Adam Boulton muses on the PR implications of Gordon Brown’s recent Cabinet reshuffle as a make-up artist at the Sky News studios in Millbank applies foundation to his face using a hi-tech spray gun.
‘It’s a bottom-half reshuffle and he’s not taking any dramatic risks, but what Brown’s doing is trying to change his image by promoting Blairites,’ explains Boulton. ‘He’s saying I’m a big man, I can work with the best, and I can promote Peter Mandelson if that’s what’s necessary.’
Pausing as the make-up artist dabs at his cheeks with a large powder brush, he adds with a raise of his eyebrow: ‘It’s a brave move.’
Boulton has all the characteristics of the super-bright. He’s never still – talking enthusiastically as the make-up artist works her magic, continuing the banter while posing for PRWeek’s snapper, and flicking idly through the Daily Mail while answering questions.
But he’s rarely distracted from the point. As he is photographed in the Sky News studio, then on the staircase of 4 Millbank, then interrupted by a genial American to talk US politics, he maintains a steady stream of thoughtful, insightful political chat.
This insight, honed after 20 years as the political face of Sky News, is why people tune in to see an immaculate, if sometimes chilly-looking, Boulton standing outside Number 10 each day.
‘The gutter in Downing Street is the coldest place in the world,’ he sighs. ‘A couple of years ago it was so wet it grew its own ecosystem. I have stood in Downing Street for 18 hours straight at times before.’
Kevin Bell, Fleishman-Hillard’s EMEA president, recalls working with Boulton back in the days when Sky didn’t even have access to the House of Commons, and says in many ways Boulton is Sky’s best PR man. ‘He has a reputation for being fair, but firm,’ says Bell, ‘and there’s no point trying to tell him one thing one month and -another thing later – he will always -remember.’
Bell describes Boulton – who is married to Tony Blair’s former director of comms Anji Hunter – as a ‘key player’ in the world of political media. ‘He is unique among his peers in the fact that he can call the news desk at any point and say get me on air right now,’ says Bell.
It is interesting to get Boulton’s take on the importance of PR in politics – because as far as he is concerned, it is essential. ‘There’s a type of politician who thinks doing their job and turning up at meetings is what politics is about,’ he says.
‘What it’s actually about is making your case to people and persuading them to support, elect and tolerate you during your term. Good presentation is important and this requires a good understanding of means of communication.
‘In a viable democracy, making sure people understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is as important to a politican as actually doing it.’
Boulton has seen plenty of changes of government in his 20 years with Sky News. Many expect to see another one soon, and Boulton is effusive on the subject of Labour’s apparent decline and the rise of the Tories in the eyes of the public. ‘What’s happening to Labour now is inevitable,’ he says. ‘Parties in government get exhausted and overexposed, and thought tends to grow away from the base. The party takes hits, it becomes unpopular towards the end of its term, and it tends to become very divided with lots of internal arguments.
‘The party in opposition doesn’t have the distraction of governing the country. People take more risks in terms of policy, and towards the end of opposition a party gets a hunger to win again. All differences are buried.’
By this equation, the Tories must be a shoo-in at the next election? Boulton admits: ‘It’s difficult to see how Gordon Brown is going to get back the willingness of the media collectively to give him a break. The only rating story now is of a government perceived to be in decline, and an opposition perceived to be on the rise. The expectation is, as things are going, there will be a change in government.’
It is tempting, when meeting someone who rubs shoulders with as many high-profile figures as Boulton does, to bombard him with questions about his famous interviewees. He’s happy to oblige, so we start at the top.
‘George Bush isn’t as stupid as he’s perceived to be,’ says Boulton. ‘He knew what he wanted to get out of our interview this summer – he was very direct and wanted to answer questions. When the Iraq war was at its height, we couldn’t get a straight answer out of anybody.’
And what about Alastair Campbell?
‘I know him very well and I like him – in the first volume of his diaries he calls me a total c**t,’ chuckles Boulton. ‘He’s calling my new book vanity publishing.’
Isn’t that a bit rich coming from someone who has also capitalised on his intimate knowledge of Downing Street?
‘I think the thing that will gratify Alastair most is he will make more out of his diaries than I will out of my book,’ says Boulton. ‘He’s a Yorkshireman at heart.’
Boulton’s book, Tony’s Ten Years: Memories of the Blair Administration, published this month, created a stir when extracts were run ahead of publication in The Guardian.
Among other things, Boulton accuses Campbell of telling him more than one direct lie, and lifts the lid on tensions between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street following the death of Diana.
‘I wanted to write a book I would want to read myself,’ says Boulton. ‘I don’t have an axe to grind about British politics, but I have observed a lot and got to know people quite well.
‘I wanted to look at the growth of a presidential style of government, and at the whole question of spin and everything identified with this period.
‘As events turned out, Tony Blair did this extremely organised exit from office, giving one more blast of his greatest hits, and following that through gave me a chance to explore the major themes of his premiership in the context of a very spin-led and presidential exit.’
How is he expecting the book to be rec-eived? ‘I’m not a very good judge of my own work,’ says Boulton diplomatically, ‘but so far I have had pretty favourable comments from people. Peter Mandelson said he liked the Iraq stuff, someone else liked the Blair/Brown stuff, and someone else said they thought it was funny.’
Funny? Surely politics is a serious business. Maybe so, says Boulton, but it is less grave than some other aspects of journalism. ‘It’s about people and arguments, but it’s not, by and large, about life and death, destruction and war, and doom and gloom,’ he smiles.
Tony’s Ten Years is out now, published by Simon & Schuster
2008 Broke the story of Peter Mandelson’s return to the Cabinet
2007 Broke the news of Gordon Brown calling off an early election
2006 Scooped the transcript of the ‘Yo Blair’ conversation between Bush and Blair at the 2006 G8 Summit
2000 Broke the story of Mo Mowlam confessing to using cannabis
1995 Broke the news of John Major resigning as Conservative Party leader
1989 Joined Sky News as political editor at its inauguration
1983 Joined TV-am at launch of Breakfast TV
1982 Stringer for IPS news wire. First front page splash in Jamaican Daily News
How Boulton got to the top
From the front page of the Jamaican Daily News to interviews with the world’s most powerful men – not to mention helping shape one of the UK’s biggest news broadcasters – Boulton’s career path is one for which many journalists would donate their eye teeth. Here, in his own words, is how he did it: ‘I spent two years in the US before I started working in this country, and my whole approach to the job has been inspired by the US approach to journalism, particularly TV journalism.
‘At the time there were correspondents such as Sam Donaldson who I thought spoke very directly about political subjects without necessarily displaying a bias, but with a candour that we didn’t have in British politics.
‘At that stage US TV was much more live-led and there were many more live links.
‘So, first at TV-am and then when we set up Sky, that was what was driving me.
‘I wanted to open up politics, be bolder and brasher, and show people things directly as they were happening, and slightly deconstruct them rather than just saying the Government has announced that… The idea was to give a lot of background and start testing the arguments right away.’