Sky News' Adam Boulton talks Twitter, media manipulation and lightweight politicians

How do you feel as you come into work?
I feel open-minded and quite excited about what the day might throw at us.

What is the biggest satisfaction in your job?
I love live reporting and breaking news. Live for me is the most exciting thing because it’s always a test of how good you are at asking the right questions and understanding the implications of what’s happening.

What is the greatest pressure on you?
Getting it right because you’re by and large not operating with a safety net or very often with a script.

What has been your most memorable interview?
I did one with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin when he knew he was coming to the end of his life. He had a certain serenity and ability to talk about quite profound things like music and the Holocaust. I also did what is still pretty much the only British TV full-length interview with Obama – he was good because he really engaged with the questions.
 
How has Twitter changed the way that you cover politics?
It’s had an amazing impact. Now you’ve got a situation where Downing Street puts out reshuffles via Twitter. It gives politicians the advantage, up to a point. But someone might tweet that I’ve just seen such-and-such going in the back door. It’s another information source. That is the point of the type of rolling news broadcasting that we do, trying to make sense of a load of information sources – unconfirmed rumours, unconfirmed reports, official statements. Twitter is a whole new layer to that complexity but it still means our function is to evaluate that information and present it in an honest way to the audience.

What is the one thing that gets in the way of you doing your job?
The biggest problem for a political journalist working in TV is access. Since the weekly news conferences during the Tony Blair years or even Margaret Thatcher regularly doing sit-down interviews with expert journalists, that happens less and less. Leading politicians today very often seek soft environments like This Morning or direct environments like YouTube or Twitter.

What is your view of politicians’ media advisers?
I’ve been doing this for years and there really was a dramatic change with the arrival of Alastair Campbell and New Labour. Rather than being press officers facilitating or obstructing access, they tried to manipulate that access to play favourites and make information conditional that might usually be public. To this day there are still lots of people in politics who want to be mini-Campbells and frankly they’re all a pain in the arse.

Has this Government inherited that Labour approach?
I think in some ways it’s worse because it has more special advisers and it’s more defensive. I’ve had arguments with [David Cameron’s comms director] Craig Oliver about this and he says it’s not true. We don’t see the Prime Minister engaging in serious discussions at length with reporters as often as we did in the Blair years, let alone the Major and Thatcher years.
 
What’s your greatest career fear?
I think the fear for any journalist has to be that people lose faith in professional journalism. They don’t trust it or they don’t think that it’s worth their while consuming it. I don’t think that’s going to happen but we do have to accept that there are issues about the popularity and credibility of journalists.
 
In five years’ time I will be…
Almost certainly campaigning for leaders’ debates in the 2020 election. Before the party conference season I was quite pessimistic that we would get the equivalent in 2015 to what we got in 2010. I now think it will happen but until it’s agreed you do feel nervous about it and it’s a pity it hasn’t yet been sewn into the electoral unwritten constitution.

What’s your advice to a PR professional trying to get their boss interviewed on your show?
Be open to doing interviews when you’re asked. If you have app­eared on TV when the news agenda has dem­anded it, you tend to get a more sympathetic hearing when you want to put something on the news agenda yourself. Also, have something to say and make sure you have worked out why it is of interest to the broader public and not you, your company and your friends.

From whom have you learned the most?
I learned a lot from Greg Dyke when he came in at TV-am, particularly on the whole question of the balance between serious and not so serious. I learned a lot about interviewing and how to treat people when I was working with and producing David Frost.
 
What’s it like being married to a lobbyist? [Anji Hunter, senior adviser at Edelman and Tony Blair’s former gatekeeper]
I’m not sure she would call herself a lobbyist – she’s a consultant to a PR company. I’m in no sense hostile to people in PR. I think politicians ought to be able to speak for themselves but I fully accept that people in the world of business have got another focus. PR is a good way of encouraging them to have a window on the world and to become a bit more conscious of what the outside world wants.
 
Do you talk much about each other’s jobs?
We’re both interested in what’s going on in the world. It tends to be a one-way street. She does her thing and doesn’t talk about it at all unless she asks me advice. When she was in politics I would come round and say "You’ll never guess what’s happening" and she’d say, "That’s a complete load of rubbish" and then I’d hear her selling me out on the phone. It works one way but not the other.
 
Do you think the media give lobbyists too much of a hard time?
The problem is buying up MPs or ex-MPs or members of the House of Lords. If that’s what lobbying consists of then people disapprove of it, and they disapprove of it even more for the politicians taking the money than the people offering the bribes, as it were. But that to me is corruption and not what PR and lobbying is about, which is making your argument.
 
Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Alastair Campbell?
I was at the launch of the Irish version of his diaries about six weeks ago and he signed my copy "In friendship". I think Anji probably sends a Christmas card from both of us. We resolved our differences a few weeks after our bust-up [on-air in 2010].

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