25 Jul 2015 at 15:27
A few people have asked what it was like hosting the Labour Leadership hustings debate and how I prepared for it, so I thought I’d jot down a few notes about what happened both in the runup to and at our live 90 minute debate on Wednesday.
I have seen several of the other hustings and found them rather uninspiring. A major reason for this was the format – opening statements, followed by questioning from an interviewer followed by closing statements. Boring, snoring. The format didn’t enable the candidates to really get stuck into any issue. Partly due to time constraints too, there was little interaction between the candidates, and the opening/closing statements were a complete waste of time as the candidates just trotted out well worn cliches and phrases which they had used in previous hustings.
Somewhere in the deep mists of time I remember seeing a US Presidential Primary – a republican one, I think – where the candidates were allowed to quiz each other. We used that format in the Women Leaders Debate and Business debate during the election, and it worked brilliantly. The politicians liked it and so did the listeners, so we thought we’d use it here too. I wasn’t sure that the four campaigns would go for this so we didn’t actually give them a choice – we just told them that was happening and none of them argued. In order to avoid repetition of questions we asked them all to provide their questions to us in advance. When they started to come through I was fairly confident this was going to be a sparkier affair than the previous hustings. One of the candidates in particular had a question which I thought could be incendiary. Unfortunately, when it came to it, that particular candidate wimped out of asking the question and asked a much more watered down version. Shame! You can watch the four ‘Ask me Anything’ sections HERE but here’s Jeremy Corbyns’…
I also made a deliberate decision not to do any preparation whatsoever. I had no notes, no reams of briefing material in front of me. All I had was my laptop, which came in very useful at one point when Andy Burnham was talking about privatisation in the NHS and how he would reverse it all. I was pretty sure that he had been Health Secretary when the decision was made to privatise Hinchingbrooke Hospital. I googled it and sure enough, I was right. His defence was that it had actually happened in 2011, after he had left office. Ah, I said, but you took the decision, didn’t you. It was one of his more uncomfortable moments.
You might be rather shocked and surprised that I did little preparation. I think interviewers and hosts are often more obsessed about following their instructions and trotting out embarassing quotes that their producer has found and spend the whole time trying to trip people up than actually facilitating a proper debate. I didn’t want to do that. Although I think I intervened at appropriate moments and pushed the various candidates when I thought they were blustering, the 90 minutes was about them and not about me. Seeing as I had to present my normal show between 4 and 7, it was just as well I wasn’t paranoid about preparing, because I had no chance to anyway! Can you imagine Andrew Neil, doing that? No, me neither. It’s rather different doing these things outside the BBC. I had one producer working on the hustings show, and two on the rest of the programme. I’ll leave it to your imagination to imagine how many Andrew Neil had helping him prepare for the Sunday Politics hustings. And I say that not by way of complaining in any way whatsoever. I rather like our ‘just in time’ working patterns. As a presenter, it certainly keeps you on your toes!
I only imposed myself into the debate when I thought I should or when I was prompted by my producer, Matt Harris, to do so. Matt and I have a brilliant understanding. He knows when I might be tempted to avoid going in for the kill and he often comes up with brilliant questions in my ear, that I might not have thought of. Every presenter needs a producer who knows them inside out, knows how their brain works and when they need a bit of help. I often joke that I am but a mere mouthpiece of Matt Harris. It’s not really like that, because believe it or not I do have a mind of my own (!), but his interventions make me appear much better than I really am.
Some of the best moments in the debate were when I just sat back, said nothing at all and let the four of them go at it. I can remember four of five occasions where I just thought, no, don’t intervene, the listener will get far more out of this if I just remain silent. Obviously when they are all speaking at once, you have to intervene to restore order, but in this type of format the presenter should think of themselves as the conductor of the orchestra, rather than the chief violinist.
We were also determined to introduce subjects and questions which the candidates would probably not have been asked before. Most of the previous hustings had covered the same ground and we saw little point in choosing questions about whether Labour had spent too much in office etc as by now they would all have well rehearsed answers on those subjects. So most of the questions – all submitted by listeners – were somewhat different and more original. We had created a page on the LBC website where we invited listeners to submit questions, and around 1000 people did, especially in the 48 hours in the runup to the event. Many of those were on the welfare bill vote on Monday evening, which had clearly annoyed a lot of people. That was the question we kicked off with. But a good example of the sort of ‘different’ question we wanted was one on religion. Did the candidates ‘do God’?
Most of the questions came from listeners who had pre-submitted them, although we did take a couple of live ones on the night. One of those was from ‘Nigel in Kent’, aka Nigel Farage.
Every programme needs moments like that and the candidates seemed to enjoy being able to have a go at a political opponent.
As a presenter, I am normally the very worst judge of how an interview or show is going, but in this case I knew it was going well almost from the off. It had pace and a real sense of liveliness. I decided that apart from mentioning the four names in the talkup/introduction I wouldn’t even say hello to them as the chit chat at the beginning is usually slightly forced and achieves nothing. So I went straight to the first question on the welfare bill.
The studio format, and the fact that they were all sat within a couple of feet of each other meant a degree of intimacy was achieved, which would not have happened if we had staged this in front of an audience at an outside venue. They would have all been behind podiums or sat awkwardly on stools. Initially, I was keen to host it elsewhere as an outside broadcast, but I am glad my colleagues won the debate about doing it in our rather space-age new studio, It was the right decision.
We streamed the event live on our website in HD, and we had our highest ever audience in terms of numbers of people who streamed the event live on their phones, tablets or PCs. We were also trending number one on Twitter in London. Our web team did a brilliant job in chopping up the best bits and getting them on the website (see HERE) and the whole 90 minute programme was available for people to download within a very short time of it finishing (see HERE.
Obviously this was a radio show, but we now have this magnificent multi-media studio, so as a presenter you have to get used to the fact that you’re actually presenting a TV show too. I was told there would be a camera on me the whole time, which obviously makes it diffiult to communicate by gesture, or facial expression with the gallery. That proved especially diffiucult when it was clear that Jeremy Corbyn’s iPad kept making audible noises, something he seemed blissfully unaware of. Then Andy Burnham’s mobile also started making noises. We all had to have makeup, which sounds ridiculous for a radio show, but when everything is being filmed in HD, let’s face it, some of us needed it more than others. I had my makeup applied in the 530 and 545 news and travel breaks. It took longer than when I do the Sky News paper review!
So who won? The truth is I don’t know. I haven’t watched the whole thing back yet. Most people think Jeremy Corbyn did better than the others and they think it was summed up in this exchange on the question of whether they would have Ed Miliband in their Shadow Cabinets…
I actually thought Yvette Cooper did better than most other people did. But she really does need to learn to come off that fence more. Andy Burnham was more subdued that usual and he really needs to get away from just relying on the appeal of a blunt-speaking northerner. Liz Kendall had some flashes of what impressed people in the first weeks of this leadership race but I think she also needs to expand her appeal beyond appealing to Blairites.
Jon Craig from Sky News told me afterwards that all four had told him they thought this was the best and liveliest hustings so far and they were really happy with how I had coordinated it all. They all certainly seemed happy as we went off air. In fact there were lots of hugs!
For me, I felt I came of age as a presenter that night. That might seem a funny thing to say, but I still regard myself as a bit of a ‘newbie’ at all this. I saw very few people criticising me for being a biased (which is the usual accusation of my detractors) and most people seemed to think I had been fair to all candidates. I know for some people I will never escape my Tory past, and frankly I have given up trying to, but on Wednesday even some of my usual critics grudgingly admitted that they couldn’t justify their usual line of attack.
All along I felt I had got the balance about right between rigorous interviewing and lightheartedness and that’s what other people seemed to think too. What some people don’t understand is that you don’t have to shout at politicians when you push them for an answer. If you do, they invariably put up the shutters. I think a conversational approach works far better, and I think the style I deployed on Wednesday was totally reflective of the way I normally do individual interviews.
This blogpost has turned out to be rather longer than I had intended! So let’s finish with some thanks to all those who were involved in setting up these hustings. To the Labour Party for being incredibly easy to deal with. To the candidates who were all enthusiastic about the format. To the LBC management who backed us all the way in putting on the hustings. And finally thanks to my three LBC producers, Matt Harris, Jagruti Dave and Axel Kacoutie. We’ve worked together on Drive now for two and a half years and have become a real team. And that teamwork was what made Wednesday evening such a success.
And now we turn our attention to delivering equally enjoyable hustings programmes for the London Mayoral candidates from the Labour and Conservative parties. Watch this space.