Boris Johnson accused of 'playing the BBC' over refusal to be interviewed

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell has said Boris Johnson is "playing" the BBC after he refused to be interviewed on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

On Wednesday, Today presenter Martha Kearney said the programme has interviewed all but one of the major party’s leaders ahead of the 6 May elections: "The prime minister has turned down our requests."

Instead, coronavirus vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared on the show on Wednesday, while international trade secretary Liz Truss was interviewed on Tuesday.

Labour MP McDonnell said on Twitter that the corporation should "refuse" to accept "substitute" Conservative ministers:

“Johnson’s refused to go on BBC’s Today programme. Same tactics as in general election to avoid detailed questioning. He’s playing the BBC again & getting away with it. The BBC should refuse to accept a substitute, blank Johnson’ stunts and offer their slots to the other parties.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14: John McDonnell MP addresses striking workers at a rally near at Heathrow Airport on December 14, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell. (Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

The prospect of the BBC boycotting Johnson’s ministers is unlikely given its impartiality guidelines. For example, part of section 10.3.1 of the guidelines reads:

"Achieving due impartiality involves taking account of the different parties in each nation, as well as those with electoral support across the UK."

In any case, it's not just the Today show, and the BBC, that Johnson has dodged. On Wednesday, Zahawi also appeared on ITV's Good Morning Britain as the government's representative and presenter Susannah Reid asked him: "Why doesn’t he do interviews?" Johnson has never appeared on the show as PM.

In the run-up to Thursday's elections, and during the coronavirus crisis in general, Johnson has largely appeared in brief TV pool clips, such as the one below on Wednesday, rather than extended one-on-one interviews.

Johnson has past form for dodging tough interviews, famously during the 2019 general election campaign.

He was the only party leader who refused to be quizzed by the BBC's Andrew Neil, while on the day before the election, he even retreated into a fridge to avoid being interviewed live on Good Morning Britain after he was doorstepped by a reporter on a campaign visit.

While he was angrily criticised by presenters, refusing to be scrutinised in TV interview form did not harm his electoral prospects. Johnson's Tories won an 80-seat majority.

During that campaign, he was angrily criticised for avoiding interviews – though it appeared voters were broadly unconcerned as Johnson won an 80-seat majority in the poll.

The Johnson administration's testy relationship with certain programmes continued after the election, with the government refusing to offer ministers for interview on the Today programme until the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in spring last year.

Ministers' boycott of Good Morning Britain, meanwhile, only ended in November last year once Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings left Downing Street.

It's not just TV interviews that Johnson has previously avoided as PM. It took 10 months before he appeared at the House of Commons liaison committee – the only committee that can question a PM – in May last year. PMs usually appear before it two or three times a year.

However, Johnson has appeared more frequently at the committee since that long-awaited first appearance.