Insults, soundbites, repetition, clubbiness, obfuscation ...

Politicians on the telly

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Yesterday morning the entertainment department at the BBC sent me and my fellow TV critics a news release giving notice of a new comedy game show, entitled If I Ruled the World. These are the first 16 words: "Lying, cheating, fighting. Bribery, adultery, hypocrisy. It's all in a day's work for our seasoned politicians."

There is a wonderful casualness about this assertion which reveals the confidence with which it was written. It transcends the possibility of contradiction, because this is something that we all know; it is incontestable, forming a backdrop to everything we see and hear; it is common wisdom in the pubs, a cliche on the golf-course - politicians are, as a matter of empirical fact, all rogues and bastards. Except for Clare Short and Ken Livingstone, of course.

The person who wrote it - almost certainly a press officer at the BBC - has probably never had a conversation of any decent length with a politician. Which saved that person from having to begin the press release with the unexciting words: "Meeting, gossiping, listening. Boredom, frustration, minor achievement. It's all in a long day's work for our seasoned politicians." Let them try to make a game show out of that.

Anyway, there is something marvellous about the idea that a programme made by Hat Trick Productions, whose Have I Got News For You features Paul Merton and Angus Deayton, is - as the release goes on to say - "scientifically designed to dismantle the egos of modern politicians". And who, one wonders, will dismantle the egos of modern comedians? I tell you, it is a great deal easier to get a politician to come on a TV programme and answer questions about their work, than it is to get a comedian. No agents, for a kick- off, and they try to impose far fewer conditions.

This is not an attack on comedians, many of whom are my best friends - or would be if they would answer my phone calls. They are no better or worse than the rest of us. But neither are politicians. Indeed some are almost absurdly honourable. Who would you rather trust with your teenage son, Jack Straw or Dawn Alford? And who knows most about sexual peccadillos, Tony Blair or Angus Deayton? As far as I can see William Hague is an honourable man, and when it comes to hypocrisy, well ... look in the mirror. Politicians lie, cheat, fight, bribe, and commit indecent acts no more than you do, dear readers.

Yet we seem to believe that they do. Over 30 years the respect with which politicians and the political process are regarded, has slumped. And this raises an interesting question: Why do we elect them, then? Why do we not rise up against this sinful crew, and replace them at the next election with a ragbag - but honourable - army of newsreaders, businessmen, comedians, newspaper editors and publicans? This is a democracy, and it could be done. The money could be found. Powerful sections of the media would be enlisted. Volunteers would flock.

Yet it will not happen, and this must be because we know that, in so far as politicians are unsatisfactory, it is not the individuals that are to blame, but the process. Somehow politics makes politicians into people we do not like. Even the good ones.

I played a small role in the downfall of a good one, whom some will remember. Bryan Gould was New Labour before Tony Blair had made his maiden speech. Neil Kinnock's right-hand mind, a free-thinker and - for a time - an ally of Peter Mandelson, Gould was one of those guys who had an unfortunate tendency to answer questions that he was asked, to engage with the subject under discussion. He was thus much loved by Sunday lunchtime politics programmes, whose right to existence was not guaranteed by the size of their audiences, and who therefore desperately sought legitimacy in Monday morning's newspaper headlines.

Twice when I was involved, carefully constructed interviews lured Mr Gould into unwise speculation. And twice we were rewarded with front pages announcing "Gould's gaffe!", detailing the embarrassment caused by the New Zealander's indiscretion. Thus frankness and candour were penalised, and tight-gobbed evasion was rewarded. Mr Gould was not the model that the trainers used when advising politicians on handling interviews. Mrs Thatcher - no question knowingly replied to - was considered to be the best. Eventually Bryan gave up on politics and went back to the Antipodes, where he became a vice-chancellor.

A few days ago the BBC's news boss, Tony Hall, had the interesting experience of giving an off-the-record briefing to the Prime Minister's press secretary, the much-feared Alastair Campbell, and his counterparts from Mr Hague's and Mr Ashdown's offices. The Beeb had been doing a lot of research on public attitudes into the coverage of politics, and he wanted to share it with them. Because what it showed was that neither the politicians nor the broadcasters were benefiting from what was going on.

It wasn't that people didn't care about politics. Most did. It wasn't that they thought there was too much of it on the media. Most were content with the amount. But they were very, very frustrated with the content, with the style, with the argy-bargy; with the trading of insults, with the soundbites, with the repetition, the language, the clubbiness; with the obfuscation - 92 per cent thought that politicians rarely answered questions clearly.

Now, maybe I'm being naive, but it seems to me that there is a huge opportunity here, for those that are prepared to take the risk. Mo Mowlam knows this. Ken Clarke knows this. One or two others know it. It consists, as Tony Hall told Alastair, of sticking to the issues, of not slagging off the other side, of explaining why things matter, of using everyday language, of situating yourself psychologically outside the Westminster bearpit, of admitting error, of changing your mind. It is do-able. But when politicians take this risk, they must be rewarded for it. No more "gaffes". And no more silly press releases from comedians.

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