Disastrous Liz Truss interviews show BBC local radio still packs a punch

Analysis: PM’s eight short interviews produced more news than a typical slot on Radio 4’s Today programme

When it was announced that Liz Truss would break her silence on the collapse of the pound by appearing on local radio stations, there was mockery from some London-based journalists who felt she should have given an interview to a national news outlet.

Instead, it was BBC Leeds’s breakfast show that helped shift the price of UK government debt, as traders tuned in and realised the prime minister was sticking to her economic plan. As presenter Rima Ahmed put it to the prime minister: “Where’ve you been?”

Radio Kent put it in more stark terms, with one listener asking Truss: “Are you ashamed of what you have done?”

The prime minister’s rapid-fire set of eight short interviews with BBC radio stations in an hour produced more news than often emerges from a single slot on Radio 4’s Today programme.

One benefit that local radio journalists have over reporters who deal with Downing Street on a daily basis is that they have no incentive to hold back. They are unlikely to have the prime minister on their programme as a regular guest and there is no need to have the complicated ongoing relationships with Downing Street communications staff. Instead they have the chance to ask a handful of questions and try to make their name – and represent the views of their listeners.

Thursday’s interviews were coordinated by the BBC’s Central News Service, which provides national news coverage to the BBC’s 40 local outlets across England the Channel Islands – often by booking a guest who can be interviewed across multiple outlets on the same topic. In this case, radio stations covering Leeds, Norfolk, Kent, Lancashire, Nottingham, Teesside, Bristol, and Stoke-on-Trent were each given about five minutes’ airtime with Truss.

As a result the prime minister sat in Downing Street between 8am and 9am, having only a few seconds to pause between interviews before being patched in to the next breakfast show. The absence of a camera means there is no television footage of Truss squirming – but the short, rapid nature of the interviews still made them perfect for clipping and sharing on social media and in WhatsApp groups.

The interviews come as the BBC tries to figure out a future for its local coverage in England, which is being hit hard by job cuts caused by ongoing real-terms cuts to the licence fee. The corporation is trying to work out a digital future for its local coverage, with BBC local radio stations reaching 7.7 million people in the latest audience figures – down 11% in the last three months alone. Yet the response to Thursday’s interviews suggest there is still an appetite for local accountability journalism presented in a way modern audiences want to consume it.

David Cameron was a particular fan of doing the BBC’s local radio interview round, arguing it kept him sharp and required him to be briefed by aides on issues that affected regional areas – even if he sometimes forgot which area he was talking about.

On Thursday, Truss seemed to be caught off-guard by a question from Amy Oakden on BBC Radio Tees about dead crabs washing up on the shores of the North Sea – a significant issue in the area that has been largely off the national political agenda.

Her pledge to repeal the ban on fracking, popular in libertarian circles of the London Tory thinktank world, went down badly with Radio Lancashire’s Graham Liver: “Your local MPs, all Conservative, don’t want it … Why can’t you tell us this morning there won’t be a return to fracking in Lancashire?”

The prime minister paused then replied: “I don’t accept the premise of your question.”


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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