the view that least said, soonest mended; or maybe they accepted that we had not acted unreasonably. But the verdict which matters most isn't mine or theirs. It's yours.

Martha Kearney is away.

Here is a selection of your comments:

It was a scandal that a Govt Press Officer intervened to prevent a party political question, and yuo were quite right to highlight it. The DWP shoud be ashamed.
Nicolas Beale, London. England

Sadly you give me the impression that you are more concerned with your selves and your "achievement" in nailing a minister than what your paying audience wishes to hear. Please forget yourselves and your "scoops" and get on with the business of satisfying your paying customers.
Mike Burmester, Bristol

Quiet week for news then... Surely something more deserving of 'flurry of interest' must be happening somewhere in the World?
James Thresher, Putney, London

Although a move to the Treasury would give Miliband a power base if he were to run it well, circumstances beyond his control (the wider economy) could cripple Miliband's leadership ambitions as the public get annoyed.
Chris C, Wigan

This is pathetic. Fiddling when Rome is burning, when is Labour going to realise that politics is about more than themselves. 'To govern is to serve', clearly labour has this the other way around and believes to serve itself is to govern.
Andrew , adelaide

Opinion polls are showing that Milliband, who is proving a hopeless lightweight as Foreign Secretary, would make no difference at all to the Labour Party's standing. The thing that puzzles me is why anyone thinks he would - he is a vacuous non-entity, who very likely lacks the guts to wield the knife anyway. Were I Gordon Brown I would do what Blair should have done to Brown - sack him. The question of whether Brown has the guts for that is another story...
Nick Troake, Westerham

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