Opinion: Even Humphrys had to bow down to Blair

In the mad, mad world of the Westminster village, an interview with John Humphrys at 8.10am on Radio 4's Today programme can still be seen as more important than any other political event. And so it proved for the Prime Minister last week.

Early on I realised that the PM and his Chancellor have a distinct advantage over other politicians being interviewed by the media: they, not the programme maker, can decide the time and place for the interview. Sir David Frost was once so keen to interview Gordon Brown that he agreed with me to broadcast his whole breakfast programme from number 11 Downing Street.

Last week it was clear that following his latest chat with the Met, Tony Blair would need to face the media sooner rather than later. So Number 10’s comms director David Hill sat down to look at all the possibilities, and clearly realised he had a choice between the easy sofa-style GMTV interview or the fierce Humphrys.

But Hill knows that in Blair he has the best in the business, and right now a solid performance against the toughest opposition was needed to keep the media vultures at bay.

As a football fan, Hill also recognises that playing a game at home enhances the likelihood of victory. So Humphrys was summoned to Blair’s constituency. One may have thought that the BBC would tell Hill to get stuffed, but big egos are
involved here and hacks will do just about anything for a chat with the country’s leader.

Even smarter work from Hill was to arrange the interview in a doctor’s surgery so that when things got tough, Blair could move the interview away from allegations of corruption and onto health – something he actually did.

Unlike John Reid, the PM’s style is non-confrontational and, consequently, more effective. Blair fended off Humphrys’ bombastic style with self-deprecating jokes.

A reply such as ‘so you will have to put up with me a bit longer’ undoubtedly makes the listener more sympathetic than simply saying ‘no, I won’t resign’. Similarly it was clever, when questioned about resignation, to shift the blame to the media. Blair said that to give in to the media’s demands ‘wouldn’t be a very democratic way to decide who is PM’. One cannot argue with that.

It is little surprise that the chattering classes scored the encounter a decisive win for Tony.

In the mad, mad world of Westminster, Blair had lived to fight another day, even if ultimately we all know that he’s finished.
charlie.whelan@haymarket.com

 

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