Monday, April 26, 2010

In Conversation With Adam Boulton

In the latest of my IN CONVERSATION interviews for Total Politics, in this month's issue, I talk to Sky News Political Editor, Adam Boulton.

ID: You've been at Sky News since the beginning. How has your job changed in the years you've been doing it?

AB: Over time, the nature of television news has changed. The formal two or three minute package has become rarer. You do more stuff on the hoof. I've really evolved to doing almost exclusively live stuff; live interviews, presenting programmes and live commentary. We've gone up from four people working in Westminster when we started to about 30 now. It's always changing - we're going to completely rebuild our offices for HD. So it's almost the restless nature of it that's kept me in the same place.

The other thing that happened is that we've gone online. There was a time, in the middle of my period at Sky, there I was practically illiterate. I didn't write anything down. But obviously with the growth of online, I'm now writing much more than I have ever done before in my career. So that's been a rediscovery of a lost art.

Have you ever thought about going to the other side, because a lot of journalists do drift into politics. Has that ever crossed your mind?

No, genuinely it has not crossed my mind. I do see what I'm doing as analogous to being a sport commentator. There aren't many sport commentators who qualify for a Premiership side. Something dies inside me when I see a journalist becoming a candidate.

Do you think the Westminster lobby is an outdated institution?

I don't really. I've been chairman of the lobby, and I've defended it on occasions. We've had to fight continuously for access to the Commons and I feel without it we'd be worse off. It's certainly the case that the whole process got a bit debauched during the New Labour years. There are some people who date that back to Bernard Ingham, although he was a straight operator compared to what followed. There's also a question about who is admitted to the lobby, because you've now got new media appearing. Since I've been in the lobby it's always been a fairly organic institution and people or organisations who were big figures in the lobby have faded away and new ones have come in. A lot of people often think it's a deal between the government and the lobby. It's not. The lobby is a parliamentary institution; it's not a governmental institution. I personally think that is quite important. I am one of those journalists who thinks that in a lot of areas we can afford to lift our game - by which I mean there's quite a significant chunk of my colleagues who are not primarily interested in politics, the decisions which Parliament is taking, how it's going to affect individuals. They're interested in Westminster as a source of gossip and secondary stories. Sometimes we do need to think: "Why are we doing this?"

Couldn't you also argue that 24-hour news channels are to blame because they've got so much time to fill?

Sometimes you get bushfires, but if they're not very significant they tend to burn themselves out quite quickly. What 24/7 media can do is cover things in more depth. Likewise we can show 20 minutes or half an hour of a news conference or a statement to Parliament. That is how we fill the time.

How do you see 24-hours news developing in this country? There are one or two people at Sky who would like it to develop into much more of a Fox News operation - more opinion than straight reporting. Is that a route you'd like to see Sky go down?

There are big questions about television as a whole because the bar to entry has been lowered so much by digital technology. There's a lot of competition coming. If you're going to continue to be influential in the cacophonous marketplace, you need to have very strong relationship with your audience. In America, Fox News has identified a section of the audience and it caters to their needs. Because there isn't one dominant free broadcaster, you can make a great deal of money that way. While people want greater choice, they look to their news providers for authority. Opinion polls show they trust broadcasters. If you just became another voice in this news market, you would rapidly disappear. It's noticeable that - not at Sky - when other people have tried to do very opinionated news, they haven't taken root to the extent that talk radio has in other cultures.

You and Jon Craig in particular have become slightly more opinionated. I don't mean in the party political sense but you do give your own opinions more than you did ten years ago.

There's an element of truth in that. It's partly presuming on the trust you've built up with the audience - they can take it. But one of the problems in political broadcasting is that we've grown up in a culture where balance is a bit from Labour, a bit from the Conservatives and a bit from the Liberals. I'm very conscious of trying to be fair. But sometimes the nature of the debate does involve being more explicit and there are some areas where you can take a different position. Jon Craig is of the old school, 'How can MPs behave like this? Let's expose them. They deserve what they get' approach and that's fine. But when I've been doing commentary, I'm more concerned to try to explain how this happened and relate to it as human beings. How would you behave if you'd been in those circumstances?

Would you agree that the media often operate as a herd? Do you think that's healthy?

I had a very bumpy relationship with Alastair Campbell, but he did say to me once that the difference about me was that if I express an opinion, I try and attribute it. That is quite important. I wouldn't say on air: "I was falling asleep during that David Davis speech." I would say: "I saw quite a lot of people in the audience falling asleep." They amount to pretty much the same thing, but there's a difference. Broadcast political editors work in isolation and we don't actually see that much of each other because television tends to take you away a bit from the pack a lot of the time. But there are certainly occasions during big stories where either side of going live at Downing Street, we just say: "What do you think will happen?"

What's the competition like between you? Because 10 years ago, Sky and the BBC felt they had won if they got a story on the screen quicker than another. Is the competition now a bit more subtle?

We've always wanted to get things on first, but to get them right. We would break a story. But we wanted to qualify it with saying: 'This is the best information we have at the moment' or 'More on that story'. There was a period when Roger Mosey [BBC executive] very much wanted to just compete on who was doing things first and it got slack with people rushing to break things all the time and getting things wrong. I would say the BBC got it wrong more than we did. The BBC News channel is probably less of a priority for the BBC than it was a few years ago and that therefore has given us a bit more space.

How much influence does Rupert Murdoch have in what you do? Does he ever ring you up?

No, I've never been rung up by Rupert Murdoch. I'll be dropped from The Guardian's 100 most influential people in the media now! The truth is that in more than 20 years at Sky, I've probably been in the same room as Rupert Murdoch about half a dozen times. And I've probably had three conversations with him.

Do you ever feel used by politicians?

That's part of the deal, at one level. John Lloyd [contributing editor of the FT] said that journalism has three functions: reporting, analysing and commenting. A lot of 24-hour news is reporting. It's getting to people, finding out what they want to say and pushing them that bit further to say what they really mean. Politicians don't have a right to get on the airwaves, but part of our job is to facilitate them and to say what they're doing. But if politicians lie to me, I do remember it.

Give me an example.

Well, I always resented the fact Nick Raynsford lied to me about running for London mayor. I had asked him in an interview: "If Frank Dobson comes into the race, you'll pull out in his favour, won't you?" He flatly denied it and then eight days later he opened the Frank Dobson campaign with the words: "Everyone's always known I would support Frank if he came into the race." That kind of thing is unnecessary. If someone flatly denies something and subsequently you read in their memoirs "tough interview but I managed to brush him off" that annoys me.

You must get that everyday though? What about Alastair Campbell's briefings? You only need to read his diaries to see how many times he would mislead the lobby.

While I admire much of Alastair Campbell's professionalism, the problem was that he introduced a culture where it was ok to lie. There were occasions when he actually said to me, while in the job, "Oh, sorry about that Adam, but you know why I did it." There are some lines you shouldn't cross. And that became a culture which is satirised brilliantly in The Thick of It. It's not just Labour. There are some people who think the job of press officers, spin doctors or special advisors is to lie. Call me naive, I don't think that is the job and it's corrosive.

The Sky campaign to get the party leaders to debate each other has been a massive success. How did it come about?

It was quite simple. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, is a thinker and he sent round a paper saying that he was concerned about the lack of political engagement, which we can see in the decline in our audiences for elections and obviously you can see it in voter turnout. He canvassed ideas for what we should do about it and we concluded that it wasn't our place to campaign for turnout or to run celebrities saying 'use your vote' because that would be a kind of intrusion in the market place.

We ended up with a campaign which basically was us saying: "Listen, we think there should be a debate. We're going to stage it. Be there or be square." Of course Cameron and Clegg said very quickly they would take part.

Will the debates dominate the whole campaign? Each debate could take up three days' news agenda - so it's nine days out of the campaign.

We'll have to see. But the print boys are quite sulky about the whole thing. I've been surprised talking to the parties how little they are varying their timetable of battle buses and news conferences.

Do you think it's a shame the debate format is so rigid and there are so many rules? Would it not have been better, at least in one of them, just to plonk the three of them on the stage, have no moderator at all and let them have a dialogue with each other and the audience?

Listen, it's taken us 50 years to get here! Certainly for Gordon Brown and David Cameron, it has involved conceding quite a lot of ground or potential advantages certainly passed to Nick Clegg. Therefore, it's only right that there should be a bit of a softly, softly approach this time round. Secondly, there was a strong desire to negotiate with the broadcasters as a block. Therefore it's understandable that people have gone for similar formats. The debates will look and feel very different. ITV, BBC and Sky have very different styles in the way they do things. The big issue that we've had this time around has been of the audience. People are used to BBC Question Time and regional shows which end up pitting the audience against the panel. You don't want them forming a panel against an angry public. So it's a new dynamic which we've got to explore.

You're moderating the Sky debate. Do you still get nervous about these things or do you take them in your stride?

Oh yeah. It certainly gets the adrenaline going. It's a big gig. You always wonder when you first open your mouth if there's going to be a dreadful croak coming out. For me personally, because it's been a Sky campaign and I've been very invested in trying to get debates going, I desperately want the debates to succeed, to be useful and informative. All these things are going to be on your mind.

Do you think it's going to be a very dirty election campaign?

We're going to have a personalised campaign because there is big convergence between the parties in many areas. Where they are most different is in the personal contrasts - David Cameron and George Osborne, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. I hope there will be less gimmicks because there is a sort of yawn-yawn factor now when there is another poster launch or even a clever internet viral. I hope the debates will engender a culture of people and politicians actually trying to sit down and tell people how it is and what the consequences are going to be. But I'm not sure that is necessarily going to happen.

After the next election, whoever wins, there's probably going to be between 250 and 300 new MPs. How on earth a) will that affect what you do and b) what kind of Parliament do you think it's going to be?

We thrive on change and actually where Sky has been good and where hopefully I've been good as well is actually trying to make sense of what's going on, rather than going by any preconceived notions of who matters and who doesn't matter. It's going to be a bit of a free-for-all - I'm looking forward to that. We do need fresh blood and different types of people. At Sky, we've been meeting quite a lot of PPCs from all parties. There are different types of people coming into politics and that's a good thing. The era of the special advisor becoming a cabinet minister is drawing to a close. In the end, all politicians would be well advised to work towards a system where Parliament and the government are more separated. Parliament should have more of a scrutinising role. I detect that a lot of the new people just won't accept as many three-line whips.

Do you prefer reporting, presenting or interviewing? At the moment you're doing all three. But which do you get the biggest kick out of?

I like all three. What is good about what I do is that it's raw and first hand. We've tended to have this hierarchy - you're a reporter and then you graduate and you become a presenter and an interviewer. I've managed more in the American-style to mix the two and therefore I don't really have that strong a preference. Probably the televisions skill I'm least good at is reading the autocue.

When you married Anji Hunter, did you have a bit of a problem with Conservatives because they felt you were closer to the other side?

Not to my face. When I met Anji, I did have an independent track record. In fact the day that all the gory details were all over the front page of the Mail on Sunday, I was interviewing Iain Duncan Smith, the then Tory leader, and said: "You might want to see this." And he replied: "It doesn't make any difference to me. I know you, I know what you do and I hope it works itself out."

Some people think that Sky News is a New Labour dominated institution and others think it's completely right-wing. The lazy answer is to say that you must be doing something right to have offended both sides...

Yes, that is the lazy answer. Or another answer is that everyone knows that New Labour was very right-wing. I have two answers to that. One is the standard sticks and stones answer. But the other one is when people make criticism of you, at least to entertain it. As I've tried to explain, I don't really think in party political terms personally. My view about New Labour, as I said in the book I wrote about Blair, is that it's been the political story of my lifetime. I've known these people all the way from before they were in Parliament, before they were cabinet ministers and through to when they've become ex-cabinet ministers. And so inevitably I've known a lot of people in that world. Likewise, in terms of my background in public school and Oxford, it's not as if Tories are an unknown species to me - or Liberals. It would have been a bit different if I'd married Alastair Campbell.

When you had that blow up interview with Gordon Brown last year at the Labour conference, when he stomped off in a huff, what went through your mind?

Politicians are interviewed all the time and the last thing you want is them walking out with their advisors and saying: "That went well... there was nothing in it." What you're trying to do is to make a connection which involves pushing them away from the line to take and getting under their skin in your own style. What I want to do is to ask them a question that makes them think and to give me a reply that isn't premeditated. Therefore, with Gordon you could see I'd made a connection and so I was pleased by that. When he said I'd become a campaigner, I was also quite interested in that as well but there is a certain kind of way in which journalists are conniving little bastards. If you're interviewing someone and they're making a fool of themselves, it's not your job to stop them. If they're given the opportunity to express themselves or they're losing their temper, it's probably not good if you lose your temper as well. It's best to keep them calm. In that sense, I just felt that it was an interesting interview. I was sure that there was some outside thing to do with the fact that this was the morning after The Sun had switched its allegiance. If I get a response from someone, I don't blame them for it necessarily.

Did you think you were never going to get an interview with him again?

No. I didn't think he'd think that either. The only person who won't do interviews with me is John Prescott. But in Prescott's case it seems to be more to do with the fact that we broke the story of the punch [in 2001]. I still think that a deputy prime minister shouldn't go around belting the electorate. It still seems to annoy him.

The Election Edition of Total Politics is on Sale now in most branches of W H Smith. You can subscribe to the magazine HERE.


Walsingham's Ghost said...

Good interview Iain.

Meanwhile (O/T) Tory Bear has spotted and interesting story on the man who would seek to be responsible for protecting our Borders in the event of a Hung Parliament...


Wrinkled Weasel said...

An interesting read. I felt Mr Boulton contradicted himself somewhat. He said that he was doing less and less "three minute packages" and more "in depth" coverage, using as an example, merely, switching the camera on at an event and leaving it on till the end. That is not "in depth". The amount of effort needed in the past to put together a "three minute package" is a lot more than pointing a camera, as any broadcast journalist will know. "In depth" does not mean having a talking head commenting on the event in real time. That is just commentating.

I do wish these people would listen to Radio Four a bit more.

Simon Gardner said...

So you didn’t ask Adam B why Sky News has suddenly abandoned 10 years of journalistic impartiality and decided to back the Tories?

Iain Dale said...

Do you know, funnily enought I didn't. Because they haven't.

Gareth said...

It is a pity Boulton knew that Campbell was lying at times but was not prepared to expose it.

Judge a man by the company he keeps.

The lobby is a poisonous thing for democracy and Boulton is just as much 'in the thick of it' as any spin doctor.

Michael Heaver said...

Very interesting stuff. Bet he has a few stories to tell.

The Grim Reaper said...

That was rather good, actually! I think I'll be heading down to WH Smith to buy a copy later...

John said...

This is a better read than his book, which was utter drivel.

Anonymous said...

Why did Boulton and the Lobby not expose Campbell and later Brown's lies then?? Why do they allow themselves to be used as propaganda tools by Brown at his press conferences.

I suppose Cameron (?) will continue it - but these press conferences are really anti democratic. The old unattributable Lobby at least got the truth.

Unknown said...

Completely irrelevant 'conversation'. Murdoch propaganda voice-piece. Try getting some impartiality instead of politically-driven propaganda.

wild said...

"It's certainly the case that the whole process got a bit debauched during the New Labour years. There are some people who date that back to Bernard Ingham, although he was a straight operator compared to what followed."

"While I admire much of Alastair Campbell's professionalism, the problem was that he introduced a culture where it was ok to lie"

When historians come to write their "The Disaster That Was The Blair-Brown Government" the culture of lies will have a chapter all on its own.

I recall that under Thatcher Leftists went on endlessly about how Bernard Ingham was abusing his power because he called John Biffen "semi-detached" from the government, and how this was a serious constitutional matter, blah blah blah, and then we got a Labour government, which was founded on a culture of lies, and the same commentators were ecstatic.

Truth and the Left are like oil and water. No matter how hard you try to shake them together they will always seperate. All that matters to the Left is what they want to be true.

Victor, NW Kent said...

Simon Gardner - luck you! You seem to miss watching Sky News when Kay Burley or Glen Oglaza are on.

You have also missed Anna Botting when she has such impartial news reviewers as the Bilious Barringham or Kevin Maguire in the studio. There is a chorus of "rotten Tories".

Simon Gardner said...

It’s been very distressing after so many years of Sky News being impartial, professional and reliable that they have suddenly decided for some bizarre reason to back the Tories. Boulton has been pretty obvious.

What we absolutely don’t need in Britain is a UK version of Fox News.