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12 June 2012updated 09 Jul 2021 7:52am

Nick Robinson’s Diary: How to chair a leadership debate, BBC conspiracies and Boris Johnson vs Andrew Neil

By Nick Robinson

I am not short of advice. In fact, it is coming in thick and fast. “Ask Boris Johnson why he’s such a liar,” says one friend. “Ask Jeremy Corbyn why he loves our enemies and hates our friends,” says another. They may be disappointed by what I’m planning for The BBC Prime Ministerial Debate on 6 December. I don’t see my job as giving the man who’s currently got the job, or the man who wants it, a “grilling”. My aim is to make sure they address the questions posed by members of the audience. I want to limit the time they spend delivering “oven ready” soundbites drafted and redrafted by their spin doctors.

I hope the programme will engage those least interested in politics – though, perhaps, not all of them. A hairdresser I spoke to in Newport last week told me she didn’t listen to politics and didn’t know anyone who did. I asked her if she knew the date of the election. No, she replied. What about the name of the Prime Minister – a question, remember, used as a test of sanity. No idea, she replied, stirring her client’s hair dye.

Steely glares and hugging Tories

Before I chaired the BBC Election Debate on 29 November, my colleagues on Today broadcast the insights of those who might have ideas on how to control not two but seven pumped-up beasts of the political jungle. The rugby referee Nigel Owens told listeners I needed to combine being stern with empathy, and to recognise the desire of those “on the pitch” to express themselves. The Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen talked of the value of a steely glare. A head teacher also recommended unforgiving eye contact: if that didn’t work, there was always detention. Perhaps Johnson and Corbyn could write an essay together entitled “How I would improve the quality of our public discourse”.

In their first head-to-head, the two leaders had been asked to shake hands. Perhaps, instead, I should ask them to copy the most surprising moment on stage last Friday? You’d only have seen it if you’d kept watching as the credits rolled. Their stand-ins – Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey and the Tory Rishi Sunak – turned to each other after spending an hour and a half tearing at each other’s throats. They didn’t merely shake hands: they actually embraced. The woman seen by Corbynites as Jeremy’s natural successor ignored the injunction on Labour activists’ T-shirts. She hugged a Tory. Sunak, worth wagering a few quid on as a future Tory leader, hugged back. I do hope this all too human gesture of shared relief won’t slow their rise up the greasy pole.

The BBC in the firing line

It’s no surprise that the BBC is in the firing line during these divisive times. No lesser figure than Winston Churchill complained about the newly founded corporation’s impartiality when it refused to take the government’s side during the 1926 General Strike. Anthony Eden threatened to take control of the BBC when it insisted on giving the leader of the opposition a reply to his broadcast to the nation justifying the Suez Crisis. Harold Wilson called the director general to complain that the scheduling of Steptoe and Son an hour before the close of polls was part of an establishment conspiracy to stop the working class voting.

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That theory was no less absurd than some of those circulating on Twitter’s charge sheet of alleged BBC crimes this election. Normally sane people still suggest that coverage of the Prime Minister laying his wreath at the Cenotaph was edited to disguise the fact he’d placed the wreath upside down. The dull reality was that old and new footage was mixed up after it had been badly labelled on a computer. Consider the alternative: the BBC deliberately released different footage to that which had already been broadcast live and was widely available, in a way that was instantly obvious to anyone who recognised Tim Farron in the archive shots and knew it was years since he’d been at the Cenotaph as a party leader. Sorry Twitter. It’s almost always an embarrassing cock-up that’s to blame.

OMG, WTF, LOL

The row about who appears on which programme is one I take more seriously. I, like most voters, want to see political leaders properly held to account. I want to see Johnson and Corbyn appear in every debate as well as being interviewed by Andrew Neil (and, if I might add selfishly, on the Today programme). I’d like politicians to care about the public value of these appearances rather than just considering what’s in their own electoral interests.

I am, however, a realist and I fear that social media is changing the balance of perceived risk and opportunity. Once, political strategists worried about how their guy would appear to the millions watching live. Then they focused on the sound-bites that would be played on news bulletins. Now, they fear that a clip of a sharply worded question combined with their leader’s response cut short or falsely edited will be shared by more people than saw the original broadcast. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the others are reducing our national dialogue to a three letter word – an exclamation of shock or outrage. OMG, WTF or LOL.

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Christmas gifts and narwhal tusks

This has not been a campaign to lift the spirits, so it was all the more rewarding to spend some of Sunday morning taking calls from those who wanted to donate to the Radio 4 St-Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas appeal, which raises funds to help homeless and vulnerable people. Time and again people told me they were donating what they would have spent on Christmas presents or, in one case, a wedding present for their family who “already had everything”. Their generosity – as well as the sight of a murderer being confronted by men wielding a fire extinguisher and a narwhal tusk – are reminders that there is still much to cherish and to celebrate – if you don’t spend too long on Twitter.

Nick Robinson hosts “The BBC Prime Ministerial Debate” on 6 December at 8.30pm on BBC One

This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want