If you want to know what’s most troubling the British public, any local radio DJ that hosts a phone-in will be at least as good as the best of focus groups.
The issues on which people call into radio shows might not tally exactly with polling, but they do tell you what is worrying people enough to make them pick up a phone to a stranger. The people who spend several hours a day, four or five times a week, talking to the public are going to be well in touch with what is bothering the people in their area.
It is, then, a foolish mistake to underestimate local radio. Paul Mason – uncharitably and uncharacteristically – did exactly that, suggesting that this morning Liz Truss would get an easy ride from “a bunch of sleep-deprived non-expert presenters [who] will throw her soft questions”. The miscalculation seems to have been shared by the Prime Minister and her communications team.
Once upon a time, local radio would only be heard by the people in that area, meaning that repeating the same soundbites in several interviews over the course of an hour would be a safe thing to do. We no longer live in that era. This morning people could easily hop from local station to local station on BBC Sounds.
What they heard was a cavalcade of disastrous interviews. Truss repeatedly misled the public on the energy price cap, saying “nobody” would pay more than “a typical £2,500”, whereas about half of households will pay more than the “typical” amount. Truss refused to guarantee that pensions were safe, doubled down on her tax-cutting mini-Budget, would not promise to get the roof of the hospital in her own constituency fixed, and had nothing coherent to say on fracking.
Local radio hosts know their audiences, but more than that they know that they will not often get the chance to interview a major political figure. National journalists that give the prime minister too hard a time risk losing future interviews to their rivals. Local hosts know they might get one prime ministerial interview each parliament, so they have no reason to pull their punches.
Truss has more ministerial experience than any prime minister of the modern era, and yet this morning she made a rookie mistake that showed up many of her weaknesses. It was clear that she was reading from prepared responses in each interview, the long pauses after simple and blunt questions proving far more telling than her actual answers.
She also left a relatively junior colleague, Chris Philp, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to flounder and waffle his way through the flagship 8:10am interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today – the news show with the biggest audience of any in the UK. Both Philp and his interviewer knew full well that the Prime Minister was available and on-air, but was deliberately absenting herself in the mistaken belief she’d have an easier time elsewhere.
The conservative commentator and LBC radio host Iain Dale said at a Labour Party conference fringe event this week that hosting phone-in radio had softened his politics, because you can only hear people in tears so many times at the cost of living before it gets through to you. His vote was now up for grabs, he said.
Dale understands the power of phone-in radio. The Prime Minister has had one hell of a learning experience this morning.