Adam Boulton: Just don't tell him what he thinks

It was the most explosive TV moment of a tumultuous week. But what does his live on-air bust-up with Alastair Campbell reveal about Sky News's political editor? Has he enhanced his reputation, or merely made a fool of himself?

Adam Boulton was so looking forward to the election. As a prime instigator of the historic televised debates, one of which he moderated personally, he told the blogger Iain Dale that he was "desperate" for the new format to succeed and predicted to this newspaper that he would get the political leaders "going at each other".

Boulton, Sky News's political editor since the rolling news channel first came on air in 1989, quoted the American presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer, saying "if the debates are about me then I have failed humiliatingly". Yet as Britain enters the new world of coalition government, the hit online clip of the campaign is not of the political leaders "going at each other" but of the veteran political journalist squaring up to his old spin-doctoring adversary Alastair Campbell. Monday's exchange, in which the pair went eyeball to eyeball in the style of the modern-day footballer and Boulton screamed, "Don't keep telling me what I think!", has attracted 700 complaints to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom.

As for the debates themselves, Boulton, in spite of his Lehrer comment, is facing a similar number of complaints after a reference to a newspaper story critical of Nick Clegg was perceived as bias against the Liberal Democrat leader. "The rules do not prohibit what I did," wrote the political editor in a review of the campaign this week for the New Statesman, in which he also noted that the leaders had "instinctively avoided Punch-and-Judy politics". That's true. But we had the puppet show on Westminster's College Green, with the jutting-jawed Campbell in the role of old Pulcinella, his big stick taking the form of a series of pointed barbs about Boulton's supposed political views.

Many who have worked closely with the Sky man will regard such aspersions as deeply unfair. The BBC's Andrew Marr has said of his old journalistic rival: "He is genuinely and thoroughly neutral. It's quite rare." So keen is Boulton, 51, to underline his impartiality that he lets it be known that he does not vote, preferring to spend polling day in bed, in preparation for a punishing 26-hour stint on air as the results come in. Like the marathon-running Campbell, he's an alpha male. On foreign trips he'll get by on two hours' sleep and during election campaigns 20-hour days are routine. (His BBC rival Nick Robinson's 16-hour stints appear workshy in comparison.)

After master's degrees from Oxford and Johns Hopkins Universities, Boulton – like Clegg an old boy of Westminster School – set up the new political unit at the breakfast television channel TV-am, where he began developing the fluid, instinctive presenting style that has made him the most enduring star of British 24-hour television news. That fast-paced approach helped to make Sky's debate the most watchable of the three. He spoke movingly to Barack Obama after the US president visited a former slave fort in West Africa last year, and he has interviewed every prime minister since Alec Douglas-Home.

It was at TV-am in 1987 that he had one of his earliest political bouts, the Labour veteran Denis Healey raising his bushy eyebrows and jabbing Boulton in the chest in an off-air spat over the channel's line of questioning. But the scrap which is at the root of Boulton's current dramas occurred during the 2001 election campaign at a site worthy of any Punch and Judy show. Outside the Little Theatre in the seaside resort of Rhyl, the former professional boxer John Prescott landed a short left jab on an egg-throwing protester.

Before footage of the attack had been rushed back to the studio, Boulton was relaying the story, telling viewers that Prescott might have to resign. Labour's press team, hopeful no video of the incident existed, phoned Boulton and said he would be sued for libel. According to the political biographer Colin Brown, Tony Blair was travelling at that moment with Campbell and Anji Hunter (the Prime Minister's gatekeeper, who would later become Boulton's wife). Blair asked Hunter what she thought and she replied, "Middle-class England will not understand it."

In time, Prescott would drive around in a battle bus broadcasting the theme tune to Rocky, pose for photos in Rhyl with a boxing glove and name his autobiography Pulling No Punches. Campbell used the episode as a sketch in his stand-up show. But Labour never forgave Boulton. Years later, former Blair spin doctor Lance Price complained that Boulton "went totally over the top about the Prescott punch". In the early Blair years, New Labour enjoyed a good relationship with Rupert Murdoch's media empire and didn't see Sky News as the enemy. But after the Rhyl punch, Prescott was typically swift in claiming a right-wing conspiracy between Sky News and the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, which tipped the network off that something was about to happen.

Hunter's relationship with Boulton began in 2002, when both were still married, and the revelation of the affair was accompanied by considerable tabloid muck-raking. Unfairly or not, the Sky News political editor was seen as living with a New Labour figure. But Campbell and Prescott (who still refuses to give Boulton an interview) have never seen the journalist as on their side. And though they both worked for Tony Blair, Hunter and Campbell are very different. The daughter of a rubber planter in Malaya, she was educated at boarding school and the children from her first marriage were educated privately. Her loyalty was to the Prime Minister. The journalist Dominic Lawson said, "You never felt when you were talking to her that you were dealing with someone who had a connection with the Labour Party." Hunter later worked for BP.

After antagonising Boulton on election night ("Adam, you're good at giving it, you can't take it"), Campbell, in Monday's live broadcast, made a full accusation of bias as Gordon Brown appeared to be clinging to power: "Adam, you're obviously upset that David Cameron's not Prime Minister." Sky said Boulton's red-faced response (as a grinning Campbell goaded him with "This is live on television ... dignity, dignity") was a defence of the integrity of a network to which he is deeply loyal.

It's not as if Boulton does not have a sense of humour. Witty and cultured, he has decorated his office with amusing political mementoes. He's also used to dust-ups, from the Healey incident to last year's "public meltdown" interview with an angry Gordon Brown at the Labour conference, where Murdoch's The Sun announced its support for the Tories. Boulton later told Iain Dale that "getting under their skin" was his aim in such political interviews. "You could see I'd made a connection and so I was pleased by that," he boasted, adding prophetically that "it's probably not good if you lose your temper as well".

Last week Boulton allowed the politicians to get under his skin. As You Tube clips of his own meltdown surpassed a million views, Campbell and Prescott saw an opportunity to exact greater revenge. On Twitter, Campbell posted the message: "When JP punched someone, pompous Boulton said he must go! Wonder if same rules for TV hacks losing it live. Thought the head butt imminent." The spin doctor, who more than 20 years ago had a breakdown caused by work stress, stirred the pot further with a spiteful reference to Boulton's wife. "Really worried about Adam Boulton ... wonder if he might need some of my pills. Anji ought to come home from her foreign trip."

Prescott, an unlikely convert to Twitter, crudely went for the knockout by driving his 22,000 followers towards Ofcom. "Inundated by people wanting link to report Adam Boulton. Happy to help," he tweeted, posting the watchdog's address. After a bruising campaign in which he has also clashed with former ministers Ed Balls and Ben Bradshaw over further claims of anti-Labour bias, the workaholic probably needs to get his head down. But not because Prescott has put him on the canvas.

A Life in Brief

Born: 15 February 1959, Reading, Berkshire.

Family: Married Anji Hunter in 2006, who at the time was Tony Blair's director of government relations. Two children from a previous marriage.

Education: Attended Westminster School before gaining master's degrees from Oxford University and Johns Hopkins University.

Career: Worked as a journalist in the parliamentary lobby before becoming political editor of TV-am. He set up Sky News's political unit in 1989 and has been political editor ever since.

He says: "At the end of a long and bruising campaign I've been known to grouch to my colleagues that 'it's a pity they can't all lose'."

They say: "The point about Adam is that he's a genuine political nutter. I'm sure other things do matter to him, but when he's working it's only the story that counts. He is genuinely and thoroughly neutral. It's quite rare." Andrew Marr

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