Political sketch: Digesting the culture secretary

Helicopters were scrambled - but Hunt survives.

You could tell it was really serious when they scrambled the SkyCopter to make sure he got to court without doing a runner; by the time he climbed into the dock he looked as if it had been circling his house, if not his bed, all night.

And so Jeremy Hunt, fourth cousin once removed (for the moment) from the Queen, enthusiastic Lambada dancer and presently Secretary of State of Culture Media and Sport, finally got to meet his fate - or at least its presence on earth, Robert Jay.

As befitted the auspiciousness of the day, Jay, chief interrogator of the Leveson inquiry, had made his own special effort, matching tie with trademark yellow framed spectacles, as he prepared to embark on the long-trailed evisceration of the hapless Hunt.

The victim, whose face looked as if it had been rubbed down with a chamois leather, swore to tell all truthfully and sat down quickly as befits someone whose legs weren't getting all the usual messages.

And his nerves immediately transferred to his arms as he windmilled his way through answers to the joy of any body language expert employed to comment on his behaviour.

Mr Jay, whose method of questioning is to quietly encourage his target to make a mistake, established that the Culture Secretary had been an early cheerleader for the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB. Indeed he was so keen on it that he dropped a note to the Prime Minister backing the deal.

As his Coalition colleague Vince Cable, charged with judging the bid, went about his business Jeremy happily stayed in contact with the Murdoch camp who alerted him that all was not necessarily going well.

Having heard that Hunt texted Chancellor George Osborne, who also moonlights as the Tories chief strategist (a vacancy expected to occur soon), to say he thought Vince Cable might be screwing the deal up.

But then suddenly Vince was outed as a Murdoch enemy in the Telegraph sting operation and PM Dave gave him the job of sorting it out.

Arms, hands and eyes were all on the move when Jay asked what was the difference between Vince's anti-Murdoch stance which got him the sack from the judging job and his pro-Murdoch stance which got him it.

That was dead easy, said Jeremy, because obviously, unlike Vince, he had a place in his brain where he could lock away all his personal views and never let them affect his judgement.

"I wasn't biased because I set aside my sympathies," he said.

As the inquiry digested this, gifted Mr Jay then moved on to the hundreds of emails and texts between Mr Hunt's office and the Murdoch empire which have led some people to take a less charitable view of what then happened.

It was all these contacts which led Jeremy's special advisor Adam Smith to fall on his (or somebody's) sword and depart the scene.

Adam Smith, "the most decent, straight, honourable person," according to his one-time boss, had become just too text friendly with News Corp's chief corporate greaser Fred Michel who "sucked" him into inappropriate language.

Yes, said Jeremy, he did consider his own position, but decided the right thing was to stay.

Mr Hunt, who looked as if he was losing weight by the hour, even provoked the sympathy of Lord Leveson himself who gently warned his rottweiler to back off from biting him too much.

The Culture Secretary did provoke his own slight pause in proceedings when he announced that having got the job of deciding on the BSkyB bid, "I had to make sure that our democracy was safe."

But it was an unnerved democracy-saviour who stumbled his way through the rest of the afternoon as Jay mercilessly worked his way through message after message leaving Jeremy making desperate attempts to hang on to his job and keep his patron the PM (due up himself on June 14) out of the firing line.

It was nice of Robert Jay to remind Jeremy Hunt that he is one of the sponsoring Ministers for the very inquiry that had just spent six hours examining his entrails.

As the Culture Secretary was finally allowed his freedom, his hold on the job seemed no stronger than it had been when he arrived.

Earlier, the inquiry heard that when Rebekah Brooks resigned Mr Hunt texted: "About bloody time."

Lets hope Dave's not taking notes.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Despite new challengers, Andrew Marr is still the king of the Sunday-morning politics skirmish

The year began with a strong challenge from Sophy Ridge, who scored a coup with her Theresa May interview. By week two, though, the normal order was restored.

The BBC can declare at least one victory for its news division in 2017. In what was dubbed “the battle of the bongs”, ITV’s regrettable decision to shift the News at Ten to 10.30pm for a couple of months this year in favour of a new entertainment show means that the corporation’s flagship bulletin will be once more unchallenged. But the war among the UK’s television channels has shifted to new territory: now it’s Sunday-morning sofa skirmishes.

This year began with the equivalent of ravens leaving the Tower. The Prime Minister’s New Year interview, cherished for decades by David Frost and then by Andrew Marr, migrated from the BBC to Sky News. It was a coup for Sophy Ridge, whose new show marks the arrival of a woman into what had previously been male territory. It intensified the pressure on the BBC after the blow last year of the defection of Robert Peston to ITV, lured by the promise of his own show to rival Marr’s.

By week two, though, the normal order was restored. The biggest interviewee, Jeremy Corbyn, was on The Andrew Marr Show and his lieutenants John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry were deployed on Sky and ITV. These things matter because the Sunday-morning political programmes often generate the headlines for the rest of the day’s broadcasting and for the Monday papers; and the commercial companies want to dent the BBC’s reputation for setting the agenda. The corporation can often do it by the sheer volume of its output on TV, including the estimable Sunday Politics, and on radio; but it’s a plus for audiences if other voices can be heard.

The Andrew Marr Show has traditionally secured the A-list guests because it has by far the highest ratings. Its most powerful asset is Marr, who was a transformative political editor for the BBC and possesses, as New Statesman readers know, an original and free-thinking take on the issues of the day. The energy in the programme comes from him but he is not helped by a staid production: a predictable format, a set with a London skyline and a superannuated sofa. There aren’t many laughs. The review of the papers has become cumbersome with the addition of a statutory Brexiteer, and the supposed light relief is supplied by arts plugging of the kind that seems mandatory in every BBC News programme. We are invited, wherever we are in the UK, to pop along to the West End to see the latest production involving the actor-interviewee of the day. However, if there is a new political line to be found, Marr is the most likely to sniff it out.

By contrast, Peston on Sunday seems to have consumed a lot of fizzy drinks. It is sharp and contemporary-looking and it bounces along, thanks to the interplay between Peston and his sidekick, Allegra Stratton. It is more willing to take risks, as in the entertainingly acidic recent exchanges between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and it works as a piece of television even if it doesn’t have the top guests. It merits its repeat in the evening, when it gains a bigger audience than in the live transmission.

Guests may be more crucial to the success of Sophy Ridge on Sunday. It looks lovely in its sparkling new studio, but the prime ministerial scoop of the launch show was followed by an interview with Nigel Farage and a dull encounter with a union official. There is a commendable attempt to get out of London and to hear from the public, and it’s refreshing to locate an MP such as Tom Watson in a West Bromwich café. The programme is also trying to book more women interviewees, and one paper review featured a token man; but can it be a must-watch for news junkies or entertaining enough for a casual viewer?

There is only so much that producers can do to lure the right guests. If you meet any broadcaster these days, they immediately gripe about the attempts by Downing Street to control who appears where – which has been applied with particular vigour under the May administration: hence Boris Johnson recently appearing as duty minister on both Marr and Peston on the same morning, which neither channel finds ideal.

There is a trap, in that obtaining quotesfor the rest of the media is only part of the remit. In these uncertain political times, audiences need knowledge, too, and an interview that merely zips through the news lines of the day may add little to our understanding of policy and the choices faced by government. All of these shows feature presenters with formidable brainpower and it is perfectly possible to meld that into a programme that is worth watching.

Peston’s show makes an attempt with Stratton’s big screen to provide context and statistics, but it could do more – and it might painlessly lose some of the witless tweets that pass for interaction. It’s a further conundrum of television that Marr’s most interesting takes on current issues are often in his documentaries or writing rather than on his eponymous show. The guardians of impartiality may twitch, but viewers would benefit from him being given more freedom.

There is the rest of the world to consider, too. It was striking on a Sunday just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump that none of these shows had a major American player. While Michel Barnier was making the news in the weekend papers, no decision-maker from the EU was featured, either. This is not a phenomenon of Brexit: television has always found it easier to plonk a bottom on a sofa in SW1 than to engage in the long-term wooing that gets significant international guests. Yet, as we are allegedly preparing to launch ourselves into the wider world, hearing from its key decision-makers is part of the enlightenment we need, too.

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era