There's a right way and a wrong way of grilling our politicians on television

TV producer Roger Bolton says members of the public often bring out the best out of a debate


"I'm asking you to correct that statement. It's not good enough."

"I'm asking you to correct that statement. It's not good enough."

"Bearing in mind the fact that thousands of wholly innocent men, women and children have died as a result, how do you manage to sleep at night?"

Two tough challenges to two long-serving Prime Ministers 22 years apart. The first was from the BBC Nationwide election coverage of 1983 when Mrs Thatcher was on the spot. She met another Iron Lady, a geography teacher from Cirencester called Diana Gould, who pursued the then PM relentlessly over the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War, with the loss of hundreds of seamen. It was about the only time in the campaign that Mrs Thatcher was discomfited. Her husband Denis shepherded her out of the BBC hospitality room before she could even be offered a post-programme whisky, let alone drink it. "BBC pinkos," he muttered, "a nest of long-haired Trots and wooftahs." Their daughter Carol called it "an example of the most crass nastiness and discourtesy shown to a Prime Minister in an election programme".

The second challenge was made in Five's Talk to the Prime Minister three weeks ago, which was followed by similar programmes with Charles Kennedy and, last week, Michael Howard.

Afterwards Tony Blair did not walk out, though he too refused a drink, preferring to spend half an hour talking to those who had just given him a verbal battering. There were no complaints.

Apparently it was all part of Labour's "masochism strategy" designed to show that Mr Blair was not out of touch and was prepared to take it on the chin. One partisan press commentator even congratulated Alastair Campbell, newly returned to the Downing Street fold, on designing the studio set. Unless Mr Campbell is capable of thought transference, he had nothing to do with it. Nor did he have anything to do with choosing the questioners or the questions. Indeed, in the Talk to... series none of the leaders was told the questions beforehand.

I had the good fortune to be responsible for all these programmes. As the poet W B Yeats put it, "What can I do but reiterate old themes."

Talk to the Prime Minister caused me to pause and reflect how long and short a time ago 1983 was. A long time in politics, because the 1983 general election saw Anthony Blair first become an MP, supporting a manifesto which promised to pull Britain out of Europe, get rid of nuclear weapons unilaterally and nationalise several large companies. (It also promised to abolish fox hunting.)

A short time in media terms, because in the meantime precious little seems to have changed, or improved, in television's political coverage. This is not to decry the work of valiant and long-suffering political interviewers, who have chased, chaffed and sneered in an attempt to get straight answers from on-message politicians, but it is to wonder why there have not been more experiments involving the electorate in direct contact with those who wish to be elected by them. Because it bolsters the democratic process, and when it works it works very well.

I suggest there are three main reasons for that. First, voters, however nervous, often speak bluntly out of direct experience. They tell it how it is.

Second, politicians are wary of being rude to voters, unlike interviewers, and tend to be less evasive. Michael Howard. for example. did not dare to do some Paxmanesque stonewalling. They are more open about the difficult choices they have to make, and can almost appear human. Third, if voters have a first-rate presenter to back them up, the combination punches can be devastating. I had as presenters Sue Lawley in 1983 and Kirsty Young in 2005. It doesn't get much better than that.

It is time for television to show more respect to politicians and voters alike by devising new ways of bringing them together, replacing cynicism and spin with honest disagreement and debate.

Who knows, maybe we would all start to trust each other a little more. And, of course, it would make an ageing hack very happy.

Roger Bolton was the executive producer of Five's 'Talk to...' series and is former editor of 'Nationwide', 'Panorama' and 'This Week'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all