“Well I’m just a simple honest multi-millionaire...” What one deceptive BBC interview tells you about privilege and the press

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“Hugh Osmond, the founder of Various Eateries PLC, founded Punch Taverns, helped turned Pizza Express into a national chain, is on the line…”

That’s how Emma Barnett — CotU passim — introduced a guest on her show yesterday. It was not an inaccurate description of Mr Osmond, but it was an incomplete one. Here’s how I might have written the script had I been producing the show:

“I’m now joined by Hugh Osmond, founder of Various Eateries PLC, private equity boss, and founder of Punch Taverns. Mr Osmond has been both a major critic of the government — both over its Covid response and in earlier times over issues such as the bank bonuses when David Cameron was Prime Minister — and a major donor. Thank you for joining us today, Hugh…”

Why was Barnett’s original introduction insufficient? Because it failed to frame for the listener that Osmond is more than just the owner of some large chains. He has a particular ideological position and has used his huge financial cloud — he’s a multi-millionaire — to achieve certain advantages for his business.

Beyond the partial intro, Barnett’s approach to the interview was so far from the platonic ideal of ‘BBC balance’ it was like watching a tightrope walker diving into the Grand Canyon, dragging a passerby with her, screaming: “But the government…!” the whole way down. Despite his clear political positioning — as evidenced by where he has chosen to put his money — Osmond was thoroughly disparaging of the government’s actions. This is a position he has taken consistently on Twitter:

Yet despite that and Osmond reading directly from Public Health England’s reporting, which indicates that Covid spikes are in large part centred around care homes, factories and other workplaces where social distancing is hard and support has been inadequate, Barnett battered away at Osmond, casting aspersions on his view and even the facts he was deploying — facts published by a government agency. She replied to his initial statements with this phrase:

“But it’s not about Top Trumps, is it? It’s not about where [the government] is doing worse, is it? Do you buy anything you heard yesterday from the scientists about reducing unnecessary social contact?”

Osmond replied:

“But you have to have evidence, Emma, that the contacts are taking place in restaurants. What the PHE’s own numbers are clearly saying is that the infections are in care homes — that’s where they’ve been all along — care homes and hospitals. They’ve only found 25 positive Covid test incidents in restaurants in the whole of the UK. So this idea that Hancock is saying that we know where this is happening. His own report is saying this isn’t happening… you’re accepting something that isn’t true.”

Barnett continued:

“We’ve just also heard how evidence can be cognitively different, cognitively received differently by different scientists… without getting into that for just a moment, it’s clear what your view is, what do you think about the restrictions on business now, even if you don’t agree with it, because that’s how it is from Thursday.”

Osmond, referring again to the report, said he doesn’t see how “it can be a matter of opinion.” Barnett shot back:

“I wasn’t saying that at all, actually! You’ve just misquoted me, but let’s move on to your view…”

Osmond apologised and continued to press his case based on the current situation in the hospitality industry and the figures published by Public Health England.

It was a maddening listen. Someone passing by as the radio burbled on might have been forgiven for thinking that Barnett’s role was to run interference for the government, so vociferous was her critique of Osmond’s position and so bad faith in its framing too.

While Osmond has consented to come onto Barnett’s show — there is an obvious promotional benefit both for individual name recongition and broader brand recognition to appearing on the BBC — he does know his industry and he was referring to evidence, something that Barnett dismissed in her barracking. It was as though he was the minister in charge of the chaos rather than someone speaking about the victims of that chaos.

Barnett’s curious perception of what balanced means was on show in her notorious interaction with Angela Raynor during the General Election when she — semingly seriously — asked: “Would you nationalise sausages?”

And it is this bizarre world view that made me write previously about my concerns with her taking on the Woman’s Hour job. Her partial presentation of her awareness of her father’s exploitation of women, and in one proven case of a trafficked woman (he did not traffic her himself), adds to the picture of a person born into privilege bought with ill-gotten gains who is capable of ferocious interviewing but often turns that ability in unsavory directions.

This was an interview that ill-served the listener. I had to look up and research Osmond to discover his full background and to understand that he was not an apolitical resteraunteur but, in fact, a private equity guy with deep, deep financial ties to the Conservative Party despite his stinging criticisms.

From there, Barnett’s interventions in the discussion felt designed to shoot down Osmond’s critique and to subject him to the kind of inquisition that is better directed a ministers, like Matt Hancock, whose handling of the crisis has been so woeful. As one of the country’s biggest pub landlords, Osmond can and should be subjected to strong criticism, but in the case of the Barnett interview, he was referring throughout to facts published by one of the government’s own bodies.

In the clash between Osmond and Barnett, two privilege lives were chafing against each other; Barnett’s private school education, Daily Telegraph incubated, BBC-enabled view meeting Osmond’s multi-millionaire, private equity raider perspective, swirled through with statistics from Public Health England that Barnett seemed unwilling to really engage with. Two heads of the establishment hydra were flailing at each other and the listener was left as a bystander, hearing the sounds of the monsters smashing into each other but having only a partial idea of what they signified.

The British media is addicted to these half-formed presentations of the way the world actually is and often resorts to a kind of gaslighting to tell readers, listeners, and viewers that things are one way when the audience is capable of using its eyes, ears, and mouths to ascertain that things are quite, quite different.

Why is trust in journalism so low? Because it often seems like British journalists, in particular, live in an entirely parallel universe and report from it with no awareness that the majority of people do not experience what they do and don’t think as they do. It’s a very specific kind of contempt.

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