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2 June 2021updated 06 Jul 2021 8:31am

Iain Dale’s Diary: What the BBC’s Chris Mason gets right, and is Dominic Cummings really advising Keir Starmer?

My exchange with Diane Abbott is proof that if you make your guests feel relaxed, you’re more likely to get something out of them. 

By Iain Dale

In the early days of political blogging – a medium which I was among the first to adopt – we were constantly told that the new media threatened the old media. ­Investigative journalism would be dead and the rich and powerful would be licking their lips in anticipation of getting a free ride from the Fourth Estate. It hasn’t quite turned out like that. I’d say investigative journalism, whether on old or new platforms, is now at its most powerful.

On top of that, the rise of new media, especially podcasts, has heralded the overdue return of long-form articles and meaningful political discussion shows. Listeners to my All Talk podcast, which can be up to two hours long, often email me saying that afterwards they see a politician in a completely different light. It’s because the interviews become conversations, rather than forensic examinations.

[See also: Keir Starmer played Piers Morgan at his own game and won]

There are more than 100 political podcasts in the UK, many of them with an interview format. Matt Forde and Nick Robinson host two of the best known. But it’s worth noting that these podcasts are appealing to people far beyond the world of political geekery. My weekly podcast with former home secretary Jacqui Smith, For the Many, does what it says on the tin. It’s amazing how you can combine political commentary with gossip, jokes and a sometimes unhealthy dose of smut and innuendo.

The cure for screen burn

In a recent episode of For the Many I bemoaned the fact that I had developed a rather irritating flicker in both eyes, the left worse than the right. It’s not there 100 per cent of the time, but when it is I always imagine people can see it working its irritating opposite of magic.

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I got several tips from listeners who diagnosed that it must be due to the strain put on my eyes from looking at my computer screen for many hours a day. It made sense, but what to do about it? Except take a holiday from the laptop, which, let’s face it, is never going to happen. One listener suggested buying a pair of blue-light blocking glasses on the basis that they can protect eyes against potential damage. The scientific jury seems to be out on that particular claim – they seem to be the eye equivalent of a dose of homeopathy. All I can say is that the flicker isn’t occurring as much since I have been wearing them.

Why levity pays off

There are many reasons I am looking forward to 21 June, when lockdown is supposedly going to be fully lifted. It means that instead of conducting my thrice-weekly political panel debate show with all the guests on Zoom on a video wall, I can have them back in the studio. That’s the theory, unless the latest Covid variant has other ideas.

I like to describe the show as Any Questions? but more fun, which won’t go down well with one of our more devoted listeners, the host of Any Questions?, Chris Mason. Chris is a very different host compared to his predecessor, Jonathan Dimbleby, and he too has made his show rather less formal than it used to be. Sometimes that leads to accusations of dumbing down. Far from it.

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[See also: Why delaying the 21 June unlocking is such a political headache for Boris Johnson]

If you make your guests feel relaxed, you’re far more likely to get something out of them, as evidenced recently by Diane Abbott, when she defended her tweet alleging the shooting of the Black Lives Matter activist Sasha Johnson was racially motivated. Abbott not only defended the tweet, but doubled down on it, and when I accused her of unintentionally fuelling racial divides without any evidence that the shooting was racially motivated, she implied that I, as a white man, had no business questioning a black woman. I decided to let the audience make up their own minds about who was in the right. Sometimes that’s for the best.

The pleasures of switching

The internet has proved that the customer is indeed king. Or queen – or monarch of no specific gender. Price comparison sites put the power back in the hands of the consumer. People generally don’t switch from one utility provider to another because they think it will be a nightmare. It isn’t. A few years ago, I switched from EDF to Octopus Energy and I’ve never looked back. They’re cheaper, greener and a pleasure to deal with. You can talk to a human who doesn’t speak robot.

I recently switched my bank after 40 years with Lloyds. I decided to do it when I realised that whenever I phoned them I had to psych myself up to do it. No company should make you feel like that. So I switched to a bank that has a brilliant online offering and one where, when you call, you’re treated as a valued customer. The transfer of my accounts went smoothly with no glitches. I now wonder why I didn’t do it years ago.

I’m also about to switch from diesel to an electric car. This is a great example of how “nudge” theory can work. Yes, I’ve done it because I think it’s the right thing to do, but also because of the tax advantages. Sometimes tax breaks can be justified, although I don’t kid myself they will still be offered when electric car ownership reaches a critical mass. My one reservation is the constant fear of being stranded in the middle of Norfolk with no charging point available.

What’s next for Cummings?

You might think this is preposterous, and belongs in a gossip column rather than a diary, but I have heard serious suggestions that Keir Starmer’s office has been talking to Dominic Cummings about providing strategic advice. I kid you not. Cummings is not, and to my knowledge never has been, a Conservative Party member. He has no party allegiance. A mutual friend says Cummings would talk to anyone who might help him further his agenda. Whatever that is. 

[See also: Dominic Cummings is quick to blame – but he fails to understand how government works]

This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West