Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How dare you ask the Prime Minister that question !@?

The quake could be felt around the media and far beyond. Andrew Marr, an astute BBC Political commentator cum journalist had asked the question of the British Prime Minister.

If you're American your likely reaction may be "..and yeah! You Brits are so sensitive".

There are some things, many indeed which the Brits curry or import to shore up their own media. Indeed the dawn of the TV News age and the BBC's decision to allow on screen reporters was prompted by the US Networks influencing UK domestic competition.

But this question, about the PM, particularly the condition about his health was a googly, what in Baseball you might call a breaking ball, and in case you're wondering "googly" came before "google".

But that's beside the point, the PM's expression tells he never saw it coming and when it did, the utter disdain is evident.

The question suggested by implication that was he was so severely handicapped that, and the follow up question would have been on its heels, shouldn't he step down as Prime Minister.

This was was a grenade with the pin smothered with chloric acid and its kaboomness and repercussions, not now, but way into the election run could be hugely unsettling.

Asking that Question
You've seen it before, a cunning attorney introduces a stray piece of evidence or pursues a course of questioning knowing full well the other side will object and the judge will overrule. But you can't ignore that the jury now privy to this info will find it hard to "strike off this comment".

And so it was and will be with PM Gordon Brown.

As a former Television Political Producer ironically working under the PM's brother Andrew Brown, I agree with Tim Montgomerie, from Conservative home, who said on BBC's PM, early evening News radio news programme:

"I do worry about this. I think there's been a decline generally in the standard of political journalism in Britain. There's an obsession with opinion polls, personality, obsession the new. There's not enough policy analysis; not enough interviewing of the kind politics would be enhanced by and what we had here was a rumour circulating on the blogosphere categorically denied by Downing Street in private being aired on the BBC's flagship programme.. and therefore giving the license to newspapers and others to put this story out there and give people the impression there's something wrong with Gordon Brown's mental health"

He also added, just in case you're thinking why in the rolling stones would a Tory be defending Labour that he (Tim) wasn't going to regret those who'd take a swing at the PM and that the sooner the PM left office, the better. There!

Mary Ann Sieghart, formerly of the Times, who now presents Newshour on the BBC World Service begged to differ. She was behind revelations that Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's had a drinking problem, which would later lead to to his resignation.

Lord Owen, formerly leader of the Social Democrats has written a well received tomb about political failings attributed to ill health and the rest in: In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years reviewed here in the Guardian.

The Westminster Village
So what's off limit and what isn't?

In the village of Westminster, and corridors of traditional journalism, many a comment and innuendo remain behind closed doors, some of which are bound by Chatham House rules. I have been a member of Chatham House for fifteen years.

Others are hearsay, not worth the outing, some would damage any relationship with a source were it to become public. I like many journalists will have favourite dinner-time stories that stay in the kitchen.

The Westminster village Marr talks about is rife with rumours of one sort or another. Scallywag, a political satire mag alluded to something deeply unrepeatable about some politicians. I'm not going to say it either.

But at some point as a political journalist perhaps you look for new tools to play the game. Margaret Thatcher during her reign hated being asked questions by the public ergo the famous sinking of the Belgrano question.

And this new game, because in many ways the political jousting between interviewer and interviewee is that, looks to work outside the rules. MPs today have been trained to the teeth in obfuscation and parrying difficult questions, so journalist need to find new approaches, new skills, new questions.

In US politics, presidential hopefuls have everything scrutinised. As Sieghart said on PM even Reagan's rectum got the treatment. Apologies if you're eating.

But the rules of the blogosphere whilst not entirely new are unfolding. Hugh Hewitt in his brilliant book Blog - Understanding the information reformation changing the world gives a far better account than I could of how the nature of blogs undid a republican Trent Lott, and a news anchor Dan Rathers.

A new politcal turning point?
Yes the salvos were not based on rumours, so Marr is in a new league here. The league of ungentlemanly, when MPs knew a journalist would not break off and go rogue? Or a league that say now everything goes?

These are interesting times for the genie is damn if it's going to lie back down in that cold uncomfortable bottle and so with an election looming, look forward to the unexpected. It's going to be dirty, very dirty and the first salvo for how we become knowledgeable may just have been lobbed and it's a going to go kaboom for a very long time.