Expect strong language from the start
from the Daily Telegraph. 27th June 2006
… Mark Borkowksi, a public relations expert, says that politicians who sit down to … as risky as being grilled by John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman, Borkowski believes …
David Cameron is the latest politician to venture into the realm of TV light entertainment and end up horribly embarrassed, says Tom Leonard 2
Never work with children and animals. Logic might dictate that politicians add entertainers to the list, even if history suggests they never will.
The sight of Neil Kinnock sitting in a greasy spoon cafe in the background of Tracey Ullman’s debut pop video reportedly made Tony Blair swear he’d never take part in such stunts. He appeared in The Simpsons instead.
Twenty years after Margaret Thatcher went on the BBC children’s show Saturday Superstore, she is remembered not for gamely agreeing to sit on the pop panel but for the child who asked about her “bomb shelter” and for Keith Chegwin telling viewers that the Prime Minister had “hairy legs”.
Sometimes they even get into the presenter’s chair – a forgetful Harold Wilson’s short-lived BBC2 chat show in 1979 was famous for him drying up completely in front of the camera and, on being told after rehearsals that they were on at seven o’clock, replying; “Haven’t we just done it?”. And then, finally, George Galloway trumped them all in the self-inflicted televised humiliation stakes, going into the Celebrity Big Brother house, failing to get a word in edgeways about politics and ending up rubbing his head against Rula Lenska while pretending to be a cat.
Television archives are full of upsetting footage of politicians trying to touch down chummily on to entertainment shows only to crash-land in flames. And now the rumpus after Jonathan Ross asking David Cameron on BBC1 the other night if, as a teenager, he ever fantasised over Margaret Thatcher has reopened the debate over how far it is advisable for politicians to go in the pursuit of the politically unengaged. Has the master of the cosy publicity opportunity finally put a foot wrong?
Despite howls of outrage in some quarters of the media at the level of debate on last week’s encounter on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross, Mr Cameron’s advisers said yesterday that they regarded it as a success, even if there was some surprise that the offending item wasn’t edited out before transmission. Guests on the show, including Mr Cameron, are warned that “Wossie” often goes over the top but it will be cut out of the eventual programme. In the event, it wasn’t.
The presenter, who recently signed an £18 million three-year deal with the corporation, asked Mr Cameron to whom he had turned for advice. Ross mentioned Lady Thatcher and when Cameron calculated he would have been 12 or 13 years old when she was first elected prime minister, Ross observed that it was “a time in a boy’s life when you look around for women who are attractive”.
Mr Cameron laughed. “This is when I realise why politicians never come on the show,” he said. Too late. That young Tories had sexual fantasies about Mrs Thatcher must be one of the lamest gags in the book but Ross persevered. Mr Cameron is famously cool under pressure and Ross is famous for embarrassing people. Someone had to give.
Eventually, after a discussion of Lady Thatcher’s achievements, Ross suddenly popped the question: “But did you or did you not have a —- thinking ‘Margaret Thatcher’?” And the lisping “Wossie” didn’t mean “rank” either. In the good old days of broadcaster-politician relations, Mr Cameron might have hurled his microphone on the floor and stomped out, muttering about BBC bias. Instead, he just laughed.
Mr Cameron “has a sense of humour”, says his spokesman, adding that while Ross’s language was “not ideal”, that “you just have to react normally to it which is what he did”.
“He didn’t go on the show to look cool or be funny, it was to reach an audience we don’t reach out to enough – bright, intelligent 30 and 40-somethings who are not highly politicised. We want to get them interested in politics and to show people who are tired of politics that David’s out there.”
She stresses that they had also discussed serious subjects such as the war and drugs, and said that the complaints about Ross’s crudity were an “irrelevance”. “If we could come across well and it was clear at the end that Jonathan liked David – and that was quite obvious – that is a hugely powerful message,” she adds.
The suspicion one often has about politicians who suddenly appear on what seems a completely inappropriate show is that – like many at Westminster – the only television they watch is news.
But the Cameron team insists it knew what it was letting itself in for. “David watches the show a lot,” says the spokesman. “He wasn’t trying to be funny or outwit Jonathan Ross.”
But if you can’t hit back, you can end up playing the patsy. Mark Borkowksi, a public relations expert, says that politicians who sit down to chat with the likes of Ross cannot engage in the same sort of banter and inevitably end up being the straight man in a comic double act.
Politicians have unwisely convinced themselves that being interviewed by funny men cannot be anything like as risky as being grilled by John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman, Borkowski believes.
“This strategy is slightly backfiring. They don’t recognise that they’re being used as cannon fodder,” he says. “The Jonathan Rosses will just take the p— out of them, they’re just there to generate jokes. It’s just mind-blowing that they can’t see they’re going to be made to look complete charlies.
“Jonathan Ross was praying to the god of television saying: ‘Thank you for giving me this idiot’. But he wasn’t going to hang him out to dry because he’ll want him back again.”
Borkowski goes on to cite Charles Kennedy’s frequent appearances on the BBC’s Have I Got News For You as “the best example of it all going terribly wrong” as it simply gave people “more ammunition” to tease him about his private life.
While there is nothing wrong with trying to reach a new audience, viewers are now savvy enough to realise that is the intention, says Mr Borkowksi. ”Cameron looked like the guy who wears the wrong shoes with the wrong jeans. People know you’re doing the show to be cool and that makes it uncool.”
He isn’t suggesting that politicians stay away from light entertainment – they just have to be more original about how they do it. Sadly, it seems that to be truly successful, you have to do it completely unwittingly. Posterity records only one example of a politician escaping with some credibility intact.
Tony Benn was once quizzed by the spoof “yoof” television interviewer Ali G (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) for a programme supposedly aimed at introducing young people to politics. He was completely taken in.
But unlike other victims, who tried to be hip and happening with Mr G, the MP unwittingly turned the tables by lecturing him about the dreadfulness of his attitudes. “He was wholly cynical and wholly ignorant,” Mr Benn said later. That’s the only language they understand.