Never mind James Cameron and his nine Oscar nominations, Adam Boulton did the whole Avatar thing years ago. I learn this after pointing at a life-size cardboard cut-out pinned to the wall of the Sky News political editor’s cupboard of an office across the street from the Houses of Parliament.
“Who’s that?” I ask, pointing at the trim, sharp-suited figure. I’m thinking Michael Caine in Get Carter. “That’s me believe it or not,” says the political heavyweight of his reluctant journey into the parallel universe of Second Life. “It’s very interesting that gallant figure because I actually gave them my true vital statistics. I thought I’d be the only person who actually looked like themselves in Second Life but when it came back after thousands of dollars of work in California I had this wasp waist.”
How is his computer-generated alter ego doing, three years after it was created? “I never knew how to operate it,” he confesses. “So someone else may be operating it.” Boulton then cheerfully launches into a story of his rare Second Life interview with “one of the Miliband brothers”, which provoked fraternal envy among the ministerial siblings, “so I did another interview with the second brother...and we were able to use the same avatar!”
Boulton is good company and a popular figure in Westminster. He’s 50 this month and was involved in setting up the Sky News politics team when it launched 21 years ago. He doesn’t need an avatar – the real Adam Boulton will do well enough, hosting one of the three historic televised debates between party leaders that will take place ahead of the election.
He’s going second, after ITV’s Alastair Stewart and before the BBC’s David Dimbleby. The haggling over who gets which subject – foreign affairs, domestic policy, the economy – is still ongoing. “I don’t think there is a Cinderella subject,” he says. “I’d be happy to deal with foreign affairs – after all we are engaged in two wars, it’s the thing that has got people out on the streets and Europe still seems to be one of the big dividing lines between the parties.
“David’s made comments that his is going to be the best debate because the gloves are off. I know Alastair is prepping up for it. Although the basic format of the debates is going to be the same I think they are going to look very different because the personalities of the stations are going to be expressed.”
How will they will different? “To me, what is interesting is I’m 50, Alastair’s 60 [actually 57] and Dimbleby is...” Boulton allows himself a chuckle, “...70. So although it’s all blokes there is a kind of generational difference.”
He claims ITV has the weakest stable – “they didn’t really have a current affairs interviewer and Alastair has stepped up into that position” – and although he gives due recognition to Dimbleby’s record – “he is still the eminence grise of political television” – he doubts Question Time is a helpful model for a pre-election debate.
Boulton’s purpose will be to get the leaders “going at each other” and he takes the opportunity for a little sideswipe at his BBC rival. “Some of the print comment is seeing this as a bear pit, you will have the leaders and set the audience on them in a kind of Question Time. Certainly my vision is that it will be a very different thing from that,” he says. “The problem with those shows is that sometimes you get a common view emerging from the panel – or in the case of Nick Griffin, the panel and the question master and the audience all against one person. Well, if we get a group thing from the three leaders it will be a disaster. The point is to get them to differentiate themselves from each other in front of the audience rather than circle the wagons against the audience.”
He would have handled Griffin differently? “I have to say that I did feel David Dimbleby got too involved and seemed to be operating as a panellist. I think if I had been doing that I would have tried to move it along so it wasn’t 50 minutes talking about the BNP. I would have tried to have got the BNP talking about law and order, Europe, foreign affairs, whatever.”
Boulton’s role model will be the American presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer, who tries to avoid being a distraction from the candidates. “He has said that if the debates are about me then I have failed humiliatingly and I think that’s absolutely true,” he says. “Because of the expectations of British journalism there could be a little bit of an ego problem but I hope there won’t be an ego problem with me.”
He believes the televised debates would not be happening at all if it were not for a vocal campaign by the head of Sky News John Ryley, claiming that ITV initially regarded the idea as “a stunt” and that the BBC, though supportive, claimed it could not be seen to lobby for something political.
Boulton also enthusiastically backs the Sky corporate line on the need to clip the wings of the media watchdog Ofcom, accusing it of “empire building”. This is not, as some Rupert Murdoch observers suspect, part of a softening up process to turn Sky News into a British version of the overtly rightist Fox News. “I think there is a big difference between the news markets in America and here. By and large cable channels in America, including Fox, are niche channels which have a loyal paying audience and they can make a lot of money speaking to a relatively small group of people,” he says, arguing that Sky News is a general rather than niche product. “I also think there’s a difference in the British mentality, we don’t really have talk radio to the same extent it has caught on in America. The big selling line here is more music less talk.”
On Boulton & Co, the blog he shares with other Sky News presenters, he is sometimes questioned on his own political neutrality, given that he is married to Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Anji Hunter. “What’s important on a day to day level is that the people I work with, the politicians and my peers, don’t see that as being relevant,” he says. “One of the reasons I went into television was that it didn’t sit with my particular feelings to work in print with a newspaper having an editorial and party political line.”
Boulton landed an interview with the American President last summer, though he looks a little pained when I suggest that the exchange – billed by Sky as Obama versus Boulton – was more cordial than confrontational. Filmed in the haunting environment of the Cape Coast slave fort in Ghana, the interview allowed the British journalist to explore issues relating to the President’s ethnicity. Both men were dressed in open neck shirts.
“The location and the dress was their choice,” he says. “Watching him and his wife and children being taken round this slave fortress, it meant that that issue was open and led us into colonialism, his attitude towards Britain and the way his father had been treated which were things I felt a British audience wanted to know.”
In any case, he argues, interviewers do not always have to be aggressive. “What interviewers want to do is push politicians off the line to take. You can do it battering ram-style like John Humphrys or the Paxman scornful style. Or you can try and coax them off their line into saying something interesting,” he says. “I would reject the assumption that my technique is necessarily softer. Ultimately it may not be so obviously brutal but I think there’s a difference.”
He does “manage to get into fights”, he points out, notably the “public meltdown I had with Gordon Brown” at the last Labour conference when the Prime Minister, still livid over The Sun’s decision to back the Tories, stormed out of his seat at the end of Boulton’s interview, ripping out his microphone. Boulton’s hilarious look of mock horror was caught by Channel 4 News’s camera.
Boulton won’t worry too much about an angry Gordon. On his office walls, alongside with the absurd avatar, is a wealth of memorabilia from his time on the political frontline: pictures inside Downing Street and at White House press conferences, a red rosette bearing the name B’Stard and a yellow badge with the slogan “Vote Lord Sutch”.
And there is a photograph of this big personality of British political broadcasting, lying flat out exhausted in the small hours of the Nice Summit in 2000. The shot, which made it onto the front page of the London Evening Standard, is framed and accompanied by a typically lewd comment from Alastair Campbell and another message: “To Adam, the interview wasn’t really that bad, Tony Blair.”