Magazine article The Spectator

Half-Truths and Evasions

Magazine article The Spectator

Half-Truths and Evasions

Article excerpt

Once they'd mastered it politicians congratulated themselves on their skills at evading questions in interviews; perhaps they still do. What they don't seem to realise is that this is rebounding on them whenever they appear on radio or television. They're now so adept at not answering questions that the listener and viewer are left to assess the degree of prevarication and smarminess and in a curious way this serves to tell us more about the interviewee than honest answers might have done in the first place.

Vestey's smarmometer, which is trundled out periodically, particularly during election campaigns, goes off the scale when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown appear on the radio. The hapless Europe minister Keith Vaz is a close third but as he is forbidden to answer questions of any kind the smarmometer is currently unable to measure his performance. Brown is now impossible to interview. He produces set-piece speeches which roll on and on defeating attempts to ask supplementaries, as he did on Today one morning last week. He is beyond interviewing.

Listeners to Today emailed the programme afterwards demanding that he never appear again so dreary was his contribution. And if he doesn't like a question, such as John Humphrys asking for his reaction to Blair's remark that he intended to be prime minister throughout the next Parliament, he will say that he couldn't be expected to answer that. Why shouldn't he be expected to? It's a perfectly fair question in view of the deal the two reportedly made for Blair to stand down in favour of Brown between this election and the next. However, there is some fascination in waiting for the slip-up that never comes, that is to say, hearing him actually answer a question.

The technique, drummed into them during interview training, is to recite a litany of alleged government achievements, repeat them and then wait for the time to run out. This was what Blair tried on Today on Monday this week. The Prime Minister was sitting in the living-room of his constituency house with Alastair Campbell, both wearing headphones, and talking to John Humphrys in London. He was asked if his government had been purer than pure, something he'd promised before the last election. Blair waffled and then fell back on the need to discuss the 'important' issues, saying the allegations against Keith Vaz and Geoffrey Robinson were not proven, even though both had been rebuked by the Commons committee on standards and privileges, Robinson had been forced to resign as a minister and Vaz will follow once the election is safely out of the way. …

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