By Rhys Thomas
Evan Davis is best known as a top BBC presenter, and we sat down together at a time of unprecedented challenge for the Corporation as well as political tumult in the country at large.
We started by discussing what Davis is perhaps best known for, hit BBC2 series Dragons Den. “I’m always bemused at how well known I am for doing Dragons Den, because I actually only appear in Dragons Den for perhaps one minute in each episode. I’m not a big presence in Dragons Den”.
A less self-aggrandising media figure than Davis you could not hope to meet, and he happily regales me with the story of how he originally got the job. “Someone in a BBC department came to me and said, ’Would you like to think about who should present this programme’, and they showed me some tapes from the Japanese version. And I said I think you need a presenter who has very little personality – the programme is oozing with personality from the Dragons and the entrepreneurs – you need someone who isn’t competing for that, someone just very straight and boring. And they said that’s what we thought – so we’d like you to do it!”
What he is undoubtedly a big presence in, however, is Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship weekly current affairs programme. The atmosphere can be even more fiery than the Den, as recent developments have shown. Hatgate, anyone?
One of the more head-scratching political controversies of recent times, Hatgate was spawned when Newsnight used a photo of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to illustrate a story on his response to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. Corbyn’s phalanx of online supporters accused the BBC of editing the photo to make their man look more Russian – never mind that he was already wearing a “Lenin cap”. Our meeting was only a couple of weeks after the furore, but it was clear that Davis wasn’t keen to rehash that peculiar pandemonium. “There’s no point in going on about it, if I’m honest with you. We clearly took a real picture of Corbyn, we clearly washed it through a graphics package that made it look slightly softer focus, made it reddy-pinky colour to fit in with the Kremlin picture, and it made his had softer focus and slightly less high resolution than the original.
Clearly, we did not photoshop the hat to look more Russian. We’ve said that. Really, there’s no more to say about it. We were taken aback, I think it is fair to say, by the level of anger at the apparent photo shopping of the hat”.
Corbyn supporters are not the only ones to feel aggrieved by the BBC. Former Labour Minister Andrew Adonis is on the warpath, a fanatical Remainer who has unleashed Twitter tirades against the BBC including referring to it as the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”. Davis tells me that he knew Adonis at college, and lived with him for a spell afterwards. “He’s a good guy. I’m surprised Andrew has been as vitriolic as he has about it. As it happens, If I’m honest, I disagree with him about it. It’s not my job to have an opinion, but I disagree with him about it. My whole spirit at the moment is – I’m not going to get sucked into silly arguments! And I’m certainly not getting sucked into one with Andrew”. Whilst he wasn’t keen to respond in kind to Adonis, he did have an overarching message for passionate BBC opponents of all political stripes. “It’s very hard for someone who feels incredibly strongly about something to become the judge of whether we’re partial or impartial. I’m not going to worry about our impartiality when people who feel very strongly about it think we’re partial. I will worry about it much more when people who don’t feel very strongly about it – who aren’t invested in Remain or Brexit – when they start saying “God, your coverage is really Brexit or really Remain”. Then I think I would be much more worried”.
Along with everything else, Davis was especially keen to emphasise this point. “We have to be strong enough to withstand criticisms from all sides or any side, and we have to be able to defend ourselves. I would be able to defend ourselves, but I don’t want to get sucked into arguments like “Look at 10 past 8 – you had this person but not the other one” – because that’s not the way to do it”.
It’s clear that the BBC is under siege from all corners, and not just the aforementioned Corbynites and Remainers. Many Brexiteers and those on the Right have significant criticisms, so how does Davis explain these reactions? “There is a very sharp tribal divide in British politics at the moment that is particularly severe on social media, where people are jumpy about how their side is being treated, respected and portrayed. That’s not unique to the Left by the way. Would I prefer it if everyone was a bit more relaxed about these things? Of course I would. But they’re entitled to be jumpy, entitled to be sensitive to every nuance in our coverage, and they’re entitled to hold us to account for it. At the same time, we have always to sort of listen, but not overly react to all these types of things. If you overly react, then you’re just enticing or encouraging people to shout louder in order to get more in their direction”
In these unprecedented times of political turmoil, I asked Davis if he could envisage a political realignment – perhaps the emergence of a new party which has been mooted by some. “Yes and no. Clearly at the moment there are a lot of people who are in the traditional centre who range from Chuka Umunna to George Osborne, let’s say, who are feeling a bit homeless politically, and they’re left out. Then you have this other problem, which is a lot of people in the Tory party are clearly closer to a lot of people in the Labour party than either of those groups are to some other people in their own parties. So that would make it ripe for realignment, but it may well be that you just get the parties sifting themselves into slightly clearer propositions”.
Political falsifications (or at least perceptions of it) seem to be à la mode nowadays, and it was Davis who wrote the book on post-truth – literally. His text, released in paperback last month, has the strapline “Peak Bullshit – and What We Can Do About It”. In it he examines dishonesty from the lowest levels to heart of global politics. I skipped over the little lies and went straight to King Bullshit himself – Donald J. Trump. How did he win the Presidency? “Trump invented a new kind of bullshit and a new kind of honesty. The bullshit was saying stuff that just wasn’t true – the honesty was in saying what he felt at the time rather than hiding his feelings or trying to disguise his views. I don’t think anyone accuses him of disguising his views, his views are his views and he says what he’s thinking – he changes his views quite a lot by the way. He tended to say what he was thinking rather than resile from it, whereas a lot of traditional, establishment politicians give the impression of never quite saying what they’re thinking, but what the focus group told them they should be saying. So there was an honesty and a bullshit about Trump”. Post-truth implies that there was an era of truth, was that ever the case? “I think Trump gave the impression of being in a new era, but it wasn’t as if he invented political lying or mendacity”.
Davis’ career is built around the art of interviewing and on various programs from Newsnight to Today on Radio 4 Davis is responsible for interviewing multiple guests every show, so what’s the formula? “There’s no generic way. I tend to ask myself “What are we trying to get out of this interview?”. And there’ll normally be a small handful of different things. One is, we’re just trying to learn something about, for example, the market for technology companies and we’re talking to an expert and we’re trying to learn something. They’re the easiest interviews because you can think of six dumb questions that are going to elicit interesting answers. Second, are we trying to get an emotional story, an emotion experience out of somebody – is the emotional value the reason we’re doing this, because it’s vivid and reminds us all why we’re interested in this topic. The third would be – are we trying to have an intellectual argument about a point? The gender pay gap, what’s driving it? Then the fourth would be are we trying to hold this politician to account in some way, and trying to confront them with the hypocrisy, incompetence or the deception that they have employed in the past”. I don’t ask if there are any of his BBC colleagues who could learn from his four points.
Finally, some advice for Cardiff graduates about to make their way in the world of the media. “Don’t just be interested in journalism, have a hinterland:
One – it’ll make your journalism better and two – when you discover that journalism can’t pay, you’ll have another specialism to fall back on!”.