Who do you blame for all these meaningless questions?

The `Today' question at its finest contains the essence of a whole conversation
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The Independent Culture
I WAS listening to Today on Radio 4 the other day - in other words, I wasn't listening, I was waiting till the weather forecast came on - when suddenly the politician who was being interrogated caught my attention by saying: "That is a very Today programme sort of question, if I may say so...", and although I hadn't actually heard the question he was objecting to, I knew exactly what he meant.

There is a Today sort of question. It's the kind of question which treats politics less as an art, more as a soap opera; less as a business, more as gossip.

Here are some Today programme questions:

"Yes, but where will the money come from to pay for this?"

"Who do you think is to blame for this?"

"Won't this make your position more insecure?"

"Doesn't this represent a policy U-turn?"

"Do you think Robin Cook should resign?"

"Will you resign?"

There was a wonderful example yesterday morning, when I was half-listening to Radio 4 in the morning, ie waiting for the weather forecast, and a woman who I presume was Sue McGregor was interviewing a Tory MP about Europe. He was talking very sensibly, ie quite boringly, about Europe and what might happen in the near future, and she said: "If that happens, won't it make Mr Hague's position more difficult as the head of the Tory party?", and I suddenly wanted to shout a very non-Today programme question at her, as follows: "For God's sake, woman, don't you realise that there are more important ramifications to the question of Europe than how it will affect William Hague's standing in the Tory Party?

"Don't you realise that at 7.52 am on a Monday nobody in the world has the remotest interest in William Hague's future standing in the Tory Party except perhaps Mrs Hague? And what's the weather forecast, by the way?"

The trouble is that Today has to seem lively, and you don't seem lively by discussing Europe at a supra-Hague level, you seem lively by pretending that possible resignations, falls from grace, reshuffles, scandals and power struggles are all just round the corner. So you shift the questions round to conspiracies and plots and, if you've got absolutely nothing else, Labour/Lib Dem machinations in Scotland, and when politicians come to the studio or the radio car, you ask them about these broken promises and plots and possible power struggles.

Of course you know that the politician is unlikely to divulge anything. Instead, the politician will indulge in what I can only call Today programme answers, which are just as predictable as Today programme questions.

Here are some Today programme answers.

"That is a matter for my colleagues to decide."

"I don't think it would be right for me to comment until the inquiry is completed."

"I don't think it's fair to comment on one particular case."

"I think Robin Cook is quite capable of looking after himself."

"Yes, but this is bigger than just Chris Woodhead's private life, it's about education today."

"For heaven's sake, you got me on the programme to answer questions about airline prices in Europe, so why should I answer questions about Gordon Brown's love life!"

Well, I haven't actually heard that last answer on Today, but I have heard people wanting to ask it. Anyway, the Today interviewer knows that he or she won't get the answer he or she wants so he or she cleverly incorporates the wanted answer into the question.

That is why you get Today questions like "If this whole procedure breaks down, will Mr Hague resign, and if he does, do you think, surprising as it might have seemed six months ago, that Anne Widdecombe might be swept into the Tory leadership, and if she does, will she bring a new note of Thatcherism to a party which hasn't had a strong leader since Maggie departed, always assuming she goes on a diet and gets better dress sense?"

Nobody in his right mind would expect an answer to that question. But you don't need an answer. The Today question at its very finest contains not just a question and the answer but the essence of a whole conversation. What it doesn't contain is the weather forecast.

I tend to hang around until the weather forecast comes on, and what I want to know is this: why on earth do I hang around for the weather forecast when it is so often wrong? Shouldn't someone take the blame for this? Shouldn't heads roll because of this? And won't it make James Boyle's position untenable at the next reshuffle?

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