If you have even the slightest bit of interest in sport, chances are that you are familiar with Clare Balding the sports presenter who works for both the BBC and Channel 4. Balding’s ubiquitous sports coverage was memorably lampooned by British comedian Tracey Ullman earlier this year in a sketch that seemed eerily accurate.
Balding presents a wide range of events from the Olympic Games to Crufts (the world’s largest dog show) on Channel 4. She is one of these presenters who always seems to be on television. She appears to be someone who has a genuine love and passion for what she does. She comes across as unassuming and approachable on any broadcast that she makes. This is why I was absolutely mystified at an article that was published in The Guardian on Saturday, where a journalist claimed that Balding was a controlling diva who wanted the final say over an article that was to be published in Saga magazine. In the article “How BBC star Clare Balding nicked my byline” Ginny Dougary lamented the fact that Balding insisted that she have final say over what was included in the article. “Who is this insecure diva who does not know better about what should be an essential divide between journalism and public relations? It must be one of those Hollywood actors, you might think, represented by aggressively image-controlling agents. Well, it is disappointing to report that it is one of the nation’s darlings and a champion of other women, particularly right now in the battle for equal pay at the BBC. Yes, it’s all-round good egg Clare Balding.”
As all good PR students know, there is a divide between PR and journalism, or at least there should be. What interested me about this article is the fact that previously I would have thought nothing negative about Clare Balding, now I am not so sure. The seed of doubt has been planted. It seems crazy to me that what is essentially a fluff piece (my apologies to journalists but unless you are a sort of Lynn Barber type interviewer, that is how they come across, but if they help you stay afloat in your chosen career by all means carry on) merits such rigorous protection.
Apparently, one of the main problems that Balding had about the article was that it focused too much on her sexuality. “The next day, I receive an email from the editor, Katy Bravery, apologising but adding: “Clare and her agent have complained that there is way too much about her being gay in the interview, and I have to say I agree.” Now here is the thing, it could be that Balding spoke at length about her sexuality to this journalist, however upon reading the article felt that it was not doing enough to promote what she really wanted to talk about, her new children’s book. Balding is very clear about her sexuality in her daily life but could it be that she just didn’t want it to be mentioned within this particular article? I don’t really understand why Dougary seems so fixated on Balding’s sexuality, could it be that Balding inadvertently said something that she wished to be kept “off the record” and realised that this might be included in the article. Maybe Balding herself thought that it was not information that the readers of Saga magazine would be interested in. Is Balding within her rights to retract some things that she has said over the course of the interview or not?
Here is the real issue though, the article goes on to mention that Balding has clearly added quotes to the interview, which the journalist was previously unaware of. Alarm bells should be going off by now, Balding’s job is to answer the questions she was asked, not to suddenly decide after a while that she now has something better to say. A journalist should have the final say not the interviewee, a journalist’s job is to scrutinise power after all. Does an interview with a celebrity do that though? Are they a clear opportunity to scrutinise someone’s position or are they simply a PR exercise? There is far too much emphasis nowadays on what celebrities have to do and say. Each article or pre-recorded chat show interview seems the same. If you want to gain a real insight into how a celebrity thinks or feels then you need to talk to them one on one. Average people such as you and me do not get this opportunity though, so instead we turn to our magazine articles and chat show interviews desperately wanting to relate to these celebrities. We want to believe that their interviews on Graham Norton et al are real, unrehearsed, spur of the moment events.
However, do journalists really believe that each interview that they have with a celebrity is not a carefully constructed PR exercise? Do we the readers really believe that? Think of Hollywood’s stars of the Golden Age, everything was controlled. There were no photos of actors falling out of nightclubs. These stars were “perfect” supposedly. Has anyone ever seen a bad photo of Lauren Bacall or Grace Kelly in their heyday for example? Call me old-fashioned, but I fail to see how this could lead to accusations of “fake news”. The interview would have to be newsworthy in the first place, celebrity interviews are not the most important thing that someone will read over the course of a day.
I am going to end this long-winded post by saying that both Saga magazine and Clare Balding have come out strongly denying Dougary’s claims. However, the damage has been done for me. Now every year when I watch Crufts I will be thinking is Clare Balding actually nice or is she a controlling diva? It’s highly ironic that by trying to control this interview, Balding has damaged her brand for many people including myself. I am sorry if this comes across as a rant against objective journalism, it is not meant to be. Impartiality in journalism has never been more important, I just want all parties involved in celebrity interviews to acknowledge the unspoken truth, that these type of interviews are a type of PR exercise. Celebrity interviews are where public relations and journalism collide, like it or not. Maybe it’s time we started to have a look at how we view the journalistic merit of such interviews in the first place.
Catherine Leonard is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter @CLeonard1212