Don't lie to me, Mr Blair

Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, can reel off a list of the untruths he has been told by the Prime Minister's press machine. No wonder he turned down a job at No 10. He talks to Vincent Graff
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"You could," says Adam Boulton, a smile drawing itself slowly between his sallow cheeks, "say I'm a good Nazi and I automatically interpret my instructions and I know what to do." Boulton is explaining why, in his 14 years as political editor of Sky News, he has never been asked to mould his reporting to fit an editorial line from above.

When Sky News came along, in 1989, it surprised people. They looked at the identity of the parent company's biggest shareholder - one Keith Rupert Murdoch - and assumed that any television service he was bankrolling, and particularly one that would go on to turn in a loss year after year, would be an outlet for his prejudices.

In fact, anyone who has watched the channel for long - and it, rather than the BBC's News 24, is always the channel on in the corner of newspaper offices - will attest to the fact that its political coverage is spotlessly impartial, much to the dismay of the most paranoid Rupert-watchers.

Boulton says that when approached to set up a political department for the company, he had a question for Sky. "I said, 'Are you trying to do this with a spin or do you want to do it straight?' They did not reply: 'Of course we're going to do it straight and we're creating a board with Lord Dacre sitting on it.' They said: 'You know that wouldn't work.' That immediately made absolute sense to me." Pragmatism is often a better friend than principle, it seems.

So what are Boulton's own politics? We know where his chief rival, Andrew Marr, comes from - even if we cannot gauge them from his on-screen reports (which, contrary to what the Daily Mail might have you believe, I do not think you can). Before Marr joined the BBC and had the political snip, his views were on open display in this very newspaper. But Boulton is proud that his political views remain private. In fact, he goes one stage further, arguing (a little unconvincingly) that he does not even own any opinions. The nearest he gets to offering any clues is a rather baffling claim that "I've never covered an election in a democracy where I've felt that the voters have got it wrong. So what does that make me? A Clintonite, a Bushite?"

People have, of course, tried to pin opinions to him. He says that in the early Nineties, before others had latched on to the story, it became clear in his mind that Europe was to be a dominant political theme. Consequently, he gave a lot of airtime to Eurosceptics. "People said, 'Oh, you're doing that because of Murdoch,' and I said, 'No, we're doing it because I think this issue is going to break the Tory party.'"

Similarly, when some time back he realised that spin might emerge as the big Labour story, "I remember talking to a well-known Labour MP and mentioning Peter Mandelson, and he said, 'Who? Oh, that bloke who did the red rose?' I said: 'Well, I think you'll find that he's a bit more important that that.' "

Boulton, who has not voted since 1979, says he treats the political battle as if it were a football match. But John Motson must know whether he wants Man United or Arsenal to win? "I don't. I've just not felt it would be easy for me if I had any political opinions. So that's one reason. The second reason would be to say that all politicians disgust me and that they're all corrupt... I don't think that, but on the other hand I think that, whatever party they come from, they do some pretty unpleasant things on occasion to save their skins."

And not just politicians. Their servants can be equally disagreeable. Boulton submitted evidence to the government's recent communications review, chaired by Bob Phyllis. He was fiercely critical of what has happened under Alastair Campbell's press regime in Downing Street. It has become "a very degraded and debauched process", he says. "The culture of the Blair administration is that they feel they're serving a higher cause than the truth. They say: 'Look at what the journalists do to us - they make it up, they smear us - you have to fight fire with fire.' But I don't think that's good enough. You have to expect higher standards of decency and truthfulness from an elected government."

He does not baulk from using the L-word. "We were lied to over Cheriegate," he says. He has been lied to over the whereabouts of the Prime Minister. He may have been lied to directly by the Prime Minister. "He told me he definitely had extra evidence of WMDs - and we haven't seen that yet." And when Tony Blair said vehemently that he had nothing to do with the naming of David Kelly? "We remain to see" whether the PM was telling the truth, says Boulton. The look in his face as he talks suggests he reckons he knows the answer, even without Lord Hutton's help.

"It is fairly routine now to say that any particular piece of information is given on a provisional basis and it is corrected later," he says. Lies are told "a lot more often and fairly systematically under this government - in a way that I don't think happened under the Major government or the Thatcher government."

Given his harsh criticisms, it seems all the more incredible that he was approached - very informally, old boy - by Downing Street about three years ago and asked if he might be interested in working for the Prime Minister's communications machine. "I think that there was was a perception even then that the whole media spin operation wasn't necessarily an unalloyed triumph. Discussions of that turned into, 'Well, would you at some point in time be interested in trying to sort things out?' " There was never any serious offer because "my position always was that I didn't want to be a party political spokesman for any party".

"The fact of the matter," he muses, "is that I like being a journalist." And he likes being a television one, specifically. "One of the reasons that I work in television rather than in print is that, going back to you asking about my political affiliations, I find it easier to do my job working in a politically neutral environment."

Does he feel confident that impartiality is here to stay in television news? Murdoch has made noises suggesting that he would like to turn Sky News into a flag-waving, right-wing channel like his Fox News in America. If the rules would allow him to. (They don't.)

Boulton allows himself a smile again. "Let him try."