Is anybody out there listening?: The airwaves will hum this week with the sound of politicians sliding up and down the greasy pole. But who calls the media tune - MPs and spin doctors, or producers and presenters? James Cusick reports

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A telephone rings in the office of a member of the Shadow Cabinet. It's Newsnight. There's an almost oh-Christ-it's-them sigh. But there is no background Twilight Zone music, predicting impending doom for another victim offered before the altar of Jeremy Paxman. Newsnight, the BBC's late-night news heavyweight, is not worshipped in the new era of broadcast politics. And neither is anything else.

Last week, news and specialist political programmes on network television and BBC radio totalled almost 79 hours. Throw in regional programmes, some familiar titles having a holiday, and even Sky News, and the 100-hour mark is passed with ease. But if the cult of the Robin Day interviewer no longer dominates, what is the incentive for politicians to appear on any of them, and what are the hot slots?

This week a new-look Cabinet and a new Labour leader will dominate the political airwaves. Telephones will be busy bidding for those climbing the greasy pole and those slipping down. Influencing whether politicians decide to say yes or no to the bids will be a combination of 'Will the right people hear me?' and 'What are the numbers listening?' The interviewer is dead, but long live the interview.

MPs, their party spin doctors, advisers, and behind-the-scenes image consultants, now concern themselves with audience averages, reach, value and - crucially, follow-up. TV and radio appearances must be watched by the print media, be worthy of a report in the following day's paper, be capable of running through the news day.

Thus Newsnight is dismissed by one adviser as 'On too late. Anyway, who watches it?' he asks.

Nobody watches late. Nobody really listens early either. But morning radio, when news editors are worrying about the day's agenda, is crucial. 'You want to be on Today. It sets the agenda for the day. It'll run through the day on BBC,' said one of Labour's spin doctors. 'Almost everything else is 'bollocks'. What about Walden, LWT's Sunday lunchtime grilling by the tenacious former Labour MP? 'Nobody gives a shit really.' Question Time is a 'a pain the arse'. Labour's research teams find the panel programme's here-comes-everything agenda 'a bloody chore'.

Today, if its presenter Jim Naughtie is to be believed, is contacted daily by the office of the Health Secretary, Virginia Bottomley. Mrs Bottomley's office says 'not true'. But the real truth is that all politicians think they need Today to get the media classes chattering. After that, it's all down to numbers watching. For political programmes at the bottom of the viewing list, one-to-one contact is important. 'Unless you're cornered in Millbank (the broadcast media centre near Westminster) by producers, it's not worth doing certain programmes,' said a spin doctor.

So if the audience is god, are interviewers still big-name saints? 'No, there are no heavyweight interviewers out there,' claims a big-time guru. 'We don't have interrogators. Politicians don't care about anything other than keeping their jobs. And the relationship with the so-called interviewers has got cosier.' Since when? 'Since Thatcher left.'

Despite attempts in recent years by the producers of ITN and BBC news to achieve 'gravitas', newscasters such as Trevor McDonald and Julia Somerville are considered a soft option.

Politicians now arrive in studios with a pre-planned agenda. Interviewers at one time often threw them into indiscretion. No more.

Trained and performing politicians first appeared on British television in 1979. Sir Gordon Reece, Mrs Thatcher's beloved adviser, had made a study of the 1976 US presidential campaign between Carter and Ford. The lesson was: 'Control the image. Content comes later.'

The seeds of the formula answer were thus sown. The mathematics had been completed years earlier by the Republican Party guru, Roger Ailes. The harvest of Reece and Ailes now means that our daily diet consists of Q = A+1. The answer should be brief, to which are added key points of the politician's own agenda - not necessarily brief.

One MP, classically off-the-record, said ministers just 'decide in advance what they want to say. No one gets in the way. There has been a complete change in the way we conduct interviews.' The solution? 'Stop moving interviewers around. Let the producers create an interrogation institution. We need a Larry King. Urgently.' King, all brash braces and bruising interview technique, is the American CNN star politicians have to survive to arrive.

For the producers, who only privately admit that they are on a losing wicket (even with a relaxed minister in the oh-so-pleasant environment of a make-believe sitting room), politicians have become, not subjects of inquiry, but objects of programmed function. Will they entertain? Do we have to have her on? Do we need an absurd performer to liven things up? Do we balance the serious with the fly-away? Can we get anyone else? Politicians are not respected, they are classified like butterflies by a zoologist.

Another MP, well aware his categorisation in the 'entertainer' slot, summed it up. 'Programmes matter now, not the interviewer. By the way, I've been developing a programme myself. Who do you think would be interested?'

HOW POLITICIANS VIEW THE PROGRAMMES

DAILIES

BBC Six O'Clock News: 6-8 million viewers

'Nobody worries about newsreaders. They're too worried about the autocue.' 'Robin Oakley is very fair,' said a senior Conservative press officer of the BBC's political editor. 'Robin Oakley's a Tory,' said a Labour frontbencher's assistant.

ITN News at Ten: 7 million

'Nobody cares about Trevor McDonald, he's reading a script.'

ITN Lunchtime News: 2.5 million

'Best to stay away, or you'll ruin your chances of getting on later.'

BBC Breakfast News: 1 million (4.3 million throughout course of programme)

'Worrying. Your blood sugar is too low.'

Today, BBC Radio 4: 1 million-plus daily, 5.3 million weekly

'You want on it.' 'Your peers listen.' 'Opinion formers listen. If you want voters, head for breakfast TV.'

Newsnight, BBC2: 1 million

'Bollocks . . . it's on too late. My boss usually grumpy by that time.' 'Can't see why anybody bothers, nobody watches it.'

On Jeremy Paxman: 'Not too difficult . . . keep your temper and your back straight.' 'Too grumpy.'

Channel 4 News: 1 million

On Jon Snow: 'Certainly to the left.'

WEEKLIES

Question Time, BBC1: 4.5 million

'Dangerous . . . and you never get a news story out of it.' 'Pain in the arse.' 'Too much research required.' 'A bloody chore.' 'A nonsensical football match.'

On the Record, BBC1, BBC2: 1.4 million

'Virtually tells you politics is boring.' 'John Humphrys is tough, doesn't let go.'

Walden, ITV: 1.3 million

'A joke' 'Brian Walden is too much in love with himself.' 'You could slip out the studio for a cup of tea during his questions.' 'A complete switch off.' 'Walden's lost his ability to pull out.' 'Just too boring.'

Breakfast with Frost, BBC1: 0.8 million

'Easy to drop a bollocks.' 'They like Frost. But relax, and he'll catch you out.'

A Week In Politics, Channel 4: 500,000

'Who watches it?' 'Andrew Rawnsley would irritate me into indiscretion.'

(Photographs omitted)

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