“I have to say I’ve got annoyed about all the claims of Brexit bias on the BBC,” Jo Coburn tells Press Gazette on a break between rehearsals for Politics Live, successor to the long-running Daily Politics show.
“You have to imagine the BBC as this massive information tool broadcasting on radio, on television, on websites,” she goes on.
- March 19, 2019
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“Now, do we balance every single interview, every single day, every single time we mention Brexit and who’s judging that? Well, no. But is there some ingrained bias? No – and there certainly isn’t here at political programmes.
“I think we’ve done a very good job of hearing the voices from Leave and Remain and then even within that the shades of complexity. I mean I can’t talk for the whole of the BBC and I don’t listen to all of the BBC output all of the time, but I just don’t think it’s justified.”
Over a coffee in the BBC’s Millbank studios in London, Coburn, or “Jo Co” as her co-host Andrew Neil is fond of calling her, tells Press Gazette the pilot for Politics Live, which she has been busy rehearsing, was “quite good actually” and “less frightening than I thought it was going to be”.
She is at once vital, engaging, self-deprecatingly funny and steely – traits which have made her one of Britain’s top political broadcasters.
Coburn has been a regular presenter on Daily Politics since 2011, but first joined the team in 2007 following stints as a political reporter for BBC London, Breakfast News, Today and the nightly bulletins.
She began her 25-year journalism career in local radio, going on to present the “drivetime” show for what was then BBC Thames Valley FM, covering the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
She seems a good fit to host BBC Question Time when David Dimbleby vacates the role later this year to return to reporting. “I’m not going to tell you,” she replies when Press Gazette asks if she has applied for the job.
For now Coburn’s focus is squarely on the launch of Politics Live, which will air its first episode at 12.15pm on Monday. It replaces the Daily Politics show, which was axed last month after 15 years on the air.
“This is a modern, complete rewrite of what we were doing – hence it is a new programme – so it will just feel and sound completely different and more up-to-date,” says Coburn.
“That’s not to say the Daily Politics wasn’t great, because it was fabulous and I loved working on it.”
Aside from a revamped set design, including “a big, proper table – Andrew will be thrilled”, Coburn says the new show will be “just a little bit more in touch with a conversational, discursive style”.
She adds: “There is a little bit of American influence there [from] some of the TV chat shows – I think they’ve looked at a number of them, anything from Morning Joe [on MSNBC] to some at CNN.
“It’s about taking influences and bits and pieces from various other TV chat shows, but this is a political programme and will remain so. The idea is to make it a little bit more about the guests and the players and not so much about me chairing in that sort of conventional way.”
Politics Live will run for 45 minutes, as opposed to the hour-long slot reserved for the Daily Politics show.
This is partly the result of cuts across BBC, with changes to political programming – including turning the Sunday Politics into a regional half-hour show – hoped to save nearly £2m. Ultimately, BBC News must find £80m in annual savings by 2019/20.
Coburn, a Londoner who still professes a love for the capital’s politics, will also share presenting duties on the London edition of the Sunday Politics, set to air after the Andrew Marr Show in its new time of 10am.
She says there is also a “cosmetic reason” for the shorter daily slot – “and nothing to do with my make-up” – to bring it in line with other BBC programmes such as Newsnight and World At One.
“It’s not that there has to be this symmetry, but when we’re doing this kind of format, which is a little bit looser, and a little bit free flowing and a little bit risky, you might say, 45 minutes is a good time for that so it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to eek out conversation from people who don’t do this on a daily basis,” she explains.
“I know politicians are used to talking and being on chat shows, but they are used to being guided, quite often, through it – and we are throwing it open to them a little bit more, God help us.
“Sometimes that will be really easy and sometimes that might be less so, and I think 45 minutes will fit much better.”
Press Gazette posits that changes to the show, and its new “Live” epithet, are in deference to social media and the move away from traditional appointment-to-view broadcasting and towards itinerant mobile views.
“I think there is some truth in that, but it’s not all about social media,” says Coburn. “But there has got to be a recognition that social media does play quite a big role in everyone’s lives these days.
“We don’t want to alienate any viewers, so I am still the presenter and so is Andrew and we are the same people, asking the questions, but it will be more a chance for the guests to actually rise to the challenge of being able to hold a conversation themselves and talk in a normal way about politics.”
She adds: “It’s just about lifting and modernising a show that has been great, but I think we have got to take into account that more people are interested in politics and some of those people are under the age of 65.
“There is more campaigning, more one-issue politics that is coming to the fore, even though the two big parties still dominate in terms of electoral power, there is a lot more going on under the scenes, partly because of social media having opened it up.
“But you wouldn’t be able to say that this is a show about social media.
“Where it could and will play a bigger role is that some of the films that we are doing, we will use them and rebrand them beyond the television programme – I mean that’s to get extra benefit and they will then go out on the internet and they have already drawn different style audiences, so I think it will be beyond the show rather than on it.”
This packaging of bite-sized clips for social media has served broadcasters such as Channel 4 News well in terms of growing an audience online, although the problem of then monetising them still remains.
It is a chance for the BBC to reach younger audiences, however, which BBC News director Fran Unsworth has said is a clear priority for the corporation along with ensuring it remains a trusted, impartial broadcaster.
“This is not some shameless grab for a younger audience,” says Coburn when Press Gazette mentions the BBC’s priorities.
“I’m the age I am… and our audience has been predominantly older and male. But actually, the figures were beginning to show just partly because politics is sexy for the first time in years – yes in the very loose sense of the word – that actually we were being listened to on iPlayer, not necessarily in the scheduled slot, or people were picking up pieces in stuff that was going out on the website and Twitter and listening to it and thinking ‘I will watch the programme and I might watch it in the evening’ and they were younger people – by which I mean 30,40,50-years-old – and that was great.
“So that was a trend that was already happening and this is leaning in to it just a little bit more, without making it difficult for our wonderful older audience. And hopefully, having the same presenters with our fairly clear, gravitas-laden voices, will help that.”
Social media and a sequence of significant political events, from Brexit to Trump’s election, has sent the news agenda into overdrive in recent years. Coburn agrees the pace of political reporting has “changed beyond recognition”.
“From a journalist’s perspective, in some ways it’s fabulous because you’ve got so many things you can tap into and catch up on and you can do it in digest form, you can do it in long-form, you can read blogs, you can read Twitter and as long as you don’t become overwhelmed by it, I think it’s totally manageable,” she says.
“And I think it’s actually much more helpful than maybe just having a set of newspapers to read and a couple of websites.
“[Social media] does make it quick and instant and accessible and for some people who actually found politics dry, this has shaken it up… it’s made it feel accessible for everyone, even for people who weren’t that interested.
“Where we have to be careful, is that we are still reporting in the most balanced way we can and try to reflect all the different shades of opinion because there are now so many.
“I think the 24-hour media cycle has certainly made that a challenge, but so has Brexit because it’s no longer left and right, it’s different shades, across parties and so on and so forth.
“The challenge being a journalist is to also report that so it doesn’t bore people and don’t make it too ‘Westminster bubble’ – you need to use the 24/7 news cycle in a way that steps back and says: ‘Let me just remind you about the core story here.’
“You don’t have to get turned up in all the twists and turns all the time, even though that’s our job as newshounds, because people’s capacity – my capacity – is only so great.”
Coburn is a member of BBC Women, the group representing more than 170 broadcasters and producers.
The BBC was revealed to have a gender pay gap of 9.3 per cent last year, which has since fallen to 7.6 per cent after “concerted action” to reduce the salary divide. It aims to have gender pay parity by 2020.
Coburn says the BBC “certainly has had” a gender pay equality issue and it has been slow to change, but adds: “I think it is addressing it and it is trying to do the right thing and it needs to do the right thing”.
She adds: “It needs to take all the steps that are necessary to make sure it can stand up and have presenters like me sitting in the chair scrutinising politicians saying: ‘Why don’t you have equal pay and no gender pay gap?’ that we have it at the BBC.”
She says the BBC “knows there’s more to do – and it’s equality on all sides – but they need to do more until the issue is resolved and they’re happy that it’s been resolved”.
Asked if the BBC is underpaying women, she replies: “Certainly not intentionally. I don’t know is the honest answer. I think there was [a problem], but they’re dealing with it.”
Coburn said she backed former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie’s “campaign to seek redress” after a Government edict forcing the BBC to publish the salaries of its on-air talent earning more than £150,000 revealed she was paid less than her fellow international editors who were men.
Says Coburn: “I think she did very well bringing attention to her case and potentially the plight of other women and they should be encouraged to come forward if they think there is a case to answer.”
Coburn herself has not appeared on either top-earning talent list. As well as the Daily Politics she also hosts BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
Her Daily Politics co-presenter Neil, who also presented the Sunday Politics until last year and hosts late-night show This Week, appeared on the first list with a salary of up to £250,000, but not the second published this year.
Coburn says when the first list came out and she saw she wasn’t on it she “was worried about it”, but adds: “It’s been dealt with.”
She says: “It was raised and Andrew was always very open and upfront and we discussed it and I feel now that it has been sorted out properly.”
On air, Coburn has a straight-forward and incisive interview style that demands answers of her political guests.
She recalls receiving a “controversial response” for her interview with Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott at the last general election. It included playing back a tape of the Labour MP failing to remember the figures for a new policing policy on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show.
“That was a difficult interview and it highlighted actually some of the decisions that you have to make when you do those sorts of interviews,” she says. “But that was an interesting interview.”
Asked what she looks to get out of an interview with a politician, she says: “I’m trying to get answers from them and I’m trying to ask the questions that people want me to ask and I hope I do it fairly and firmly.”
She says a great interview is “of course, always finding out something you didn’t know before,” but said it can also be about getting politicians to “talk openly and freely and away from the party line”.
She expands: “Not to be disloyal, but just to talk a bit more openly about their brief and the subject that they’re engaged in. And for it to be enlightening and informative and lively.”
Asked if she ever tires of certain politicians, Coburn says those who come on the show are “to some extent our clients”, adding: “They are our guests on the show and I have a lot of admiration for many of them.
“I don’t think: ‘oh no, not them again,’ because we rely on them, we need them as much as they need us.”
When it comes to handling trickier guests – George Galloway gets a mention – Coburn says: “You just have to ask the questions you want to ask, and I think try and be polite if you can be – and not be rude.”
Politics Live airs at 12.15pm from Monday 3 September.