Trevor Phillips has achieved the rare distinction of becoming both a national treasure and something of a provocateur in the U.K.
Over the past four decades, he has turned his hand to writing, broadcasting, documentary-making, politics and even retail (he spent four years as president of U.K. department store John Lewis’s “partnership council”), among other public service pursuits.
Not that you’d know it from speaking to him. “I’m very lazy,” Phillips says self-deprecatingly, given his list of accomplishments (in 1999 he was appointed an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II for services to broadcast journalism). “I don’t really particularly like being on television. It takes a lot to get me out of my house these days.”
Despite this, from Monday Phillips will be appearing on Sky viewers’ televisions not once but twice a week: on the weekends presenting “Trevor Phillips on Sunday” (where he is covering for Sky’s political correspondent Sophie Ridge while she’s on maternity leave) and then hosting a new current affairs show called “The Great Debate” on Mondays.
“The Great Debate” will see Phillips moderate a panel of “ordinary” people (although he doesn’t like that term, “because who the hell’s ordinary?”) and establishment figures — those Phillips describes as having “‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ in front of their names or ‘MP’ [Member of Parliament] after their names” — while they discuss the week’s hottest topics. “If I had an ambition for the show, it’s to get people who are talking to their partners or their children or their parents about what they’ve read in the papers that morning,” he says.
Intriguingly, Phillips looks to “Gogglebox” — the Channel 4 series in which ordinary people are filmed while they watch some of the U.K.’s most popular TV shows — rather than, say, “Question Time” as inspiration. “I think everybody in factual television has a lesson to learn from the success of ‘Gogglebox,’” he says. “Where actually a show that should never in a million years have worked has worked spectacularly well because we come to know [the participants] as characters, and we come to understand why they have the opinions they do based on their background and their experience and so on. In a way I think we want to try to replicate that here.”
Phillips has always been a curious figure in British public life. He speaks out passionately about both racism and what he has described as oversensitivity about race; he chaired the U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2007 to 2012 and has made documentaries with titles like “Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?” His views have, inevitably, annoyed people on both the right and the left of the political divide. “Story of my life,” he says. “There’s always somebody who is ready to call me some rude name because I don’t agree with them.”
Yet Phillips’ self-described “unorthodox” views are precisely what make him uniquely placed to host “The Great Debate,” which seems like it might offer an antidote to the political polarization so prevalent today. “I think the thing that I will want to insist on is that people express themselves robustly. But then, when they have done that, they listen to other people, and they respond to them honestly,” Phillips says of his plans for the show.
“They might not change their minds. But what’s not permissible is simply to respond to others by shouting at them, and telling them that they’re stupid or ignorant. Let’s be frank, part of the way that people do these things these days is to say ‘You may not say what you’ve just said, because you’re a racist or a transphobe’ or whatever it is. We’re not going to have any of that.”
However, in light of current concerns about people with zero expertise being given equal prominence alongside those with decades of know-how (the discussion around vaccines being one example), is Phillips worried about hosting a show that deliberately pits laypeople alongside eminent figures in their fields? “This is not a show for nutwhacks,” Phillips says firmly. “It is not a show in which we are going to be exploring ludicrous conspiracy theories.”
“But what we are going to do is have two rules. One is [that] no topic is off limits. And secondly, everything that we talk about, we want to be evidence-based. And that doesn’t mean you have to have written an important scientific paper, but what it might mean is that you can tell us about your real experience.”
By which he means lived experience, rather than reading something on Instagram or Twitter “à la Nicki Minaj and what the Trinidadians call the ‘bridegroom’s flat tire,’” he adds mischievously, referring to the rapper’s recent (disputed) claim that the COVID-19 vaccine can cause erectile dysfunction.
Given his temperate views, it’s unsurprising Phillips seems to be one of the few people in British broadcasting who doesn’t appear to be revelling in the chaos emerging at rival network GB News. “I think that there’s a certain snobbishness towards GB News,” says Phillips, who admits he is friends with its recently departed anchor Andrew Neil. “It’s not my station but I think the competition it offers is incredibly important. Because it should make the rest of us better and more responsive to our whole audience.”
Phillips is, however, vocal in his condemnation of the U.K.’s public service broadcasters, especially when it comes to their lack of diversity. In 2016 he called BBC 2 Britain’s “whitest TV station” and, of Channel 4’s recent “Black to Front” initiative, tells Variety that “People should not be distracted by gimmicks. For example, having a day of all-Black programming. Fine. Okay. But actually, who’s really in charge?”
In particular, Phillips points out that it’s Sky who finally elevated him (and Sophy Ridge) via their Sunday morning politics show to a “seat of authority” previously occupied only by white men such as Andrew Marr, Robert Peston and, of course, Andrew Neil. “The [PSBs] all talk a good game,” he says. “But which of those broadcasters has actually put a woman or a person of color in a seat of authority?”
While “Trevor Phillips on Sunday” is targeted towards “people who are really interested in politics” (“Let’s be frank, your average person is not getting up at 8:30 on Sunday morning to watch politics,” he says), “The Great Debate,” which launches Monday at 9 p.m. GMT, is aimed at a more general audience. And despite tackling serious topics, he intends for it to be entertaining.
“I think the worst thing in public life is to take yourself too seriously,” says Phillips. “Nobody in this country likes somebody who thinks that every word that drips from their lips is world-shaking. Because if you’re that sort of person, frankly, you never get invited to a party.”