When the answer's no good, put it in the question

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE recently received a letter from a schoolgirl who says that Mr Tony Blair is likely to make a visit to her school in the near future, and she is dreadfully afraid that she may be required to get up and ask him a question. What, she wants to know, should she ask, especially if she wants a straight answer?

You can see her point. From time to time when there is no real news on television we do see the Prime Minister visiting schools where, among other photo-opportunities, he invites children to put questions to him. It always looks good on the news. The PM paying serious attention to the young. To future voters. To people who do not even have a vote yet, so that he cannot be accused of sucking up to the electorate. He listens to their questions, takes them very seriously and gives a statesmanlike answer, ie he doesn't really answer the question but sounds as if he has.

Now, this must be harder for Mr Blair than we might think. Normally when faced with schoolboy questioning, ie William Hague at Prime Minister's Question Time, Mr Blair's natural strategy is not to take the question seriously, nor even to pretend to answer it, but to try to embarrass Mr Hague. Fair enough. That's the game they play in Parliament.

But Mr Blair can't do it in a school. It's all right trying to score points off the leader of the Tory party, but it's not going to look very good on television if a fresh-faced schoolgirl asks an innocent question about the euro or education, and Mr Blair turns on her to sneer: "This comes well from the honourable schoolgirl opposite, who clearly, if given the chance, would rush into Europe and the single currency when she cannot even run a debating society in her own class, and I would advise her strongly to give up politics and keep to netball."

No - any schoolchild invited to ask Mr Blair a question has a natural advantage over Mr Hague in that she will get a polite answer. However, she is also likely to get a time-wasting answer. If she tries to ask a clever question such as "In what field does Mr Blair feel that his Government is doing least well, and how would he go about improving their performance?", Mr Blair is never going to say: "We are making a hash of the health service and, frankly, I can't see how we're going to improve things, certainly not with old Dobson in charge."

What he is going to say is something like: "Well, we have only been in power a few years and you can't get everything right immediately, but we've done a tremendous amount already and if there are areas in which we seem to have under-performed, it's probably only by contrast with the areas in which we have made such progress."

I trust that my young female correspondent will not let him get away with such tosh. A slightly better tactic is to ask a Radio 4 Today-type question. These questions are asked by people such as James Naughtie and John Humphrys, who know they will never get the answer they want, so instead they cleverly put the desired answer into the question.

Here are some examples of Today-type questions:

"Will you be giving Greg Dyke his 55,000 quid back?"

"As Greg Dyke and Melvyn Bragg are such good mates, how long do you think it will be before Jeremy Paxman is bumped off Start the Week and Melvyn Bragg reinstated?"

"When are you finally going to do something about Railtrack?"

"Why are you afraid of having a referendum on the euro?"

You see? All the implications are already present in the question. Of course, the PM will brush the implications aside. For instance, he will answer the first one by saying, "I think Greg Dyke will make a first-class DG, irrespective of political affiliations, and I think it is absolutely monstrous the way William Hague has launched a personal vendetta on him. It's interesting to note that Mr Hague thinks the BBC is already violently anti-Tory, so I feel bound to ask Mr Hague why he hasn't already mounted this sort of attack on Sir John Birt."

So the only real option is to ask Mr Blair a straight question to which he can only answer Yes or No. I would suggest asking him: "Did you get an invitation to Rupert Murdoch's wedding?"

If he says No, he will look like a bit player in Mr Murdoch's scheme of things. If he says Yes, it will look as if he couldn't be bothered to go.

If he claims that it was more important to go to Belfast and rescue the peace process than go to a wedding, get all your schoolmates to indulge in a chorus of booing, stamping the floor, waving paper and jeering loudly at him.

It may throw Mr Blair completely to find schoolchildren behaving as badly as the House of Commons.