Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 10th December 2018

THE only circumstance that would persuade me to endure the misery of watching a television debate involving Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn is to discover how they react to questions when plucked away from the rarified atmosphere of the Commons where everyone shouts and heckles and no-one is actually listening.

I used to watch Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday lunchtimes, but I’m not bothered if I miss it these days because it’s become nothing more than a scripted contrivance with both party leaders attempting, rather ineffectively, to deliver a witty riposte. Neither is a natural comedian.

Theresa May is annoyingly repetitive. Remember how many thousand times we heard the phrase “strong and stable government” prior to the election. And now, with Brexit looming, she’s quotes a series of stock responses that sound like they are being spoken by a robot. Any awkward query about what Mrs May intends to do next is met with a Boycottian straight bat and the words “a good deal for the UK. The best deal for Britain”,

A robotic Prime Minister and an uninspiring Jeremy Corbyn — favourite catchword “botched” — must give political speech writers and researchers nightmares as they struggle into the wee small hours to find something remotely memorable with which to brief their colourless bosses.

PMQ’s, which ought to be a dynamic debate, is no more than a sham political theatre that might have been drawn directly from The Thick Of It, the incomparable television programme that stripped bare what the politics game is really about. Only the TV programme was funny whereas what goes on in Parliament is no laughing matter.

YESTERDAY’S TODAY

UNLESS you are of a certain age, you have probably never heard of Jack de Manio, John Timpson and Brian Redhead. Yet, back in the day, they were broadcasters as well known to millions of listeners as any of today’s top radio and TV presenters.

Radio 4’s Today programme reached more than seven million listeners a week in its heyday. Newcastle-born Redhead, a great advocate for the North, once said: “If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation then this is the programme in which to do it.”

Today was launched on the Home Service — ask your grandfather if you don’t know what that was — on 28th October, 1957. De Manio, with a famously relaxed “rich gin and tonic voice“ was its principal presenter in the early years and the first broadcaster to interview Prince Charles.

Redhead, a compelling broadcaster, was on the programme until 1993, shortly before his death. An obituary in the Independent spoke of “a whiff of danger, of improvisation, of flying by the seat of his pants”. A sort of prototype Chris Evans, but with a definite left wing political slant.

Redhead affronted politicians who previously had been treated with unquestioning respect. Then, show over at 9am, he had a glass of whisky, enjoyed a large lunch, a nap followed by more drinks and supper at his club. A maverick, listeners never knew quite what to expect from him.

Barry Norman, Des Lynam and Anna Ford all presented Today and the programme continues, although I suspect with a fraction of the followers it once boasted. Veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby shares my frustration with its current incarnation. “I think the interviews are cut to the quick,” he complained recently.

True enough, Today doesn’t know whether it’s a serious programme about serious issues or a radio version of breakfast telly. All too often an interviewee is cut off, just as they get to the interesting bit, in order to fill a slot about a vicar who grows record-breaking cucumbers.

Dimbleby believes forensic interviews have virtually disappeared and that the BBC is short-changing audiences at a time when social media has a habit of coarsening and weakening debate. Certainly programmes like Today don’t exert the influence they had with the likes of John Timpson and Brian Redhead in charge.

THE BLOKE WHO SHOUTS

WHO is that bloke — it’s usually a man’s stentorian voice — who stands across the road in Downing Street and is apparently paid to shout inane questions at Mrs May and other senior ministers as they arrive for meetings at No 10?

“Are you going to resign, Prime Minister?” “Have you a Plan B for Brexit?” He never gets an answer. The PM is particularly adept at a wan half-smile and a head down bolt for the door. Some lesser fry seem momentarily tempted to say something, but then think better of it.

Next time there’s a Prime Ministerial arrival in Downing Street being shown on TV, listen for this voice of the people. The lone, unanswered cry of some poor soul whose whole career prospects are predicated on shouting out one-liners to politicians who probably think to themselves, “an even bigger twit than we are”.

THE WALK ON BY CULTURE

IN one town in the North East a group of men have set up a nightly patrol to keep an eye open for crime. The job the police used to do. In another large town police warn they can no longer provide a response at busy periods due to personnel shortages.

There’s a debate about whether members of the public should intervene if they see a police officer being attacked. Metropolitan Police Federation chairman Ken Marsh warns that cops may have to let violent criminals go because of the public walk on by culture. However, another police chief says passers-by should help officers struggling with violent suspects only “if they can safely do so”. And how do you risk-assess that when all hell’s being let loose in the street on a boozed up Saturday night?

There was a time when people might have jumped in to assist. But in my view it’s not for the public to take on the role of the police. We need a properly resourced and trained professional police force, more visible officers and an organisation that concerns itself with “real” crime and not a series of politically correct diversions.

The public’s faith in the police and justice system has never been lower. Criminals have been turned into victims, sentences don’t match the crime, and sadly the public has turned against those who uphold the law.

A thug who battered a woman police officer in Carlisle was freed a quarter of the way through his 10-month jail sentence. He thumped her so hard fellow bobbies could not recognise her face. He served 76 days of a sentence which many felt unduly lenient in the first instance.

The question I ask is, would you get involved with all the risks entailed only to see the offender walk away with an insultingly minimal punishment?

ALARM BELLS

DURHAM University student Matthew Hedges was released from a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates through the “gracious clemency” of his hosts. A few questions linger, like what was his university doing allowing him to go there in the first place when friends said he was suffering from mental health issues? Irresponsible surely.

Furthermore, does the word “security” not ring alarm bells? The UAE claims Mr Hedges was spying for MI6. Quite possible they were trumped up charges, but at the very least he was researching sensitive matters relating to security in the Gulf States.

Thousands of British students are studying abroad at any one time. Are universities fully aware of what they are researching? Many of these countries do not share our views on human rights and justice. The moral of this unpleasant episode is that we may do business with them, sell them arms, exchange students and turn a blind eye to their repressive regimes, but don’t go confusing that with friendship.

AS OLD AS YOU FEEL

AGE is but a number, so perhaps, like the Dutch chap who is aged 69 but feels 20 years younger and wants to officially register as such, we should all be permitted to choose our age. He has asked a court to register him as a 49-year-old because he’s in such good shape and considers that’s his biological age.

Where would that philosophy leave that one-time denizen of Crinkly Bottom, Noel Edmonds who, going on 70, reappeared on I’m A Celebrity with a six pack, the physique of a sportsman and a full head of hair? Or Neil Warnock, still a Premier League manager at 70.

Most of the time I feel I have not entirely left my youth in the waste bin of life, but then on other days I feel 71 going on a ton. A journalistic colleague suggests unkindly that I might apply for my Queen’s telegram now.