Dimbleby: debate, denials and a decade of political Sunday roastings

James Macintyre celebrates 10 years of LWT's flagship Westminster talkshow

The
Jonathan Dimbleby programme yesterday celebrated its 10th birthday with a look back at some highlights from Dimbleby's hundreds of interviews with domestic and foreign politicians over the decade, from Tariq Aziz, Kofi Annan and Mikhail Gorbachev to John Major, Tony Blair and Michael Howard. As well as providing some light-hearted moments suitable for the festive season, the compilation show acted as a kind of brief history of current affairs and politics over the last 10 years.

The Jonathan Dimbleby programme yesterday celebrated its 10th birthday with a look back at some highlights from Dimbleby's hundreds of interviews with domestic and foreign politicians over the decade, from Tariq Aziz, Kofi Annan and Mikhail Gorbachev to John Major, Tony Blair and Michael Howard. As well as providing some light-hearted moments suitable for the festive season, the compilation show acted as a kind of brief history of current affairs and politics over the last 10 years.

When the programme launched with a characteristically combative interview with a familiarly grouchy John Prescott, it had inherited from London Weekend Television's Weekend World a formidably forensic culture and interview style. Weekend World presenter Brian Walden would demand his team - which included a young Peter Mandelson in the Eighties - draw up a tree-like "map", showing the different directions in which the interview might go, with various branches representing differing potential answers: if the minister says A then we go there; B and we head off that way.

This exhaustive approach is amusingly demonstrated by Matthew Parris, who had a brief and self-confessedly unhappy period presenting the flagship current affairs show in between Walden and Dimbleby. Parris describes in his autobiography, Chance Witness, how if, say, Ted Heath was being interviewed and he happened to say, "I've come to the end of my tether with that bitch Thatcher and I shall tomorrow be crossing the floor and joining the Liberals", the editor would have leant into his microphone - through which the gallery of production staff provide the presenter with incessant information on timings and so on - and say: "He's straying, bring the subject back to the European Community Directive."

The rigorous culture of informed and informative attention to detail survived, while Dimbleby's rivals as big political interview programmes have fallen away: BBC1's On the Record is - sadly - long gone, replaced by a lighter magazine show with a number of different "packages", but no big set-piece interview; the distinguished and softer Sir David Frost is meanwhile set to retire (with all eyes on what format the Beeb will put in his place). So after 10 years in the chair, Jonathan Dimbleby stands alone as the only single-subject, long (often up to 40 minutes) interviewer, often accompanied by the added bonus of a studio audience, bringing the electorate into direct contact with the elected.

This matters. In the run-up to the general election, we can expect a re-ignition of the now familiar row about who will be to blame for "turning off the voters", the impending lowest-ever turnout and a general sense of "apathy". The latter of these concerns is one of the biggest myths to poison British politics. The public are not "apathetic"; people - particularly young people - are perhaps more interested than ever in politics. Right or wrong, the fact that the Palace of Westminster is still the focal point for major marches on issues ranging from hunting to war - not to mention the sheer numbers who turned out to watch Michael Moore's polemical documentary - act as proof of people's interest.

But if you talk to members of the public it becomes clear that the electorate is suffering from being another A word: alienated. Alienated from a political system in which around a million people determine election results in marginal seats across middle England; alienated from a body-politic in which the two main parties support a war which the majority opposed; alienated from a political world whose Establishment throws up four reports blaming no one for that decision; and alienated from the in-the-know discourse between politicians and journalists at Westminster.

The Dimbleby format - of a long, detailed interview during which the public can see a politician held to account with far more close scrutiny than in the Commons chamber - has never been more crucial, particularly in the run-up to a general election.

As the pollster and commentator Peter Kellner of YouGov explained on yesterday's programme: "The bulk of what passes for politics and political journalism and political broadcasting is really two worlds trying to talk to each other through a thick plate-glass window. On the one side, you've got the public and you've got the journalists. On the other side you've got the politicians, and every so often the journalists will lob a question over the plate-glass window and the politician will lob back a reply or a press release or a statement or a speech, there's no real engagement. The importance of the Dimbleby programme is that it pushes that plate-glass window out of the way; you get real human interaction, you get real engagement.

"It's really hard to overstate the importance of shows where interviews last more than five or six minutes. The normal interview is maybe five or six minutes. [Politicians] know that all they have to do is stonewall for a few minutes and they will get away. To be able to do it over a substantial period of time, they know they've got to have proper answers and if they don't have proper answers they will be exposed, and that is what the Dimbleby programme has shown over the last 10 years. In terms of the public being able to hold politicians to account, to hold ministers feet to the fire, it's really important that programmes like Dimbleby continue and flourish and are supported."

And as William Hague pointed out on the same show: "Too many programmes have now been reduced to just a few minutes interaction, and it's very important still to have programmes where you can have a decent-length discussion, where you can have a 20- 25-minute interview, something like that, and still have some discussion with an audience. So I hope that after 10 good years there's going to be another successful decade for the programme."

James Macintyre is a producer at LWT's 'Jonathan Dimbleby' programme

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