The Today programme and the art of political interviewing

I recently published a post discussing Graham Linehan’s unhappy appearance on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme. My main point was that whilst the adversarial interviewing style might be both useful and necessary when confronting the wily and slippery mainstream politician, it was unhelpful and counter-productive when discussing the arts or other similar matters. Mr Linehan himself made a comment on the post in which he also questioned whether this default adversarial style was useful even in political interviewing.

I had these thoughts in mind as I listened to Sarah Montague of the Today programme interviewing Michael Gove this morning. The subject at hand was Gove’s decision to force the 200 worst performing primary schools to become academies. This would remove the schools from local authority control and, according to the Government, free them from the dead hand of bureaucracy. It is claimed (a claim that is disputed, I should add) that when failing secondary schools are turned into academies, they improve. In turn it is suggested by many within education that when there is improvement as a result of the change, it is simply because academies have more money to spend per student than any other type of school.

What is certain is that creating academies does require the movement of funds. Local authorities get less money because they have fewer schools to administer. Academies are public-private partnerships with commercial sponsors and that entails further financial flows. Inevitably in such a complex environment, there are vast reams of rules that are supposed to control and define how these movements of cash are to be undertaken. Equally inevitably, mistakes get made, and adjustments have to be subsequently determined. And it was this matter that Sarah Montague alighted upon as the hook on which to dangle Mr Gove. She kept asking him to admit that mistakes in these calculations had occurred on his watch at the Department for Education, and he kept on refusing to do so. Cue several minutes of sterile ping-pong.

Is the issue of whether or not financial mistakes have been made in the secondary school academy programme the crux of the issue? No. If those mistakes have happened, is whether those mistakes were made at the government department, or at local authorities, central to the business of whether or not we should now embark on primary school academies? No. The central issues are to do with what has prevented improvements in schools before; how improvements flowing from academy status have been achieved; what it means for democratic accountability if more and more schools are removed from local authority control; what are the consequences of handing over the education of our children to commercial or other narrow interest groups. Even more fundamental than all these is the basic question. “What is education for?”

Judged from this perspective, the interview with Mr Gove was an entirely wasted opportunity. This is not a personal criticism of Sarah Montague – she is merely the conduit for a political culture in which minutiae are more important than principles. That in turn is a consequence of politics as blood sport. Of the idea that if an issue takes more than 5 minutes to explore it’s too difficult for the punters to grasp.

As I wrote in my response to Graham Linehan’s comment, I don’t know what is chicken, and what is egg when it comes to the Today programme. Has that kind of journalism created this unsatisfactory political culture, or is that kind of journalism a response to the unsatisfactory political culture we already have? I leave that to you to answer.

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