14 Apr 2016

Accountability and the empty chair – Yes Minister, we want you!

We did ask the Foreign Office for a Minister to respond, but no one was available; we did ask the Home Office for someone to respond but no one was available; we did ask the Department of Health for a Minister to respond, but no one was available; we did ask the Education Department for a Minister…we did ask, we did ask, we did ask.

But no one was available; no one was available; no one was…Argggghhhh!

“No Minister Available” is currently one of the most readily used phrases in Government.

A few weeks back I tweeted that I hadn’t interviewed Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health for three years. He came on the next night. It proved to be no precedent. Even the striking junior doctors have got in on the act; last night for the assembled press outside the Department of Health, they produced a chair with Mr Hunt’s name on it. It remained and remains empty.


The frost descended last year, perhaps because we first reported aspects of both Cameron’s and Osborne’s various family tax issues. George Osborne has only appeared once in the Channel 4 News studio since 2010; he appeared during the election but has not done an interview with us since our “bogus and desperate” story on his family firm’s tax affairs.

The Prime Minister has been more accessible, although the only programme interview he has given me since the election as main presenter of Channel 4 News was at the Conservative Party Conference.

Similarly, almost a year before the Panama papers, we were repeatedly told last year that our own revelations concerning his father’s offshore funds were “a new low for Channel 4.”

It is not through want of trying.

This week we have focussed on the NHS dental crisis in which vast numbers of people in Britain are denied care. We had been talking to NHS England for many weeks about what we were doing and about the availability of the Chief Dental Officer, Sarah Hurley, to appear live to coincide with our dental series.

This week, we were told that her diary was now “full for the next six months and beyond”.

No minister from the Department of Health was “available” either.

A sad state of affairs given that the series revealed acute shortage of access to NHS dental care, particularly amongst children, some of whom had had to have all their teeth removed at the age of two.

When a Government enjoys majority rule on an electoral figure of 36.9 per cent of votes cast, it perhaps behoves them to remedy the democratic deficit, if not by coalition as in 2010, then in part by “availability” to the media.

There are two kinds of media covering politics in the UK.

Those inside the Downing Street lobby (most political correspondents and political editors) and those who are not.

The “pol corrs” as we call them, depend for their livelihoods on remaining within the lobby. If they step seriously out of line they could be barred from access to Downing Street briefings, held behind closed doors and often “not for attribution”.

Hence those interviews conducted with a minister by those of us who live beyond the Downing Street lobby, are a critical element of Governmental accountability.

Thus when it was possible in that Tory Party Conference interview for us to quiz David Cameron about the UK’s controversial relations with Saudi Arabia.

It appears to be an industry-wide issue affecting even our national broadcaster.

The editor of one high-profile BBC radio programme seemed to vent his frustration on social media during the refugee crisis last year. He posted a picture of an empty chair after being told that no one was available from the Home Office, Department for International Development or Foreign Office on one of the biggest global stories of our time.

The Government appears to be unaware of the extent of public frustration when the phrase “no minister was available” surfaces. The people they are elected to represent complain – most loudly on social media.

Here we have, for example, the Secretary of State for Health presiding over one of the most serious crises the National Health Service has endured, and in media terms, he is nowhere to be seen.

It seems to me that there is a brewing sense of alienation both here and abroad – at home represented by as disparate forces as UKIP, the SNP, and Jeremy Corbyn, and abroad by Marie LePen, Donald Trump and the equally extreme Senator Ted Cruz.

In Britain this alienation is met most nights by the words, “but no Minister was available.” Is it beyond the powers of a political system even to produce a single Minister of ANY department to appear on a rota to give the Government’s point of view?

Yes Minister,-We want you! (1)


If the affected Secretary of State or Minister is genuinely tied up, is stranded on a bus, or looking after the kids at home, or even in the local supermarket hunting down the family’s supper, we will be understanding.

How refreshing if instead of “no one is available”, we got “We are very sorry but the Minister’s husband is ill and she’s had to go home to tend to the children.” Hey presto, in one leap the unavailable minister is rendered one of us!

There are, of course some notable heroes, a tiny handful of ministers who buck the trend, and the emergence of MPs like Chris Philp who are always available.

But as for the rest, is it perhaps time the Government heard a cry they never expected? “We want more Theresa May, more Philip Hammond, more Greg Clark, more Gove, more Grayling, more absolutely anyone who can tell us anything about anything” – or do we?

Should we just lie back and allow the ripples of unavailability to wash over us as we sink into a stupor of not knowing quite what the Government is trying to do, even if they do?

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30 reader comments

  1. Anthony Nicholas says:

    Are your offices by any chance built over what was once considered consecrated ground?

    That would explain why no Tory minister will consider entering the building.

    The last thing that Conservative Central Office wants is the sight of Chris Grayling spontaneously combusting on live TV in front of several million people.

    No votes in that, I’m afraid. None at all.

    1. Gerard says:

      Ah Mr Nicholas – it is rare that I laugh out loud at my desk but your comment was an absolute gem.

  2. David Justice says:

    I find your connecting the SNP with extremists like UKIP TRUMP and LE PEN very disappointing from someone I thought understood what was happening in Scotland

    1. jon snow says:

      I did not mention extremism I refered to alienation..alienation expressed in The Greens, UKIP, SNP, and the lection of Corbyn and Labour leader..

    2. Jeremy Nicholls says:

      And the unfortunate corollary is that some less savoury but more media-willing politicos like Liam Fox, sorry Doctor Liam Fox, get more media coverage than is decent.

    3. Verity says:

      You don’t need a minister available to know what a Tory government is up to.

      Defund to breaking point then offer up private sector as solution.

      Sell fast, sell cheap then line own pocket from city friends. Tory’s in a nutshell.

      What more do you need to know?

    4. Jack says:

      The hated Harper’s extreme Tory regime kept up the news blackout for years in Canada until last year’s general election. Result: they were slaughtered by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals who now enjoy a massive majority and the Tories are reduced to a whimpering rump. Sooner or later, Conman, Oz-borne and Co will have to face the electoral music. I predict a wipe-out.

  3. Mark Smith says:

    Sour grapes.

    I read enormous amounts of anti-government journalism everyday (and have, whomever was in government). I simply don’t buy this line that the British press is somehow impotent and in hock to government, election turnouts are low, and so democracy, freedom and liberty are only protected if Jon Snow, Andrew Neil or Kirishnan Guru-Murthy can sensationally grill a minister about the subject of the day.

    In the main, their ‘shows’ only ever amplify the press headlines of the day. Reasonable replies are largely disregarded in favour of stupid questions like ‘Can you *guarantee* that no one will ever [insert bad thing here]’.

    I don’t blame this or any other government for controlling their PR strategy. If that doesn’t suit the broadcaster’s agenda, well tough. They’re not yours to command.

  4. Pat Clarke says:

    Where does the accountability of the governing party lie?
    is this a government in hiding from the electorate.
    I am sure if Channel 4 went to Panama they would find many familiar faces there. Perhaps that is why they are not available?

  5. John Cartmell says:

    Perhaps the remedy is in your hands. Let the opposition put their point of view forcefully and then say that the government failed to supply the means of responding to that criticism. Under those circumstances the criticism stands – and can be subsequently be repeated by your newsreaders as criticism that the government has failed to counter – NB statements don’t count as they are not open to essential questioning.

    You – and the BBC and ITV repeat until such time as ministers put themselves forward to be questioned and probed on their actions or inactions.

  6. marilyn miller says:

    If one tunes in after 7-8pm it is very difficult to get on to the news for the same evening to watch live. Very frustrating and not user-friendly

  7. Rebecca Carmichael says:

    Perhaps,John,you could seat the appropriate shadow minister next to an empty chair,and interview them.
    Do you think this might prod the government into defending their actions?

  8. Fiona says:

    Empty chair seems to be a general problem for any rigorous interviewer.
    It really is undemocratic. Surely if the minister refuses to appear their (govt) viewpoint shouldn’t appear either. I know you are supposed to show balance but if they don’t care to broadcast their side of the argument, that is their problem.

  9. Philip Wagstaff says:

    If the Government fails to put up a spokesman you should still interview alternative voices and perhaps do what you have done about Chilcot and carry the running total of Government ‘not availables’.

  10. Rob Ashwell says:

    Have you not tried an FoI request from the BBC to compare the number of “secretary of state not available” from the past 60 years and see how it (and therefore a government’s willingness to be held to account) changes over time?

  11. Mike Carney says:

    Well said. Keep up the pressure. Ministers should be well able to defend their position.

  12. Michael Anderson says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. We need a petition to parliament about it. This is an abuse of democracy.

  13. Philip says:

    So why don’t you do the “empty chair” routine to make the point to you audience. Put up an empty chair with the Minister’s name on it & then ask the questions you would have asked. I’m sure you journalists are clever enough to ask questions in a way that can make the empty chair look extremely guilty. Perhaps that might encourage great participation in the accountability process?

  14. Alan says:

    It’s rather surprising to hear such complaints from an organisation that has done little to question those in power. As with the BBC, Channel Four have consistently reported the government and corporate sponsors stance ignoring wider views and opinions. The motto ‘ don’t bite the hand that feeds it’ isn’t far away. It actually seems rather obvious why such politicians refuse to be questioned, it matters not as the press prints what we say.

  15. Adrian McElholm says:

    It really is appalling. On the junior doctors forum they have a ‘where’s Jeremy?’ game in the manner of ‘where’s Wally?’. The first all out doctor’s strike in the history of the NHS and he will not be seen anywhere or talk to anyone or even turn up to address parliament. He is treating the entire electorate with contempt.

  16. Mike Harland says:

    No surprise, Jon, especially when you have read Owen Jones’ The Establishment – referring to the financial side of government there are just two agencies covering the FTSE 100 companies, so if you are not in the ‘acceptance pack’ you are out in the cold.

    No wonder we never get any real news on anything now and any truth lies in all the alternative blog/news sites.

    My Spanish father-in-law used to secretly listen in to the BBC world service when Franco used the same techniques of self-censorship on editors and national news outlets.
    My students in Spain during the Falklands/Malvinas war saw images of the Sheffield being hit two weeks before any of us here did.
    I have read El País for years now for their vastly superior and accurate foreing news coverage and laughed frequently to find policies sole her as UK party ideas were merely EU directives in the pipeline.
    As I learnt from the Spanish dictatorship and how people survived under it, Truth only becomes apparent when there are two alternative sources to compare and you learn to filter and ‘read between the lines’. The UK media don’t give that comparison as Jones proves quite conclusively and there is no opposition capable of giving it, even in the Westminster parliament.

    Here in Scotland, as a Yorkshireman, I watched as the English government machinery went into action with only one Sunday newspaper coming out in favour of independence. Comparing the English and Scottish versions of the same top UK papers, the Scots were insulted in the English editions which were then ‘censored’ for more PC language in the Scottish editions; conversely, we were sold a whole fear narrative in the Scottish editions, but merely humiliated and insulted again in the English editions. Like the BBC coverage, which I checked from various other sources, the bias and manipulation was all too clear to see.

    Hearing a Brit of EU mongrel extraction like Boris Johnson rant on about corrupt EU systems and then taxi drivers who can’t speak English and get away with closet racism, shows how the privileged class schooled in rhetoric can endlessly use and abuse the MSM – like decifit/debt obfuscation (talking of reducing the 80+billion ‘deficit’ while forgetting the greater rise in the 1.5 trillion national ‘debt’ where we pay far more just in interest) or the rich saying they pay more ‘taxes’ than the rest (i.e. income tax) completely forgetting the 75% of other taxes that contribute to the UK coffers, where the more truthful comparator would be that the top 10% pay only 35% of their income in total taxes and the bottom 10% pay 45%.

    Where do we hear any of this truth from either the Opposition or the MSM – so how do we inform the public?? Getting ministers to talk on C4 News wouldn’t help do that, because only 5% of viewers would go to Factcheck to see if it was true!

    Keep up this blog if you can, but C4 has caved in a lot now (despite factcheck) and most of the reality of 2016 Britain is presented elsewhere.

    I wonder why there are no comments here yet after two days??

  17. Alan Clifford says:

    Jon, Why this late outrage?

    This has been going on for decades without any kind of justified up front anger from you or the rest of mainstream media. Everyone knows none of you had the guts to make a real effort to get at the truth. It’s just one of the reasons you journalists are hated every bit as much as lying and cheating politicians.

    All we’ve ever had is morons like Michael Crick doing his Coco the Clown act, about as useful as a chocolate fire guard.

    It was only a matter of time before you got censored good and proper. The next step is privatisation of Channel 4, then it’s goodbye C4 News. That’s what you get for being “the least bad TV news.”

    If you want to see what comes next – no matter how long it takes – check out European history after 1933. For that matter South America too.

    You can’t say you haven’t had enough warnings. So it’s a bit late for this kind of faux irritation.

  18. Christopher J Squire says:

    Speaking off the record, someone better informed about the matter informed than JS tells me:

    ‘No10 briefings are on the record. And they can’t ban you. But actually pol corrs don’t get much more access. It’s not a question of staying onside, they just don’t hold many on record briefings for anyone.’

    Disraeli remarked that England is a country governed by conversation – a truth his successors seem to have forgotten.

  19. Aidan Coyle says:

    It isn’t just the UK that has this problem, here in Ireland our last government lead by Enda Kenny refused to be interviewed by anyone other than a “trusted” individual for nearly five years. Politicians in the west just don’t get it, they think that they are being clever by making themselves unavailable, when in fact we see right through them. What passes for democracy at the moment cannot continue, my fear is that in frustratration people all over the western world will replace a bunch of self serving bastards with something far worse.

  20. nick astbury says:

    As an avid C4N viewer of many years; I have noticed this trend too. As soon as one of you say “no minister available”, I retort out loud ” no I bet there wasn’t” because it is obvious to me that it is all too complicated and risky from their perspective.
    The Blair administration thought they could control the news agenda; the Tories just decided it is safer to ignore the media as far as possible.
    Thank God for Gary Gibbon and Michael Crick. If you can’t get them in the studio, then hunting them down on their own territory seems to be the best plan.

    Please keep up the challenging and thorough journalism. Some of us recognise and appreciate it.

  21. T Clarke says:

    Stop using their Christian names. Refer to them by job title or title+surname.
    That was the successful trick of the warmonger Prime Minister, to create his own brand using a diminutive of his first name. It provides an illusion of humanity.
    In any case, interviewing a Minister is futile, as most politicians are beyond parody.

  22. Christina Lloyd checkley says:

    I feel sgrieved by this how do I make an appeal against the election result

  23. James Brown says:

    Excellent points in this article. The fact that you are one of the few news channels to actually hold people to account, rather than just letting them spout their own propaganda, may have something to do with all those empty chairs!

  24. Jordan says:

    You know nothing, Jon Snow.

  25. Gary says:

    Alarming behaviour from the government. Perhaps FactCheck should report the numbers (and how they change over time) for each of the ministries failing to provide a government spokesman when requested by news agencies. The data could itself form the basis of a disturbing news item. In the meantime without numbers, there’s no credible evidence.

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