How To Be A Leader

Prescott on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

The technique was apparently invented by John Birt at the long-departed current affairs programme, Weekend World in the 1980s, but has become industry standard practice ever since. I’m talking, of course, about a style of political interviewing – the one that John Prescott threw a punch at this morning.

A researcher on Weekend World once explained their MO to me.  The programme, he said, was effectively story-boarded. They decided the line of argument, and then went out to find talking heads to say the quote-y bits. The big, set-piece political interview was effectively the same, designed to fit a narrative, and, preferably, to trap the interviewee into saying the opposite of whatever it is they wanted to say.  Pretty much all political interviews are planned like this now, which is why most politicians are unable to speak human, because to the journalist, human is weak.

Let’s punch home this point: an interview is not a journalist asking properly probing questions of a politician, listening to the replies, and then asking further questions. An interview is a set-piece stunt.

So to John Prescott this morning.  Prescott has an advantage over most politicians. He is monolingual. He can only speak his own particular dialect of human.  Added to that, he doesn’t take the bait, and remains pugnacious.  And so he gave a masterclass in how to handle an interviewer like John Humphrys.

The contrast with the interview with Yvette Cooper half an hour earlier was instructive.  At the time, I’d thought Cooper had been pretty effective.  She wasn’t pushed around by Humphrys, an unnecessarily aggressive interviewer.  But she’d still done the modern politician thing, which is to enter the studio with the intention of talking for as long as possible to get over her key themes for the day.  The result is sometimes, as with Cooper today, efficient, but it feels passionless. It may sound an odd thing to say, but most politicians in interviews remind me of being at school and preparing for my French oral! I’d memorise a vague but plausible spiel, and then tweak it – adjusting the tense, or qualifying it with a further introduction – to fit any possible questions I might be asked.  It got me through exams, but didn’t do much for my French. Ditto the politicians, emerging unscathed, whilst making no impression whatsoever on the poor bloody voters.

Prescott deals with irritations like John McTernan, much as King Kong swatted airplanes from the New York sky.  However mangled his grammar and syntax, his earthy vocabulary leaves no room for doubt about his meaning.  Above all, he disrupts the journalistic line.

The line the Today Programme intended was to isolate Jeremy Corbyn from ‘respectable’ opinion; to follow the hostile press position that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’ and ‘weird’.  But that ultimate New Labour figure, Lord Prescott, was having none of it.

Why?  That’s actually quite important.  Prescott may have been at the heart of Blair’s Labour Party, but, as he shows in this interview, his loyalty was never to the leader, always to the party.  In Corbyn, in his own preferred candidate, Burnham, in Cooper, Prescott sees a fellow Labour loyalist whose heart is always with the movement. In defending Corbyn, Prescott was looking after one of his own.

I believe in Liz Kendall’s sincerity when she argues with some passion that Labour must embrace the sorts of things voters were telling her during the election campaign.  Voters do say harsh things about migrants, and those on benefits.  Kendall really does believe that the way to win those voters back is to echo their fears more effectively than the Tories or UKIP.

But that is a politics of gaming elections, and Labour’s never been very good at that.  It just doesn’t have the money, or the partisan press. The win in 1997 was a classic example of a government losing an election, rather than an Opposition winning.  Blair’s attractive optimism undoubtedly helped, but I doubt that John Smith would have won less decisively.  After 1997 votes actually bled away, even before Iraq.

What Corbyn’s candidacy has done is give the arguments back to the heart of the Labour movement, reigniting some of the tribal passion and loyalty that used to be the hallmark of the party.  Politics as belief, as argument and persuasion, as leadership, not of polls, of triangulation, of retail offers.  John Prescott’s intervention today demonstrates that those traditional Labour strengths were dormant, not dead.

My guess is that the same is true for much of the electorate. Give us authenticity – “traditional values in a modern setting” – and we’ll respond.

2 thoughts on “How To Be A Leader

  1. I’d often wondered about the way Today operates. My thought was that it was trying to generate headlines and your analysis pretty well confirms this – it sets the news agenda, so we’re hearing what Today wants us to hear, not what politicians wish to say. Ingenious! I really cannot fathom the attempts to portray Corbyn as some weirdy beardy. The public complain loud and long about all politicians being the same. Then along comes one who’s a bit different and the media and assorted Westminster junkies complain bitterly. Go figure.

  2. Once you know how the interviewing formula works, you can never hear an interview again without working out the game plan behind it. That’s also why politicians do the irritating thing of talking over the interviewer and not answering the question. Often it is less about evasiveness than about refusing to be hijacked, but either way, it sounds unnatural and breeds cynicism and disbelief. I wish both sides would call a truce, and the BBC would understand that it doesn’t have to follow the same news agenda as the press. Some hope, with Charter Review now ongoing.

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