Tuesday, August 21, 2007


‘Mr Balloon’ Gets Back to Blandness

This morning’s interview with David Cameron was a typical example of the pointless tedium now provided by the Today Programme’s once-sharp cross-examinations of senior politicians. Bland evasions and trad-Tory dog whistles by Conservative Leader? Check. Lumbering efforts to make pre-prepared cheap points by Jim Naughtie, so he misses the live slips? All present. Not in any way illuminating, nor remotely as entertaining as Mr Cameron’s shell-shocked performance a fortnight ago, in which he fell spectacularly to pieces. Yes, I’m afraid today’s Today was merely dull, which was a definite step up for the beleaguered ‘Mr Balloon’. Remember the last time? Mr Cameron dropping clangers about his dismal by-election third places, grammar schools, plummeting opinion polls, donors complaining, candidates attacking and his embarrassing choice of the wrong traditional Tory vote dog-whistle issue (yes, he called for more school discipline while his Eton-educated party were rioting). Oh, and he impressively denied all responsibility for “David Cameron”, which may be a contender for some sort of award.

I’ve taken until a little later in the day to deal with his latest performance, because this time it wasn’t a disaster. It had good bits, it had bad bits, it even had a bit where I agreed with him – well, he does try to be all things to all people, so statistically it was bound to happen eventually – but mostly it had boring bits. Last time, I was inspired by the uselessness of Sarah Montague’s interviewing and David Cameron’s shaky inability to deal with her, and I have to admit I rather enjoyed sounding off about it. Several other people were kind enough to say they enjoyed that, too, including that week’s editions of Liberal Democrat Voice’s Top of the Blogs and the Britblog Roundup – though the latter had a funny idea that I was displaying “an unusual sense of irony for a Lib Dem”. Tsk! Honestly, when we’ve lost as many elections as we’ve managed in the last hundred years, irony is all that keeps a lot of us Lib Dems going. But I digress. No, I have to further admit, vanity was one of the things that delayed me writing this post: it’s just not going to be as amusing as the last one, is it?

I’d say that, technically, Jim Naughtie is a better interviewer than Sarah Montague. He gives a significantly greater impression of knowing what he’s talking about, and is more likely to press a slippery interviewee when they dodge a question. Despite that, he has his drawbacks, and I can’t help thinking that it was a mistake to field him against Mr Cameron this morning. He may seem more a bully than an airhead, but he can be just as superficial, and the previous encounter suggests Mr Cameron may find it much more difficult to do his usual shtick against a female interviewer. His favourite trick is to sound like a reasonable, nice guy put upon by a great big bully (‘Please don’t hurt me’), and while last time he’d clearly lost his grip anyway, his inner nastiness was bound to be more exposed when he couldn’t pretend to be a victim. The BBC’s strategy of sending a great big bully to tackle him is one that almost always fails, because it plays to Mr Cameron’s oily strengths, as it did this morning.

Can anyone have thought Jim Naughtie would achieve anything by opening his attack this morning by quoting the words “hug a hoodie” (not the more talented blog), and immediately saying that he wasn’t going to let Mr Cameron answer back on them? No, Mr Cameron reasonably interrupted him, “I never said it.” Mr Naughtie then blustered that if you asked most people, they’d say they thought he did, as if that mattered. So… Let me paraphrase: ‘I’m going to repeat something I know is a lie, and try to bully the person I’m talking to so he can’t tell the listeners it’s a lie. Then I’m going to admit it’s a lie, but say that most people believe it anyway, so I’ll act as if it’s true.’ This was an experienced Today interviewer so doggedly determined to take a cheap shot that, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor, he dug a great big elephant trap for himself and seemed surprised when he got pushed into it. Mr Cameron probably couldn’t believe his luck that he’d been gifted the opportunity to pose as Mr Nice, the reasonable chap who the beastly unscrupulous journo wants to do over, quite so early in the interview.

Mr Cameron’s luck held, I have to say, when pressed by Mr Naughtie’s Daily Hate Mail agenda on culture and the drinking age. Astoundingly, he stood up to Mr Naughtie’s authoritarian scorn, declined the opportunity to tickle the Tory grassroots’ g-spot and even took a policy position. Even more astoundingly, I agreed with it: a handful of younger violent criminals are no excuse to penalise every 18-, 19- and 20-year-old. For that fleeting instant, he sounded like the “Liberal Tory” (of a piece with being a Christian Satanist, a carnivorous vegetarian and a scientific alternative medical practitioner) he’d once posed as, firm, with a brain in his head, and potentially dangerous. But then his nerve failed him, and he reached straight back to the basic Tory vote. That might have been more damaging if Mr Naughtie had noticed, obviously. Perhaps he was having a bad day, perhaps he’s not really that bright and his researcher was asleep, perhaps he’d simply realised how badly his opening gambit had misfired and it was putting him off his stride… For whatever reason, Mr Cameron was about to be allowed to get away with a bit of spin that any competent interviewer should have pounced on.

So what did they talk about next? Mr Cameron was going to tackle knife crime. He didn’t say how, of course, but it was, well, bad. Very firm, that. Oh, and he’d had a bet with one of his chums that he could mention the Sex Pistols, so he shoehorned in the alarming hyperbole of “anarchy in the UK”. This one was so risible that even Mr Naughtie pounced on it and Mr Cameron immediately started retreating from it, but it did make me wonder if “broken society,” his previous attempt at a Tory meme and now largely abandoned except in the Tory press release BBC news story (edit: it’s vanished even from that now. Do you think the Tories have realised people thought it was rubbish?), had been taken from a song as well. Perhaps it’s a competition. He did claim:
“I think if people break the law, the law should come down on them very hard indeed.”
…Except for taking coke for rich kids, obviously. Anyway, the suggestion came – unsurprisingly – that tackling violent crime (or, at least, announcing he would like to, without saying how) was not a particularly unusual thing for a Tory to go on about. Oh no, said Mr Cameron smoothly, of course that’s “the traditional Tory thing to do,” but he would “also” introduce measures to support marriage. And Mr Naughtie let that sleight of hand pass without a question. Er, excuse me? Since when has the back to basics faux-Victorian wish-fulfilment of blaming all the ills in the world on single parents and pretending the government can wave a magic wand that’ll make every married couple stay together not been traditional Toryism? It even came pre-labelled with the words “…from Iain Duncan Smith”.

There’s something that needs to be nailed here. Nobody likes family break-up. Divorces are traumatic and tragic, and I’d much rather than everyone lived happily ever after. But in real life, rather than in Tory back to basics campaigns, not everyone does. And people don’t get divorced because the government has failed to shove a couple of tenners their way to bribe them to stay married. If loving parents love their kids and each other, it’s going to be a loving family and good for the kids. To most people, that’s a truism; to a Tory politician, it’s treated like an astounding revelation they can trot out to prove they’ve been right all along. Gosh, people who are happy together give their kids a happier life than people who aren’t happy together? Stop the presses! But the answer isn’t for the state to order the latter to pretend to be happy.

I’m a Liberal Liberal, so I don’t support the state bossing people around in their private lives: I think people know better about how they can live their own lives, and that even if they make mistakes, nine times out of ten they’ll make smaller ones than the government would make on their behalf. By contrast, Mr Cameron thinks he knows better than the rest of us. But go back to making divorce harder – which Mr Cameron doesn’t support – and adults and their children will be forced into old-fashioned Victorian misery. Go back to punishing people who live together without being married – which Mr Cameron doesn’t support – and you’ll hurt millions of people without making them believe the morality you’re trying to force on them. Go back to any sort of heavy incentive in favour of marriage and penalties for people who aren’t – which Mr Cameron doesn’t support – and you encourage lies, state-sponsored infidelity and have people marrying for greed rather than love. So what does Mr Cameron support? A very small financial bonus for marriage. Does he really think a tiny bung will “solve the family problem”? It won’t even cover a fraction of the costs of most weddings. All it’s there for is for him to sound like he supports some back to basics ‘solution’ without any pain, but aside from favourable noises in the Daily Hate Mail, it’s impossible to see any gain either. This is the homeopathic version of back to basics: big on the sales pitch, a placebo to the true believers, but so watered down that no objective observer thinks it’ll make the faintest bit of difference. Perhaps Mr Cameron has finally become both a lame duck and a quack?

The rest of the interview was an even greater waste of space: yet another tour around John Redwood’s tax proposals, the ones even Mr Cameron is unlikely to be foolish enough to commit to but would like to have his cake and eat by teasing his traditional voters with the possibility of. Yes, it’s another golden oldie, back to helping out poor people by suggesting a whopping tax break for the richest one-sixteenth of the population (no, I can’t say I’m completely convinced, either), and Mr Naughtie tried for a moment to pin down Mr Cameron to coming out on one side or another, pressing him on the desirability of “a low-tax economy”. “Well, why not give us one?” demanded the interviewer. “Well, because…” There! Did you spot what Mr Naughtie didn’t? Yep, Mr Cameron’s answer began by conceding that he wasn’t going to give those tax cuts. And the BBC’s star man didn’t even notice. Give me strength!

Hey ho. Well, the tide of blandness was unstoppable by that point, and Mr Cameron was clearly on a roll; not sounding impressive, you understand, but back to his old vacuity and clearly delighted that he was getting away with it. And, astoundingly, he really is the only interviewee who sounds much less rattled without Sarah Montague. Then he blathered about hospitals, completely ignoring the question of what if health professionals (whom he’d normally say should make the decisions) think people will get better care through smaller, non-specialist hospitals being closed. Obviously, Mr Naughtie should have challenged him on that when it was obvious he was just coming out with a pre-prepared and quite different statement but, well, you can imagine what actually happened. All I can think of was that the Today interviewer was losing the will to live as well as this listener by this point. No idea what the actual Tory policy is, though, aside from ‘Wouldn’t it be better if things were vaguely a little bit more like they used to be?’ So, while Mr Cameron was technically far more accomplished today than on his previous Today, and while he still lacks all policy substance, it may be significant that the feel of all his statements was of U-turn and abject surrender to his traditionalists. The mood music of his leadership has now changed in just the way that those of his ill-fated predecessors did: less ‘Today’ and more ‘back to yesterday’.

More back to basics: this afternoon, BBC2 showed World War II propaganda piece Lady Hamilton, in which Europe is saved from dictatorship by That (rather marvellous) Hamilton Woman. In the early hours of tomorrow morning, it’s going to be Nell Gwyn (narrated by Seventeenth-Century blogger Samuel Pepys). But the sanctity of marriage has only been undermined by these dreadful liberals who’ve been in power ever since the 1960s, you know.

Nicholas’ LiveJournal brings news that it isn’t just Today; famous Newsnight interviewers may not be as bright as they think they are, either.

In other news, today – or, rather, yesterday, as it’s just slipped past midnight as I attempted to post this and suddenly ran into Blogger being unco-operative, curses (edit: though now it’s showing the time I attempted to post, rather than when it deigned to do it) – I received the latest e-mail from the Metro newspaper, with one of their every-couple-of-monthly ‘Urban Life’ polls. One of the results of the previous poll amused me. 76% of reader respondents agreed with Mr Blair that the media is a “feral beast”… But, unaccountably, they didn’t agree with him that the herbivorous Independent was top predator. Fancy! Instead, they placed the ardently-Blair-loyalist Sun at the top of the guilty list among national newspaper publications (no mention of where the Daily Hate Mail came in, of course). Who’d have thunk?

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