Did Eddie Mair go too far?

One of the BBC’s top names is under fire over a political interview

Eddie Mair, presenter of Radio 4’s drive-time news programme PM (from the PM website)

Eddie Mair is a household name among that civilised part of Britain that listens to Radio Four.

As sole presenter of PM, the station’s drivetime news programme (5–6:00pm weekdays), he presents and analyses the day’s news.

His couthy Scottish accent and dry wit has endeared him to millions of listeners across Britain.

But earlier this month, at least some of those listeners turned against him.

The occasion was his interview of the Home Secretary Amber Rudd just after Prime Minister Theresa May’s disastrous speech at the Conservative Party conference.

May’s nightmare speech

Screen shot from Prime Minister Theresa May’s 2017 conference speech (BBC)

On October 4, PM led with Prime Minister Theresa May’s keynote conference speech.

The programme opened with highlights of everything that had gone wrong — mainly the Prime Minister, coughing.

After the news bulletin, correspondent Carolyn Quinn, delivered a blow-by-blow report from the conference.

She detailed May’s humiliation at the hands of a prankster who handed her a P45 (a symbolic sacking) near the beginning of her speech; and the extended coughing fit that destroyed her delivery for long stretches of her speech.

Discussing the speech with a fellow political correspondent they almost seemed to feel sorry for her.

Mair however, was in no mood to play softball.

He started his interview with Rudd by saying that as Home Secretary she was responsible for the Prime Minister’s security — so how had someone managed to stand up and present her with a P45?

As Rudd began to hedge — too early to comment on an ongoing investigation — Mair pounced on her use of the word “disappointing” to describe the incident.

“‘Disappointing?’ What if it had been acid?”

He pressed for more details, but Rudd stuck with her “ongoing investigation” defence.

He invited her to revise her use of the word “disappointing” but Rudd, working hard now to contain her exasperation, pressed on regardless, focussing on the investigation.

Mair switched to the coughing fit and other mishaps during the speech.

“Was this a metaphor for Theresa May’s leadership?” he asked.

Rudd tried to move on to the policies unveiled at the speech, but Mair interrupted.

“Well we’ll get to the policy, I’m talking about the things that went wrong,” said Mair.

Rudd objected that what had happened in the hall was actually less important than the policy.

When they did get to policy, Mair had a shopping list of questions.

  • When does the remit of EU referendum run out, he wanted to know.
  • Why does May appear to be grabbing Labour policies?

Pressing home that last argument — that May had grabbed some of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policies — he quipped:

“What she’s going to do next, grow a beard and start an allotment?”
  • How many council houses will be built as a result of these policies?
  • Do you wish you hadn’t sold off so many council houses in the past?

Defending the indefensible

Towards the end of the interview, he tackled the recent behaviour of the Foreign Secretary.

“You were sitting next to Boris Johnson during the speech: do you think that people want Bernard Manning as Foreign Secretary?”

A day earlier, Johnson had made some particularly crass remarks about Libya in a speech on the margins of the conference.

The Libyan city of Sirte could be the new Dubai, Johnson had said:

“All they have to do is clear the bodies away.”

(Bernard Manning was a old-school comedian who specialised in unashamedly racist humour.)

Rudd did her best to defend the avoid either condemning or endorsing Johnson’s remarks, but Mair pressed her on why May would want to keep him in office after his remarks.

“Why doesn’t she sack him?”

And for each answer she tried to give, Mair interrupted with more details than she had at her disposal.

One was a killer soundbite from a Libyan politician involved in the peace process there, criticising the insensitivity of Johnson’s remarks.

“Why doesn’t he sack him?” he asked again.

He reeled off a list of well-documented political gaffes from Johnson which, he suggested, showed his unsuitability for his current post.

The Prime Minister had known all about them before she appointed him, said Mair: what did that say about her judgment?

“I suggest to you the reason she doesn’t sack him is because she fears a leadership challenge. She’s prepared to send Boris Johnson out to represent the United Kingdom around the world in order to protect her own job.”

As Rudd tried to reply, he harried her and interrupted her as she hedged around the central question, until he put it to her again.

“My question was about her judgment.”
“I trust her judgment, Eddie.”

And with that the interview was over.

Listeners’ complaints

Mair was aggressive, pushy to the point of rudeness and completely relentless.

It was a carefully prepared ambush — and some listeners, at least, did not appreciate it.

Radio 4’s Feedback programme, which covers listeners’ reactions to the week’s programmes, opened its October 13 edition by noting that Mair usually received nothing but praise from listeners.

But one listener’s comment, broadcast at the top of the programme, said:

“I regret to say I have rarely heard anything that was so completely biassed.”

Presenter Roger Bolton invited PM’s editor Roger Sawyer on to the programme to defend Mair.

“Sneering, clever-clever, over-prepared questions,” said one listener. “…over-elaborate, flippant, laboured and not effective…”.

Others questioned Mair’s tone — specifically the Bernard Manning and the Jeremy Corbyn quips.

Bolton suggested that here, perhaps, Mair’s trademark quips had been misplaced. Sawyer acknowledged that is was not always easy to judge.

“There is a line, there is a line that we walk — and it’s a fine line, sometimes…”

But he nevertheless defended both the tone and the content of the interview.

Johnson, like Manning, was a divisive figure, he pointed out, and his comments had already led to calls from some MPs for him to be sacked.

But for some listeners, this time, the programme had got the balance wrong.

“To me there sounded to be a concerted effort to demean Mrs May’s appearance at the conference …,” said one listener. “The content of the speech was only superficially mentioned.”

There was a sense from these complaints that the British sense of fair play had been offended.

Jekyll and Hyde

There is a sense in which Mair is a Jekyll and Hyde character.

With an audience of 4.1 million listeners according to the August figures from RAJAR, the industry reference, he is clearly doing something right.

Mair has an original eye for news, a knack of finding stories where other journalists see just the humdrum trivijoa of everyday life.

This, together with his wry humour and a reassuring manner has contributed to his success.

And people want to talk to him, they open up about the most intimate and sometimes distressing parts of their life.

He and the programmes he has presented over the years have picked up a number of Sony awards, the industry gold standard.

And last year he topped a Radio Times poll as the nation’s favourite radio voice (fellow Scot Kirsty Young won the women’s category).

Put him in front of a politician however, and Jekyll becomes Hyde.

The Johnson interview

One of his most memorable political interviews was his 2013 skewering of Boris Johnson in a television encounter.

Mair reminded the then mayor of London of several incidents in his career that spoke reflected badly on his character and thus his fitness for office.

He put it to Johnson:

“You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”

Here again, Mair was blunt to the point of rudeness, but he had Johnson bang to rights: these were well-documented incidents he was citing.

Mair did what political interviewers are supposed to do: he confronted Johnson in person with his dirty laundry.

That interview was widely praised. So why the controversy this time?

What was the problem with the Rudd interview this month?

Assigning roles

The key point seems to be the context. This time around, the roles assigned to the players were different.

In normal circumstances, most listeners would agree that politicians are fair game for a tough interview.

Normally then, Mair would have had carte blanche.

But this interview came after a nightmare of a speech for Theresa May, in which nearly everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.

And she won sympathy not just from the conference faithful but some political commentators for having struggled gamely on.

Unusually for Theresa May then — a politician often criticised for her stiff, robotic style — circumstances cast her in a more sympathetic role.

So when Mair launched into his usual take-no-prisoners style of interview with the Home Secretary, for some listeners, it struck the wrong tone.

She may not have suffered up there on the podium, but she was there to represent her party and her leader. This time then, at least for some, Mair’s robust style and facetious asides were ill-judged.

Because this time, fate had cast the politicians as the victims.

There was a sense that Mair was kicking them when they were down.

Context is everything

I was listening to the PM broadcast when programme first went out. I heard the excruciating clips from May’s speech and listened to correspondent Carolyn Quinn’s detailed post-mortem afterwards.

But when they got to Mair’s interview with Rudd, I reached over and switched channels. It did feel like gawking at a road accident.

Listening to the interview subsequently, it did not seem better or worse than any other of Mair’s interviews.

But May’s jinxed speech shifted the frame of the story from conventional political analysis to something closer to disaster reporting.

To complain, as one listener had, that Mair was over-prepared, might be difficult to take seriously as a criticism.

But “sneering” and “flippant”, the other criticism offered, speaks to the tone of the interview — and tone is often very much a question of context.

One can take or leave the quirks of Mair’s interview style as a matter of taste — but to some ears, this time at least, his dry wit came off as facetious; and his tenacious questioning seemed excessive.

Had May’s conference speech passed off reasonably well, there would have been far fewer objections to his interview with Rudd.

Not everyone who phoned into Feedback was unhappy with Mair’s performance.

The programme quoted one listener who declared that Mair had:

…unexpectedly become my personal hero today afther interviewing Amber Rudd in a way that I wish other Radio 4 journalists would heed.
He had the facts at his fingertips, he remained calm and persistent and stayed focussed.