This is the full transcript of my interview with the BBC’s Political Editor Nick Robinson for this week’s edition of Newswatch, about BBC News coverage of the Local and European Parliamentary elections. A slightly shorter version was used in transmission. The BBC received more than a 1,000 viewer complaints. You can view Newswatch every Friday on the Newschannel at 845pm, Saturday on BBC1 745am or on iplayer for a year after.
SAMIRA: Were your interviews with Nigel Farage before the election too personal and too aggressive?
NICK: I don’t think they were too personal. I don’t think they were too aggressive either. I did take a view that Nigel Farage was likely to be at the centre of the election campaign, that it was widely predicted by all parties that UKIP could win the European elections, and that Mr Farage had done a lot of clips for news programmes, usually with a pint in the hand, usually with a smile on his face, usually, frankly, inviting him to comment on others, rather than being interrogated on his own opposition. And I thought it was right to do that,. Now I asked about his wife because he in public talks about ‘my German wife’, he often does it, and he unveiled a poster warning that people coming over from the EU were taking British people’s jobs. Since he employs, her, since he employs her at the taxpayers’ expense, I thought it was perfectly legitimate to ask about why he did that, rather than employing a British person, which seemed consistent with his poster.
SAMIRA: It’s clear that Nigel Farage divides viewers, and indeed voters, and we’ve certainly had complaints from both sides. I’m interested that after the interviews apparently skewering him, his ratings seemed to go up, and I wondered what you made of his relationship with voters and viewers?
NICK: Well, there is absolutely no doubt that he’s a sort of marmite politicians, isn’t he? You either love him or loathe him. And the BBC gets flak for either giving him too much flak, and on the other hand we get flak for giving him far too much airtime as well. And people feel that deeply. They either think he’s the saviour of the country, the guy who tells it like it is, or they tend to think he’s dangerous, and he shouldn’t get the coverage he gets. And in a sense we have to at the BBC, I have to, be immune to all that. I can’t do interviews working out if it’ll help this politicians, or hinder this politicians, give them a boost in the ratings or not. What you have to do is think what is a fair, what is a legitimate, what is the proper question to ask someone, which interrogates them about their position, as well as giving them the chance to make their views known. As it happens UKIP’s ratings did go up, but Mr Farage’s personal ratings went down. But I really couldn’t care less whether they go up, down, flat – not my job. That’s up to voters what they do. My jobs is to say, is this a fair and proper question, and I think it was.
SAMIRA: Can we talk about the English local election coverage? There was talk on the BBC of a political earthquake, a seismic shift, a surge for UKIP. And if you look at the actual result, they only got 163 seats compared with over 2,000 for Labour, and control no councils. And their share of the vote actually went down. Many say the BBC tone was exaggerating the reality to UKIP’s great benefit, and unfair to other parties.
NICK: Well in particular I think Labour supporters got deeply frustrated that they’d made many gains, indeed the most gains of councils and councillors, and votes. They feel – I know, I get these messages myself – that wasn’t properly and fairly represented. We did report that, though it’s worth remembering that the results got much better into Friday, than they were overnight Thursday night into Friday morning. So the picture come Friday night was much better and healthier for Labour than it had been the night before, and at the time people were switching on their radios, or televisions, or downloading the internet first thing Friday morning. The point we were making, again and again, was to report the facts – you always got in all the coverage who gained this, and who gained that – but also we’re there to add analysis, and interpretation. And the truth is every psephologist – the guys, in other words, who study elections, whether it’s Professor John Curtice we hire, Peter Kellner, the head of YouGov who was in the studio – all agreed that these results were not good enough for Labour to be confident of winning the next election. They only had a lead of about 1% over the Conservatives. They were not as good as other oppositions had done at a similar time in this sort of situation before an election. UKIP on the other hand have made a breakthrough. They were no longer just a European party. They were finding a base in local councils, not just in the south against the Tories, but in the north against Labour they were making gains. They were establishing themselves as the fourth party of English politics – they went on to do it of British politics at the European elections – but we were right to point that out. Just one last thought, Samira – I didn’t say there was an earthquake. I quoted Nigel Farage predicting there would be an earthquake, and in my coverage on the morning news said that we’d feel the first tremors. It wasn’t until we got to the European elections that I then went on and said people had doubted there was an earthquake, there certainly now had been.
SAMIRA: Well let’s talk about the European parliamentary elections. UKIP clearly won. But again, many viewers are concerned that the BBC’s coverage of it had been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some see the BBC as a cheer-leader for UKIP.
NICK: I know there is that feeling, but I have to say I think it’s wrong. Why do I think it’s wrong? Because the big rise in UKIP’s poll ratings happened before this campaign. In other words, it happened long before Mr Farage was getting onto the television day in and day out. There already had been a surge, indeed a year ago UKIP had got a record-breaking performance at the local council, the county council as it was then, elections last May. And therefore you can’t make that link between recent coverage and his performance.
SAMIRA: We got the same complaints over last year’s elections, I think that’s what’s key. People feel the BBC’s been building them up for more than a year.
NICK: Well, what the BBC has to do is to give, or to try to give fair coverage to politicians. And the way this is done, in case people wonder how it‘s done, is by studying how parties have done in the past, how many seats they’ve got, for example, how they did in a general election or a local election, or a Euro election; then also look at their current poll ratings, And decisions are made not by the likes of me, not even by my editors, but we have a Chief Political Adviser, whose job is to advise our regulators, the BBC Trust, who make a judgement: who gets roughly what share of coverage. His decision, which was echoed entirely by ITV and Channel 4 and Sky’s regulator, Ofcom, was that UKIP should get equal coverage to the big three parties in the European elections. It was a national vote. They performed very well in 2009, the last European elections, they were performing in the opinion polls in a way that suggested they may come first, and therefore a decision was taken, if you like by our regulators, that being fair and balanced meant giving UKIP the same level of coverage as the Conservatives, as Labour, as the Liberal Democrats.
SAMIRA: Some people are really alarmed, as you know, by the rise of UKIP. And one way minority parties become part of the mainstream is with the help of media attention. Do you feel a responsibility here?
NICK: Well, if you mean, do I think we should censor, or hold back, or hesitate before covering a party that gets a quarter of the votes, absolutely not. Who people vote for is up to them. It is not up to the BBC to judge individual parties, to make a decision about whether we agree with them or not, whether we think they’re savoury or not, whether we like their view or not, and then judge our coverage accordingly. We just can’t do that. Every person in this country is obliged by law to pay watch their television, radio and online. They are entitled to see the full range of views before them, and to make their own decisions. Look, I remember some of the similar conversations about the rise of the British National Party, and Nick Griffin. The BBC took a decision, very controversial at the time, to put Nick Griffin on Question Time. Let me stress, I am not saying Nigel Farage and UKIP are the same as the BNP, just that there was a similar anger among a section of the audience. A decision was made, I think rightly, that people must make their own minds, not have their minds made up for them, by people here in this newsroom.
SAMIRA: BBC News analysis presented both the Euro and the local votes to viewers largely as a Westminster guide to how people might vote in a general election. Very little on issues important in the local elections, or of the European Parliament, either during the campaign or after. That’s failing to do the job, surely?
NICK: I think there is a downside about that, but it’s not all the coverage. So if you listen to your local radio station, if you watch your regional TV news, if you read online, you will see stories about Sheffield council, or stories about any other council, reported in terms of that – the councils, the decisions they’re taking. It simply isn’t realistic that at a national level we can do that, so the elections we do see through a prism of what it means for a general election. And there is a long history of local elections being a pretty good guide as to what will happen. On the European Parliament, I think that is a fair criticism. I think there certainly was coverage around. My own colleague from Westminster, a man called Ben Wright, a political correspondent, was sent to Brussels in order to make sure that we gave more of a European perspective to those elections. He did examine who did what level of work and what positions they took, but I think it is a fair criticism that we need to constantly think about how do we explain to people exactly what a Member of the European Parliament does, and what the differences are between people who represent one party, and who represent another.