POLITICS

The Editor Of The Andrew Marr Show's Weekly One Man Twitter Battle Against Accusations Of BBC Bias

Rob Burley speaks to HuffPost UK about why he engages with his critics.

08/07/2017 07:00

Every week on Saturday evenings, Rob Burley, the editor of the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, tweets out the guest list for the next morning’s programme.

And not everyone is pleased. 

Burley could ignore abuse, and the accusations of ‘#BBCbias’, but instead he engages. “People are absolutely entitled to express opinions, express a view, question or criticise,” he says in an interview with HuffPost UK. “They are license fee payers, the ones in the UK anyway. That’s fair enough. I could just ignore their responses. But I see them. So why would I ignore them?”

He adds wryly: “I might be a little acerbic with them, sometimes”. 

Burley edited ITV’s political programme Jonathan Dimbleby until 2007. He joined the BBC in 2008 as assistant editor of Breakfast and Sunday Politics before moving to Newsnight when Ian Katz took over in 2013. After becoming deputy editor on the nightly show, he moved to edit Marr in 2015.

A few days after this interview was conducted, Theresa May appointed Robbie Gibb, who runs BBC’s operation at Westminster, as Downing Street communications director. And Burley will no doubt be considered to be in the running for Gibb’s old job.

For political obsessives, Sunday morning is a weekly Christmas Day. Marr kicks things off at 9am, followed by the 10am clash of ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday and BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics. Then at 11am Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics programme takes the reins.

All the shows attract top level cabinet or shadow cabinet level guests. And for three hours, political Twitter is racing and the stories generated from the interviews inevitably lead most major news sites and can dominate the agenda for days. “Twitter wasn’t really a thing for the programme until I came along,” Burley says. “Andrew and myself are both on there now.”

Marr is not necessarily particularly targeted by online critics, Burley cautions. “They probably have issues with all sort of programmes. Question Time has quite a lively Twitter reaction going on. And other shows probably get some as well.

“But obviously we are the biggest Sunday political programme and one of the biggest of political programmes. We welcome people commenting on it and wanting to engage with me on Twitter about it and with Andrew on Twitter about it - that’s all good.”

Since 2015, Marr has scored its record highest audience of 2.7 million viewers for one episode and improved the average programme audience by around 15-20%.

“We have recently, in the last couple of years, hit the biggest audiences we have ever had on the show in its history,” Burley says proudly. “Politics is incredibly interesting at the moment and I guess we get attention for that reason rather than there being anything intrinsic about the programme that would provoke people.

“There is an extent that people are rude, or uncivil, or kind of aggressive. I think it’s ok to reference that. I think civility is one of the casualties of all this generally.

“I might be a little be acerbic with them sometimes, if they are being kind of unfair, or not listening to reason or not really engaging. My default position from the beginning is to try and be polite.”

Burley says if he has garnered a reputation for “engaging people in a funny way” or “pushing back” that’s “only because they have come in with a very extreme starting point”.

PA Wire/PA Images

Burley argues that Andrew Marr’s approach as “a polite interviewer” and not “overly aggressive” is the right one.

“One of the things we have worked very closely together on is being making sure its a tough interview but a fair interview. That’s what we try and do. I hope thats acknowledged,” he says.

“The show also has a big impact as well. We don’t just come on and let politicians just deliver their messages, we also challenge them. There are moments in the programme which were moments in the election campaign and the referendum. The reaction is a consequence of that.”

“There are lots of people who love the programme. But there are some people who are rude and won’t ever have a reasoned conversation. They have a position and they are going to just hammer on that position.”

What winds Burley up the most is a frequent “misunderstanding” that Marr must just feature politicians that viewers agree with. “Thats the main problem. Sometimes people interpret the presence of someone they don’t like as bias. Which is strange. What would the programme look like if it only had people you agreed with? How does that work?”

Burley says the line-up is decided with careful attention to Ofcom regulations - especially during an election period.“The amount of appearances a party might have will be tied in with their electoral performance in terms of seats, in terms of MEPs, MPs, councilors and also opinion poll ratings.”

Marr and other BBC political programmes are frequently accused of featuring Ukip too much -  in particularly its former leader, Nigel Farage. “This is why there is a misunderstanding about Ukip,” Burley argues.

In 2015 Ukip they came third, they got over 3 million votes. They won the European elections in 2014. There was no question their electoral support justified their presence on BBC outlets. This gets a lot of people cross.”

In assessing who to get on the show, Burley looks “across a couple of general election cycles”. Which could mean we see less of Farage and whoever ends up as the next Ukip leader.

“Looking at the last election and this one, clearly there has been a significant change [in Ukip’s vote share], so as time goes on that might feed into how often people are on the TV.”

Was the Twitter, interaction, heightened during the election and Brexit referendum? “Oh god yeah,” Burley says.

“The referendum was hugely intense and so was the election. More so than the times in-between. It does increase during those periods because there is so much at state and people are engaged in it on a daily basis.”

But the times in-between were not quiet.“It involved last year the Labour leadership contest and the new Tory leader. The level of intensity in the last two years has been been almost non stop.”

But as well an assessment of political party balance, outside the strictly controlled election period, there are also “journalistic considerations”.

On June 11, the Marr paper review featured George Osborne, Toby Young and Polly Toynbee. Burley was immediately hit with accusations of pro-Tory bias given the presence of both a former Tory chancellor and a conservative commentator.

But Osborne, in his new capacity as editor of the Evening Standard Burley argues, has been almost gleefully revealing in Theresa May’s downfall so can hardly be said to be a supportive of the government.

“The story was clearly a response, in part, to what had happened in the election campaign and so that’s why there were two conservatives voices on the paper review. We were outside the election period and it was the right thing to do journalistically.”

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected election, his supporters also took the BBC to task for not featuring leftwing commentators who backed the Labour leader over the past two years. “I think it was a fair point,” Burley says.

“I do try to acknowledge that people have a fair point. There was Polly Toynbee on there and some of the reaction that came on Twitter, specifically supporters of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, was she’s not someone who has been a loyal or consistent supporter of Corbyn, so where are those voices? I think that’s fair. I think we can replenish and refresh and bring in new voices, we recently had [freelance journalist] Ellie Mae O’Hagan and Faiza Shaheen from the Class think-tank.”

He adds: “These interactions are useful to me in order to get a sense of what people are thinking.”

Sometimes the thinking is harder to understand. One tweeter was upset the graphic published featuring that week’s guests. “But no image of Corbyn? Not very representative BBC. Are you worried about your proven right wing bias? Fair is foul no doubt,” they said. 

Corbyn was not pictured. Because he was not on the show.

PA Archive/PA Images

During the election campaign, reporters bristled at politicians on different sides for encouraging their supporters to target the media. It was not uncommon for journalists to hear their questions at press conferences booed - or worse.

Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor was a particular high profile target. “I don’t think we encounter it as directly as people who are out and about like Laura,” Burley says. “If you are out there you see it up close. The way in which we notice that, to the extent we do, is Twitter.”

* * *

Is the level of abuse, or criticism, greater than it used to be? “I don’t know whether there is any more or less of it, because I can’t even remember what life is like before Twitter,” Burley laughs.

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