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December 6, 2010

There, but for the grace of god…

Filed under: Uncategorized, Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 9:01 pm

Barnie Choudhury reflects on Jim Naughtie’s unfortunate Spoonerism on BBC’s ‘Today’ - and remembers some nerve-wracking ‘two-ways’ he had on the programme with its daunting presenters

I was dropping my fourteen year old daughter off at her school when it happened. I almost crashed the car. Olivia looked at me aghast and then asked: ‘Did he just use the “C” word? On Radio4?’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/listen_again/default.stm). Poor Jim Naughtie. There but for the grace of god, I thought.

Let me declare an interest. The ‘Today’ programme is my early morning wake up call. It was the programme which made my - and many others’ - career. I adore Jim, John, Evan and Justin. Sarah is wonderful and I still miss Carolyn Quinn and Sue McGregor.

I’ve been interviewed by all of them in what the industry calls a ‘two-way’. I took precautions. I made sure I woke up at least an hour before my slot, showered, shaved and was completely awake. These pesky presenters, you just don’t know what will come out of their mouths.

You see, doing ‘Today’ was, for me at least, a very big deal. It wasn’t an ego thing - well not completely. I was simply nervous about getting it wrong because I knew who was listening. Every single person in government. Every single serious politician in opposition. Every single police officer who hopes to be a Chief Constable. Every single academic worth his or her salt. Oh, and rumour has it, Her Majesty the Queen as well.

Everyone will be familiar with the infamous six-o-seven slot (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3090681.stm) - the one which caused Alistair Campbell to go to war with the BBC. The result: the scalps of a decent reporter, a brilliant Director-General and a down-to-earth Chairman. Getting it wrong wasn’t an option.

What made things worse was that you always had a sense that John, Jim et al. knew more than you. They had been so well briefed. One morning I was greeted by a cheery Jim, croissant in one hand and the daily papers in the other: ‘Ah, Barnie, so we’re talking about the Council of Europe then…’ I could see where he might have got that idea - but it wasn’t what I’d intended to talk about. So I dashed to the computer and got the BBC Analysis section on the Corporation’s intranet to read up on the Council of Europe. Boy, did I sweat. And wouldn’t you know it, Jim didn’t ask me one single question on the CofE.

It is so easy to get it wrong on live radio and television. Live broadcasting can be exciting - but frightening at the same time. My personal nightmare, from which I have never recovered and which comes back to haunt me, was Friday, 17 February 2006. I am seated in the High Court listening to the case of Lotfi Raisi. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4725606.stm). For some reason I’m not understanding what’s going on. The problem is that I have to do a two-way with Julian Worricker on News 24, as it was then, as soon as the case is finished.

It was a disaster, a train wreck, a car crash…oh boy, the producer ran out from the satellite van screaming at me. I still have the recording of my appearance somewhere. You know the dreams where you’re running through treacle or trying to get to a place and you’re being held back? Well, that’s how I felt as the words tumbled out of my mouth - and I’m in a cold sweat thinking about it now.

So back to Jim. The papers had the story immediately. The Guardian has helpfully put the offending ten seconds on its website and it is also on YouTube. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/06/james-naughtie-today-jeremy-hunt). The BBC, though, has done something rather strange. It has accepted Jim made an error. It has allowed Jim to say he’s sorry, several times. But it has edited out the offending piece of broadcasting from its ‘Listen Again’ player. Come on, BBC! It was an honest mistake. And, for the rest of the programme, you could tell it had an affect on this fine broadcaster, one of our national treasures.

And what about the man whose name was mangled - the Culture Secretary, Jeremy HUNT? He did what I hope I would do in a situation like this: he laughed it off. Mr HUNT tweeted http://twitter.com/jeremy_hunt: ‘They say prepare for anything before going on “Today”, but that took the biscuit…I was laughing as much as u Jim, or shld I say Dr Spooner.’ Ten out of ten, Sir. Someone to watch, me thinks. This is the right way to deal with something that can happen to anyone. One thing I love about the British is our shared ability to laugh at ourselves - and please, I implore you, long may it continue.

Barnie Choudhury,
Senior lecturer,
School of Journalism,
University of Lincoln

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