Can Dimbleby kebab John Major?

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Question Time is a BBC TV current affairs discussion programme with a studio audience, presented by a man called Dimbleby, in which the audience initially poses questions to politicians and he follows up.

So guess what's starting on 22 January on ITV? A current affairs discussion programme with a studio audience, presented by a man called Dimbleby - but in this case it's another Dimbleby - and he asks the initial questions while the audience does the follow up.

Big difference? Yes, according to Simon Shaps, controller of factual programmes at London Weekend Television, who says his coming show represents a "new era in current affairs television".

Although Question Time is enjoying renewed success under David Dimbleby, for Mr Shaps it is too much of an unstructured free-for-all, lacking focus on one issue or interviewee, while most other current affairs programmes fail to allow voters direct interaction with top politicians. His plan is to hit politicians with a double whammy. Guests will face a structured and relentless one-to-one interview, followed by the passionate and unpredictable questioning of real people.

Mr Shaps has recruited Jonathan Dimbleby to conduct the interview and chair the discussion. "The idea completely caught my imagination," says Mr Dimbleby, who was considering possible television projects after finishing his authorised biography of PrinceCharles. "It will combine the traditional interview, in which you can test policy and judge whether someone can sustain an argument effectively, with a serious audience having a serious debate with someone who has articulated a position at some length. The audience won't be treated as reactive soundbite material. If one individual gets a good to-and-fro going, that will be allowed to continue. If it works well it may help to re-engage people in the process of politics."

Each programme will deal with one issue and will generally feature just one interviewee. The probing interview will take about 20 minutes and should set the agenda for the second part of the 50-minute programme involving the 100-strong, demographically balanced audience. The aim is to keep a lively but serious tone throughout.

"It won't be a highly cerebral discussion of public sector borrowing requirement figures followed by a bunfight," says the programme's editor, Edward Morgan, who is a rising star at 27.

The programme means the return of Mr Dimbleby to the Sunday rota of political talk that has proliferated since he left BBC's On the Record in July 1993. Despite the fashionable industry view that the political interview is now a tired and predictable format, more and more Sunday interrogators search with varying emphasis for headlines, gaffes and genuine illumination.

Mr Dimbleby will be occupying the 1.10-2pm slot on ITV vacated by Brian Walden, who retired last month after 17 years of subjecting politicians to rigorous cross-examination. The new programme will be important to ITV's struggle to maintain a reputation for serious current affairs journalism.

The format follows the success of the Granada 500 shows at the last election, in which a studio audience succeeded in discomfiting Neil Kinnock and John Major more than interviewers had done.

Mr Kinnock opened himself to ridicule when refusing to reveal his personal view on proportional representation, while Mr Major had difficulties when asked: "Do you seriously expect us to forgive and forget the inhumanity of the poll tax?" It is now oftenargued that ordinary people, free to be as hostile and passionate as they wish, tend to give politicians a harder time than professional interviewers.

This view is rejected by John Humphrys, who responds: "It's a myth. It has happened a few times, but it doesn't happen all the time. It's daft to believe it, unless you think those who study interviewing have no skills and knowledge as a result. It is true that we are at a difficult stage in the political interview. These days politicians are trained up to the eyeballs in how not answer questions. That means we have to be better informed and more persistent. But the professional interview still remainsthe most effective way of getting the buggers to tell you the things they don't want to tell you."

The alternative view is taken by another Sunday rival, Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News. However, he sees the involvement of ordinary people as a problem, not an advantage, for the new programme. "Good luck to Dimbleby, but my guess is they will get B and C category politicians. Rule one in the political handlers' book is steer clear of public access as much as possible.

Mr Dimbleby acknowledges the risks for politicians but argues an appearance would also bring them benefits: "The subliminal message to voters will be: `I can make contact. I'm not up here and you're not down there. We are peers.' That won't be bad for their image. They know it won't be an easy ride, but I have been struck by how positive the reaction has been from politicians. I hope to have John Major on within the first year."

Getting the right calibre guests will be important. Most leading politicians now have a well-established preference for the non-confrontational style of David Frost, who is adept at getting the guests he wants.

John Major has not subjected himself to a full-length grilling by John Humphrys on On the Record since Mr Humphrys (who, according to private BBC research last year, is perceived by the public as its most effective interviewer) took over in September 1993. The Prime Minister's interview with David Frost on Sunday means that during this period he has now been on Breakfast With Frost on five occasions.

"Frost's approach means that politicians get a chance to say more of what they want rather than being kebabbed by Walden or Humphrys on one issue for 40 minutes," says one Conservative media adviser.

Mr Dimbleby believes that the detailed, structured interview is still a crucial testing ground forpoliticians. He rejects the Jeremy Paxman thesis that politicians are lying bastards. "My job is not to demonstrate that all politicians are cheats and liars," he says. "The question in my mind is: what is the strength of this guy's case? My job is to test a proposition until it collapses, if necessary."

However, he may modify his style following his recent experience at the other side of the microphone, doing 70 interviews about his royal book. He says: "I discovered that the disarming interviewer is much more dangerous than the one who holds a gun at your head. I might become more seductive in future."

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