Last year I was going to write a post prompted by this Daily Telegraph article from Jeff Randall, the ex-Business Editor of the BBC, where he criticised his former employer for the profusion of useless timeservers at the corporation. Well he should know, I was going to say; how ironic that during his period at the BBC I found him to be such an utter waste of space. I could only imagine what talented journalists such as Evan Davis, Stephanie Flanders and Paul Mason must have thought working alongside someone so woeful. But with so much wrong in this world, and having already written one post slagging the man off, I decided a second was hardly required and so I binned it.
I’m still sure that decision was correct, but recently I have read a good number of posts and comments around the place that, when legitimately criticising the BBC’s business coverage, have spoken wistfully of the Jeff Randall era. Such instances are rare but still they haunt me (I’m easily spooked) and they are a disturbing development. For example take Guido (via Gracchii) who, in one of those posts that suggests he really should just stick to the gossip, criticises Newsnight and Stephanie Flanders because of what appears to be a simple transposing error when reporting the markets; he then finishes his post by pointedly noting that “Jeff Randall is on Sky…“, as is his style.
Well I read that as an invitation, so this week I decided to check out Jeff at his new televisual home, Jeff Randall Live on Sky News. Much water has gone under the bridge since I last clapped eyes on the fellow, and I wondered if perhaps I had been a bit harsh in my appraisal of his talents, that maybe Guido’s implication is right and that he and others have seen something I have not, and that Jeff is a far better journalist that I have hitherto given him credit for.
But oh dear no, it is all still there; Jeff still has the air of someone slightly puzzled, who is trying really hard but is not at all sure quite where he is. When he talks it seems less like he is speaking his brains than he is conducting someone else’s thoughts. Okay, but that’s just presentation, and while it doesn’t breed confidence or suggest Jeff has a mastery of his subject he may still know his stuff, even if he gives every impression that he doesn’t.
But there is more to it than that. In his BBC days Jeff’s role was to answer questions put to him by the presenter, whereupon he would typically appear clueless and flounder around for a bit, unquestioningly trotting out some received wisdom lacking in any supporting evidence, or drawing lazy and false conclusions; I particularly remember him trying to illustrate Leeds United’s financial problems by comparing its turnover against Manchester United’s, which is idiotic. Fortunately Jeff is now spared all that indignity, being both the presenter and interviewer for his own programme, and presumably fed his lines by autocue and earpiece; but still all is not well. He is a very poor interrogator for one thing, his technique apparantly being to lob the obvious and most contentious question first – the one the interviewee will be well rehearsed for – and to then fail to follow it up, plodding on to the next question regardless and making little attempt to react to and engage with whatever the other party has actually said. The result is that he allows the interviewee to speechify, to in effect be allowed to get away with delivering a PR monologue without any fear of being picked up on any of the specifics. In all it doesn’t feel like he is conducting an interview, he may as well be running through a questionnaire.
So yesterday we had David Greene of the law firm representing around 6000 of Northern Rock’s shareholders who reasoned that the government could recompense each shareholder to the value of £4 per share of their worthless stock, a statement that went entirely unchallenged by Jeff. His “interview” with Mike Turner of BAe Systems was even worse, allowing Turner to respond to the obligatory question about the company’s contentious links with Saudi Arabia by sighing, shrugging his shoulders and wondering aloud about what a cruel and unfair world we live in where people can’t just leave his great British company alone, as if concern about the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the Al Yamamah deal and the political interference that brought it to a halt was just an example of the tall poppy syndrome, sour grapes and a sadly regretable lack of patriotism. It was all pretty pathetic.
Now I have nothing against Jeff personally, he is only doing his best bless him, but had I read some of these recent criticisms of the BBC’s business coverage during his tenure I may have entirely agreed, but cited Jeff as a perfect example; so how can you explain his fine reputation among the same folk? Clearly I’ve not watched every report or read every article Jeff has ever produced, and it is possible, though barely plausible, that I have been uniquely unfortunate in my exposure to the bloke; this could merely be a difference of opinion between Jeff’s cheerleaders and myself and there’s no accounting for taste. Maybe it is all down to his supporters taking a dim view of Jeff’s replacement, Robert Peston, who is himself no great shakes; it may be a straightforward case of absence making the heart grow fonder. But just perhaps, could it be the very fact that Jeff has spent much of his post-BBC career regularly criticising the corporation he used to work for that has so endeared him to some? Not for me to say, but whatever the reason the solution is simple; should anyone praise Jeff’s journalistic abilities I will just point them in the direction of his Sky News show and leave it at that. Nothing more will be required, and I never need write about him again.