Why did the newsreader get to grill Gates?

fiona-bruce-300x168Opportunities to interview Bill Gates don’t come along that often (Lord knows, we’ve tried). Even the BBC, with its undoubted worldwide clout, has only managed to pin down the Microsoft chairman for a decent interview twice in the past decade.

Why did the newsreader get to grill Gates?

The first time was in 1999, when a poorly-briefed (and I’m not refering to his infamous pants) Jeremy Paxman interviewed Gates. Paxman lobbed in his trademark terse questions, but lacked the knowledge to disect Gates’s answers with even a hint of the ferociousness he reserves for polticians.

As this Slashdot reviewer said of the Paxman interview: “He challenged Gates on various issues, even mentioning Linus Torvalds, but unfortunately Jeremy isn’t a technology expert, so the topic of open standards and protocols wasn’t raised, and when Gates’ asserted that the field was wide open for anyone to do what he and Microsoft have done, Jeremy didn’t know enough to point out that when someone begins to look like they might challenge Microsoft’s position, they get driven out of business or acquired.”

In the end, a clearly out of his depth Paxman resorted to cheap jibes, challenging Gates on whether he was now so rich that he could earn more money in the time it would take him to pick up a dropped $100 bill. Gates treated the question with disdain it deserved. Gates 1 vs BBC 0.

So, given a second chance, with unprecedented access to Gates, his father and Steve Ballmer among others, who did the BBC send to interview Mr Microsoft for one last time before he bows out? Newsreader Fiona Bruce.

Fawning Fiona predictably wasted half of her questions on Gates’ wealth and early career, before finally asking a couple of “tougher” questions on Microsoft being sued by its own government and Google – questions Gates brushed aside with ease because Fiona’s clearly as familiar with the software business as she is with the contents of my fridge.

Instead, it was left to a roster of US technology writers (note to BBC – we do technology journalism over here, too) and Lotus founder Mitch Kapor to bring in even the merest hint of dissent. So desperate was the BBC to pad this nonsense, that it felt like every single soundbite was repeated at least twice during the hour-long show. It was a phenomenal wasted opportunity.

The BBC claimed it took two years of negotiation to land the interview with Gates. Perhaps Microsoft vetoed the idea of being interviewed by somebody who knows what they’re talking about (technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, for instance). More likely the BBC, with one eye on the ratings, decided once more to sacrifice expertise for a star name like Paxman or Bruce.

Once more, the show suffered as a result.

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