BBC Question Time host Fiona Bruce has announced that she will be stepping back from her role as an ambassador for the domestic violence charity Refuge, following comments she made on air about Stanley Johnson.
The presenter was accused of trivialising domestic violence during a discussion on Question Time last Thursday (9 March), after she stepped in to “legally contextualise” a claim that Johnson, father of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had broken his wife’s nose.
In a statement, Ms Bruce said she would be leaving her role at Refuge with “real sadness”, adding that she felt her words had been “mischaracterised” in a “social media storm”. Here’s everything you need to know about what was said on Question Time - and what has happened since.
What did Fiona Bruce say on Question Time?
During last week’s episode of Question Time, panel member and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said during a discussion of Boris Johnson’s resignations honours list, which is said to include his 82-year-old father, that Stanley Johnson’s alleged history of violence was “on record”.
Ms Bruce quickly interjected, remarking: “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.”
She highlighted that “Stanley Johnson has not commented publicly” on the claim, but that “friends of his have said it did happen but it was a one-off.”
What was the reaction?
Ms Bruce was accused of trivialising domestic abuse - with most critics taking issue with her mention to the alleged incident of domestic violence being a “one-off”.
Users on Twitter lashed out at Ms Bruce, with one arguing that she needed only to “make the audience aware that these are allegations and that Johnson has not been convicted of any crime”. They argued that instead, the presenter’s words “accepted it had happened but played it down.”
Meanwhile, another added: “My sister was a victim of domestic violence. She once attended A&E with a broken cheekbone after an extremely vicious attack carried out by her then husband. The fracture was a ’one off’. Other injuries sustained during her marriage were hidden under clothing. Just saying, Fiona Bruce!”
Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid also contributed to the criticism, with chief executive Farah Nazeer stating: “We know at Women’s Aid that domestic abuse is rarely, if ever, a ‘one-off’, with the vast majority of abuse being a pattern of behaviour. Even if abuse is an isolated event, it would have still been domestic abuse, and this should never be minimised.”
Refuge echoed these sentiments, remarking that its position is clear - “domestic abuse is never a ‘one off’”. However the charity did say Ms Bruce was “deeply upset” and “appalled” that any of her words had been “understood as her minimising domestic violence” - adding that the comments were not her “own views about the situation” and rather part of an obligation to “put forward a right of reply.”
The BBC also defended its presenter, saying she had not been expressing an opinion and had instead been explaining the context of the alleged incident. “When serious allegations are made on air against people or organisations,” the corporation said, “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. This is what Fiona Bruce was doing last night.”
It added that Ms Bruce was “not expressing any personal opinion about the situation”, and insisted that “domestic abuse is abhorrent” and the organisation would “never wish to suggest otherwise.”
Why has Fiona Bruce stepped down as an ambassador at Refuge?
Ms Bruce said she would be stepping down from her role at the domestic abuse charity after more than 25 years because although she felt her words had been “mischaracterised” in a “social media storm”, the “last thing in the world that [she] would want is that this issue in any way creates a distraction from Refuge’s critical work on behalf of [domestic abuse survivors].” Therefore, she continued, “I think the right thing to do is to step back from my role with Refuge.”
Her statement read: “It is with real sadness that I have decided to step back from my role as an ambassador for 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. The only people that matter in all this are the survivors, they are my priority.
“The last thing in the world that I would want is that this issue in any way creates a distraction from Refuge’s critical work on their behalf and therefore I think the right thing to do is to step back from my role with Refuge. This has been a hard decision for me as I feel so strongly about promoting their work and advancing awareness of this issue. I will continue to be an active supporter, albeit from the sidelines for now.”
Refuge thanked Ms Bruce for her “considerable contribution” to their work over the years, but acknowledged that while the words the presenter had used around the Stanley Johnson claims were “not her own”, they had “minimised the seriousness of domestic abuse”.
On Monday (13 March), the charity said in a statement: “Refuge’s position was, and remains, clear – domestic abuse is never a ‘one-off’, it is a pattern of behaviour that can manifest in a number of ways, including but not limited to physical abuse. Over the weekend we have been listening to, and heard, survivors of domestic abuse who have told us how devastating this has been for them.
“While we know the words were not Fiona’s own and were words she was legally obliged to read out, this does not lessen their impact and we cannot lose sight of that. These words minimised the seriousness of domestic abuse and this has been retraumatising for survivors.”
A spokesperson added that survivors of domestic abuse will “always be” the charity’s priority - highlighting that every two minutes someone turns to Refuge for help. “We have today accepted Fiona’s offer to stand down from her role as ambassador for Refuge, [and] have thanked her for her considerable contribution to Refuge and the wider domestic abuse agenda,” they concluded.
What are the claims about Stanley Johnson?
In a 2020 biography of Boris Johnson, author Tom Bower accused the Prime Minister’s father Stanley of breaking the nose of his late wife Charlotte Wahl, in the 1970s. Charlotte was reportedly quoted as saying: “He broke my nose. He made me feel like I deserved it.” She is also said to have claimed that Stanley “hit me many times, over many years.” Stanley has not commented on the allegation, but friends have said the incident was a “one-off”. The Mirror also reported that Stanley is said to “deeply regret it”.