Read my lips: the BBC's putting words in my mouth

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The Independent Online
TODAY I am glad to welcome, as a guest expert, Sir John Potter. Sir John worked, briefly, as press secretary to Sir Bernard Ingham's personal assistant, was knighted on leaving his job and has been out of work ever since. He has agreed, for a large sum of money, to answer your queries on the very confusing world of politics today. All yours, Sir John]

Like many people I am mesmerised by the effect of seeing Gerry Adams on our screens and and hearing someone else's voice issuing from his lips. Can you explain how this is done? Or indeed why?

Sir John writes: I am at a loss to explain exactly why it is done, unless someone at Tory Central Office has a sense of humour, which is plainly out of the question. As to how it is done, that is quite easy. I should remind readers, by the way, that Mr Adams is not the only modern politician whose voice is dubbed on to our television screens. Almost any foreign statesman who cannot speak English or refuses to speak English is similarly given a voice-over, so that his words can be translated. You must have noticed that any statement from Mr Yeltsin or Mr Zirinovsky starts with the real Russian voice then fades away into a sort of dubbed-on, acted version in English. Now, nobody has ever objected to this or pointed out how ridiculous it is. Nor indeed, has anyone ever objected to the fact that more familiar figures such as Sir Norman Fowler have their lines dubbed on.

Hold on - are you saying that Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Tory Party gets the same treatment as Gerry Adams?

Oh, yes. Have you never watched the Fowler lips closely while listening to the Fowler voice?

I have never risked it.

Well, you should. It's very instructive. They don't really match. There's a sort of mini- lapse between the two.

But why why on earth should they dub Norman Fowler? And who first had the idea of dubbing him? Apart from the Queen, of course.

Ha, ha. Well, the thing is that the BBC is looking to make significant economies, and one of the major expenses it has is that of wheeling in politicians to make statements every time something happens, which, of course, is a total waste of money. Now, somebody noticed along the line that the statements are all virtually the same, so instead of getting in Tebbit or Archer or whatever speaking head the Tories wish to feature in person, the BBC currently just digs out its two-minute bit of Norman Fowler film and dubs on the appropriate reaction.

Could you give me an example?

Certainly. On Monday, Sir Norman was dragged on to comment on the unexplained death of Stephen Milligan, MP. He said that he couldn't possibly comment on the facts of the case until they had been established, however he couldn't see that it would cause any embarrassment to John Major whatsoever and he was sure that the party could only go forward, stronger and keener than ever before.

Why on earth did he go on TV if that was all he was going to say?

That's the point. He didn't go on TV. It was this old bit of film of him, dubbed with the appropriate reaction. And what he said on the sound track was so evasive that it could have fitted equally well to the Westminster council house scandal, the Malaysian dam scandal, or any of the shady things which the Tory party have got involved in. Indeed, I am sure that Norman Fowler has been seen saying exactly the same thing on all those occasions.

And is the film of Gerry Adams done the same way?

Oh, no. Gerry Adams is a rather more weighty figure than Sir Norman Fowler - and also a rather more interesting and provocative speaker - so he is handled rather differently, of course. Every time he wishes to make a statement, he meets with the BBC beforehand to discuss the script.

He has script meetings with the BBC?

Well, if his schedule permits it. He is a very busy man, so he may have to make do with a personal call to John Birt . . .

Goodness - is the director-general involved in all this?

Oh, yes. John is a very hands-

on fellow. He is also very keen to preserve political balance, so he will insist on Gerry denouncing violence every time he encourages it.

Is that why he is heard calling for peace every time he is seen at an IRA funeral?

That's it.

So that's why Gerry Adams's speeches seem to argue both ways? Just to meet BBC guidelines?

Sure. But look, we've spent all this time talking about Gerry Adams. You've only got time for one more question on another topic.

Why is the Government so slow to take military action in Bosnia?

Because they're trying to fix up a deal to build a dam there first.

Sir John Potter will be back soon to tackle more of your questions.

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