Fiona Bruce ‘hung out to dry’ by BBC over comments about Stanley Johnson

·5-min read
Fiona Bruce said producers provided her with lines to defend BBC from potentially defamatory allegations
Fiona Bruce said producers provided her with lines to defend BBC from potentially defamatory allegations

Fiona Bruce has been drawn into a fresh row with the BBC, as she was forced to stand down from a domestic violence charity over comments made about Stanley Johnson on Question Time.

The presenter said she was stepping back from her role as an ambassador for the charity Refuge, following claims she had trivialised domestic violence during a discussion about Boris Johnson's father on last Thursday's show.

Last night, friends of Ms Bruce told The Telegraph she had been “hung out to dry” as BBC producers had provided her with lines to defend the corporation from potentially defamatory allegations should the topic of domestic violence come up on the show.

Ms Bruce is “devastated” by the online response since the show, it is understood, and allies have called upon the BBC to “better support its talent”.

The presenter, a long-time women's rights campaigner, faced a fierce backlash on social media after intervening when the father of Boris Johnson was described as a “wife-beater”.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a journalist and panel member, had said the 82-year-old’s alleged history of violence was “on record”.

Stanley Johnson - Toby Melville /Reuters
Stanley Johnson - Toby Melville /Reuters

Ms Bruce, 58, interrupted, telling Ms Alibhai-Brown and the audience: “I’m not disputing what you’re saying, but just so everyone knows what this is referring to, Stanley Johnson’s wife spoke to a journalist, Tom Bower, and she said that Stanley Johnson had broken her nose and that she’d ended up in hospital as a result.

“Stanley Johnson has not commented publicly on that. Friends of his have said it did happen but it was a one-off.”

Following the show, public figures including Kate Osborne, the Labour MP, and Farah Nazeer, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, accused her of downplaying the gravity of domestic violence.

In a statement released on Monday announcing her decision, Ms Bruce said: “It is with real sadness that I have decided to step back from my role as an ambassador for the domestic abuse charity Refuge.

“Last week on Question Time, I was required to legally contextualise a question about Stanley Johnson. Those words have been taken as an expression of my own opinions which they are absolutely not, and as a minimising of domestic abuse, which I would never do.

“I know survivors of domestic abuse have been distressed by what I was required to say on air. For that, I am deeply sorry. I cannot change what I was required to say, but I can apologise for the very real impact that I can see it has had.”

'She was not in any way giving her opinion'

Last night, Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, a close friend of Ms Bruce, told The Telegraph: “We know that she was having to rely upon what is on the public record at the moment and in fact it had been discussed beforehand that it was something that might come up and that is why she had the quotes on a piece of paper in front of her.

“She was not in any way giving her opinion, she was reporting the opinion of friends of Stanley Johnson... in reported speech.”

Louise Leadbetter, a friend of Ms Bruce's for 40 years and a domestic violence campaigner, told The Telegraph: “She's devastated basically, particularly because it involves Refuge which is very dear to her heart.

“It's very upsetting to see her so upset, got at, vilified and attacked. It seems very unjust and very far from the truth. She's just doing her job and she's obliged to say what she said. She's the biggest feminist in the world.”

Ms Leadbetter added: “She's got embroiled in this hornet's nest of loathing for the BBC and what's just happened with Lineker so that's part of it, she's caught up in another maelstrom and it's not her stuff. Maybe if the BBC can learn from this and support their talent really fully, including Lineker, then brilliant.”

'Unthinking cruelty'

Nick Ross, another friend who presented Crimewatch for 23 years, agreed with the view that Ms Bruce had been “hung out to dry” by “unthinking cruelty” given she was doing her best to “mitigate against potentially expensive and damaging libel threats with attempts at balance”.

Refuge thanked Ms Bruce for her “considerable contribution” to its work and said that while the words the presenter used were not her own, they had “minimised the seriousness of domestic abuse”.

A BBC spokesman said: “Domestic abuse is abhorrent, and we would never wish to suggest otherwise.

“When serious allegations are made on air against people or organisations, it is the job of BBC presenters to ensure that the context of those allegations - and any right of reply from the person or organisation - is given to the audience, and this is what Fiona Bruce was doing.

“She was not expressing any personal opinion about the situation.”

On Monday, the BBC attempted to draw a line under its ongoing dispute with Gary Lineker over his comments on the Government's policy on illegal immigration.

Announcing that Lineker would return to presenting duties this weekend, Tim Davie, the BBC's director-general, said people across the corporation were “passionate about impartiality”.