Let the people speak

The Prime Minister's public question sessions must be spin-free
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The Independent Online
On Friday, somewhere in the Midlands, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is going to take questions from the public for 90 minutes. The subject will be crime and among the audience will be experts as well as ordinary people. The exercise will be repeated at monthly intervals with different subjects and varying venues.

It is important to get this highly significant innovation absolutely right. The first point to remember is that, as the taxpayer is financing the exercise, it is a government occasion and not a party political one. It would be quite wrong for Mr Blair to attempt any point scoring at the expense of his political opponents. There should be a blessed relief from any recital of what 18 years of Conservative rule achieved or did not achieve. Of course if it is relevant on Friday, crime statistics going back to the 1970s should be mentioned and analysed, but not in a way that would require a response from the Conservative Party.

How much coverage will the main broadcasting organisations provide? Their judgement should not be made with reference to conventional news values alone. The event can become a valuable part of the democratic procedures of the nation. It is with this in mind that the decisions should be reached. As well as transmitting news reports, the BBC at least has a clear duty to broadcast the entire session in full, though this need not necessarily be live or take place in primetime.

Notice that the television camera here has a second, crucial role. It makes the exchanges more evenly balanced than they might at first appear. Mr Blair will be well briefed, but the camera's cruel gaze can reveal any unease, bluff, or insincerity on his part. Nonetheless, a number of additional safeguards are required if the occasions are to realise their full potential.

It will be important to learn how the audience is selected and what sort of people it comprises. There must not be any suspicion that somehow the Prime Minister has arranged an easy interrogation. During 90 minutes this group of people will have to act as a proxy for the entire nation in putting its questions; it thus has to be representative by gender, age, race, education, occupation, income etc.

There may be a temptation to invite only people having a direct experience of the chosen subject. That would be a distortion. The formula should be to bring together an audience that is representative of the country as a whole plus a few experts. In addition a neutral chairman or chairwoman should make sure that the Prime Minister does not stray into party point scoring and should select the questioners.

Undoubtedly ordinary people do ask politicians better questions, when they get the chance, than do journalists at a press conference or members of Parliament at Question Time. Questions from the public are generally direct and drawn from personal knowledge (in the case of crime, say, living in a rough part of town). And such questions tend to draw considered replies; their very artlessness calls for a straightforward response.

Political journalists, on the other hand, are more interested in the political process than in policy. Had they been interested in the subject- matter of government, then they would have become specialist writers and concentrated on health, or education or economics or defence or whatever. On the contrary, their speciality is politics itself. At press conferences, political journalists rarely put questions that the general public would ask; these are considered naive or boring because the answer is already known.

Instead they are much more interested to discover, to take a recent example, whether the Cabinet Secretary did in fact successfully veto Mr Blair's plans to appoint the person who was his chief of staff in opposition as his private secretary in Downing Street - somebody who happens to be the brother of a former aide to Lady Thatcher. Big deal!

I can well believe the Downing Street briefing carried in the weekend newspapers which revealed that "Tony feels the toughest questions he got in the election weren't from MPs or journalists, but from ordinary people with real concerns about things like health, education and crime". During Lady Thatcher's last election as Prime Minister, the worst discomfort she suffered came from an exchange with a radio listener during a phone- in on the subject of the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war.

The Tory reaction to Mr Blair's initiative is incomprehension. The Conservatives can only conceive the exercise of democracy as taking place in the House of Commons where the party whips control MPs' votes. Thus Sir Archibald Hamilton, chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative MPs, comments with heavy sarcasm that "it seems to have escaped Mr Blair's notice that in the British democracy he is supposed to be held to account by elected MPs ... it is extraordinary behaviour when you consider their huge majority ... why is Labour so worried about facing Parliament?"

I see the matter differently. Nothing in the notion of regular question and answer sessions with the public detracts one jot from the power of Parliament. Moreover, the more the Government connects with ordinary people, the better it will govern. Mr Blair will have much to learn from his audience's questions and their reactions to his replies. These new monthly forums have great potential. Nothing should be barred. Let there shortly be sessions on Northern Ireland and on Europe. Best of all would be if the Prime Minister adopted a tone which was more thinking aloud than pat answers and that the audience encouraged this.