There's a right way and a wrong way of grilling our politicians on television

TV producer Roger Bolton says members of the public often bring out the best out of a debate

Monday 14 March 2005 01:00

"I'm asking you to correct that statement. It's not good enough."

"I'm asking you to correct that statement. It's not good enough."

"Bearing in mind the fact that thousands of wholly innocent men, women and children have died as a result, how do you manage to sleep at night?"

Two tough challenges to two long-serving Prime Ministers 22 years apart. The first was from the BBC Nationwide election coverage of 1983 when Mrs Thatcher was on the spot. She met another Iron Lady, a geography teacher from Cirencester called Diana Gould, who pursued the then PM relentlessly over the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War, with the loss of hundreds of seamen. It was about the only time in the campaign that Mrs Thatcher was discomfited. Her husband Denis shepherded her out of the BBC hospitality room before she could even be offered a post-programme whisky, let alone drink it. "BBC pinkos," he muttered, "a nest of long-haired Trots and wooftahs." Their daughter Carol called it "an example of the most crass nastiness and discourtesy shown to a Prime Minister in an election programme".

The second challenge was made in Five's Talk to the Prime Minister three weeks ago, which was followed by similar programmes with Charles Kennedy and, last week, Michael Howard.

Afterwards Tony Blair did not walk out, though he too refused a drink, preferring to spend half an hour talking to those who had just given him a verbal battering. There were no complaints.

Apparently it was all part of Labour's "masochism strategy" designed to show that Mr Blair was not out of touch and was prepared to take it on the chin. One partisan press commentator even congratulated Alastair Campbell, newly returned to the Downing Street fold, on designing the studio set. Unless Mr Campbell is capable of thought transference, he had nothing to do with it. Nor did he have anything to do with choosing the questioners or the questions. Indeed, in the Talk to... series none of the leaders was told the questions beforehand.

I had the good fortune to be responsible for all these programmes. As the poet W B Yeats put it, "What can I do but reiterate old themes."

Talk to the Prime Minister caused me to pause and reflect how long and short a time ago 1983 was. A long time in politics, because the 1983 general election saw Anthony Blair first become an MP, supporting a manifesto which promised to pull Britain out of Europe, get rid of nuclear weapons unilaterally and nationalise several large companies. (It also promised to abolish fox hunting.)

A short time in media terms, because in the meantime precious little seems to have changed, or improved, in television's political coverage. This is not to decry the work of valiant and long-suffering political interviewers, who have chased, chaffed and sneered in an attempt to get straight answers from on-message politicians, but it is to wonder why there have not been more experiments involving the electorate in direct contact with those who wish to be elected by them. Because it bolsters the democratic process, and when it works it works very well.

I suggest there are three main reasons for that. First, voters, however nervous, often speak bluntly out of direct experience. They tell it how it is.

Second, politicians are wary of being rude to voters, unlike interviewers, and tend to be less evasive. Michael Howard. for example. did not dare to do some Paxmanesque stonewalling. They are more open about the difficult choices they have to make, and can almost appear human. Third, if voters have a first-rate presenter to back them up, the combination punches can be devastating. I had as presenters Sue Lawley in 1983 and Kirsty Young in 2005. It doesn't get much better than that.

It is time for television to show more respect to politicians and voters alike by devising new ways of bringing them together, replacing cynicism and spin with honest disagreement and debate.

Who knows, maybe we would all start to trust each other a little more. And, of course, it would make an ageing hack very happy.

Roger Bolton was the executive producer of Five's 'Talk to...' series and is former editor of 'Nationwide', 'Panorama' and 'This Week'

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