April 24, 2010 1:54 am

Why be serious when a sneer costs nothing?

The programmes that best bore on the election campaign were away from the hustings

The natural instinct of political reporters on television, wrote the American journalist James Fallows in an essay in 1996, “is to present every public issue as if its ‘real’ meaning was political in the meanest and narrowest sense of the term”. Our own big-time political broadcasters, even the best of them, seem incapable of rising above this instinct – of giving any sense that politics is among our most noble activities, and when practised well, as it is in this country, underpins our civilisation.

These big interviewing beasts – Adam Bolton, Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, Jeremy Paxman – growl about between elections, snarling for form’s sake; at election time, though, they treat politicians as slow-moving antelope. Their earnings from books, lectures and after-dinner talks have made them millionaires, and they curl their lips with scorn over politicians who grub around on £65,000 a year, claiming expenses for sofas and cleaning.

Paxman, who did a Newsnight Special with three senior politicians (BBC1 Saturday April 17), asked Tessa Jowell, the Labour Olympics minister, if “you are going to teach your leader to simulate normality”. Interviewing Nick Clegg, he asked him if he thought he was going to be prime minister. Clegg replied he would like to be. Paxman snapped: “Well, you’re not going to be.”

I’m not alone in being appalled by Paxman’s style, but I would judge I’m in a minority. For those who watch him – Newsnight doesn’t get high ratings – he’s close to God. He’s what much journalism has become: a permanent put-down.

Andrew Neil, who pops up most days in various formats – Daily Politics on BBC2, This Week on BBC1 – sought to nail Clegg at the Liberal Democrats’ press conference (BBC Parliament, Tuesday) by reminding him that he had bought cushions on the taxpayer so who was he to speak about cleaning up politics? Later, on the Daily Politics (BBC2 weekdays), he did a demented number, talking of the media “swooning over” and “heavily petting” Clegg. Guests, who included Michael Portillo and Shirley Williams, sensible people on the whole, allowed themselves to be chivvied into playing daft studio games, such as Best Moment of the Week.

Paxman’s interviewing style infects much else. Good presenters, such as Sky’s Adam Bolton and the BBC’s Andrew Marr, are nudged by their producers or themselves away from seeking clarity on policies in favour of controversy. Thus Marr interviewed Gordon Brown on his show on Sunday (Andrew Marr Show, BBC1) and Brown, after much pressing, remained a little ambiguous about serving a full term. The next day, Jon Sopel, on his Campaign Show (BBC News Channel, Tuesday) interviewed the schools secretary Ed Balls, who said Brown would serve another term, even another after that. Hence a meaningless controversy was born. Marr, who can wonderfully illuminate discussion on his radio show (Start the Week, Mondays Radio 4), started on rational terrain with Brown, but betrayed himself into “what if”s – what if there’s a hung parliament? Are you prepared to stand aside? When Brown tried to claw his way back to his agenda, Marr did an impatient “all right, all right” (no policy, this is a serious discussion).

Yet the politicians have, in the main, rolled over. Why didn’t Jowell say, “How can you talk like that of a man who has served his country for decades?” Why didn’t Clegg walk away from an interview conducted with such discourtesy? Why don’t we have a show quizzing the TV men about their views, style, intentions – and how they leverage their licence fee-paid posts into even higher earnings? They are, after all, people of more influence than all but the most senior politicians.

It’s not all the journalists’ fault. The pols can be damned evasive. Gordon Brown did a gig on Radio One (Newsbeat, Tuesday) with a group of young listeners, and was asked by Siobhan Randles why there had been no control on immigration. There is now, said Brown. But before? There is now, said Brown. But why not in the past? There is now, said Brown. Siobhan got ratty with him: you could see why.

The programmes that best bore on the campaign were away from the hustings. One was John Ware’s Panorama: Is Britain Full? (BBC1 Monday), which enlightened us on the one subject that may be larger in this election than the economy – immigration. The UK’s population growth, much of it due to immigrants and their children, will probably mean a population of 70m in a decade or so, in a country already one of the most crowded in Europe. If we want to be and remain tolerant and diverse, we’ll have to do some planning.

Best of all: Michael Cockerell’s How to Win the TV Debate (BBC2 Monday April 12 and repeated on April 17). In clips from US TV debates since the first in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy, it showed that every one of the debates was won or lost by something unconnected with policy. Nixon’s pallor; Reagan’s “there you go again” to Jimmy Carter; George Bush the elder looking at his watch (twice) when debating with Bill Clinton. In a 1960s interview, former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, centuries of breeding in every syllable, said: “We’re not electing a president, we’re electing a government. I’m not interested in personality.” You felt a warm feeling flow towards him: how right you were. And the cold realisation: it’s too late.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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