George Galloway: Top cat of the talk shows

To George Galloway, the media and politics are part of the same political process, and he seems to have the vote of his listeners
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Talksport approached George Galloway with the idea of hosting his own current affairs show, the maverick anti-Iraq war MP knew exactly how he wanted to launch his radio debut.

At the time, he was facing the fallout from his much-ridiculed impersonation of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother, and he ran the risk of losing yet more credibility in the world of Westminster politics with another foray into commercial media.

Galloway, who had proven himself adept at handling political and personal controversies in the past, decided to make the most of a bad thing. "I decided to have the music from the cartoon show Top Cat for the start of the show. It was a genuflection to my much-ribalded cat impersonation on Big Brother, and I called it The Mother of All Talk Shows as a reference to Saddam Hussein's comment about the 1990 Gulf War as the 'mother of all wars'," he said.

The concept worked better than anyone could have anticipated. Nearly a year and a half later, Galloway's three-hour weekly shows on Friday and Saturday nights, which he presents standing up for "maximum energy", has succeeded in increasing his listeners by 100 percent. Station bosses have rewarded his success with a big increase of weekly airtime.

Since his first radio address in March last year, Galloway, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, has predictably managed to raise the roof with his views on topics ranging from the Iraq invasion to the muzzling of dangerous dogs. Detractors would argue that his media profile may have brought him fame but it has diminished his integrity as a politician. But the Respect MP sees no distinction between his two public roles, as politician and radio presenter, and even argues that both endeavours feed into the same democratic process.

"I don't see a dichotomy between media and politics. It's all politics to me, and I think it should be entertaining, unless you choose to define entertainment as the opposite of politics, as being earnest and bland.

"Nothing can be more democratic than standing in front of hundreds of thousands of people, which is what I do every week. Most politicians couldn't fill a cappuccino bar with people who wanted to listen to them," he said.

By way of reinforcing this notion, Galloway chooses to stand up for his radio show, as if orating from a dispatch box, because "it's more like being on a platform, and I can put moreenergy into it."

"I do a one-man show in theatres around the country. I try and make people laugh along the way by way of getting my message across.

"On radio, I make jokes, I play music when it's germane to the subject – when we talked about the Vietnam war, we played the music of 1968."

But the softer edges of the show do not take away from its meat, he insists. What he dishes up every week, he says, is political debate from the rock face,in a gladiatorial arena in which most politicians would never dare to tread.

"You have no idea what the next person on the line will say. No matter how brutal the call, I'll take it. It's short sword fighting, and that's my speciality.

"I'm not sure who would do it. Tony Blair? To get in a room with him, you have to have been vetted and on-message, and you can't do that on radio. You are at the mercy of the audience."

In the 18 months he has been on air, he has only had to "dump" two callers on the basis of racism or obscene language, the only two bars when it comes to censoring calls.

He relishes hearing from those who oppose his views. "I encourage callers and even prioritise callers who disagree with me. I never want my show or the radio station not providing different points of view, and it also makes better radio than people phoning up to say they agree with what I've said."

He begins the show by speaking on a given topic, from the "war on terror" to the National Health Service, in an unscripted, extemporary monologue, before inviting callers to respond. His style is unabashedly polemical, and he believes this sort of "opinion"-orientated radio is far more effective than so-called objective news delivery.

He thinks this is where the BBC is at its weakest, dismissing Paxman's so-called confrontational approach as a "panto act".

"If you study the approach taken by many news media, they do have a point of view that they have roughly defined as the centre point. But that's the negation of real journalism. It is the BBC's role as well as other media to distrust the state. They are not doing their job properly. It is about a clash of ideas, not a blancmange of ideas. It is a far better thing to have an authored piece, from someone like John Pilger for example, and to balance that with an authored piece by a right-winger. It is far better than to put everyone's view in a whisk, like the BBC does."

Scott Taunton, Talksport's managing editor, said the station brought Galloway on board precisely for this fiery brand of "opinion speech radio", and also because he provided a perfect left-wing counterbalance to the presenter, Jon Gaunt.

"It attracts audiences because he is engaging listeners. We're not surprised at George Galloway's success. We previously had him in as a guest presenter a number of times and we know he is a seasoned orator. He has a way of stirring opinion, and not many left-wing presenters can do that."