Why Boris Johnson is right: TV debates and political interviews are a turn-off – Bernard Ingham

IT is getting a bit much when a Tory leadership candidate can’t have a domestic row without a Remainer neighbour and his Leftie wife calling the police and then feeding the taped dirt to the Guardian.

They really must fear Boris Johnson will lead us, like Moses, out of the European Union to the promised land.

Stand by for follies galore. The choice of a new Tory PM has only 15 party hustings and an ITV “debate” to go.

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Tedious though it may be, this process is better than a coronation.

Should Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt do more TV debates?

The winner will at least have the majority backing of his party, assuming that majorities carry weight these days in view of Parliament’s performance since the EU referendum.

The Tories’s choice is clear – between charisma, intelligence, occasional gaffes and action with Boris or a safer pair of hands in boring Jeremy Hunt who seems curiously confident of his ability to negotiate a departure deal with Brussels.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt during last week's BBC debate.

Both need testing on their resolve over Europe and their overall programme for getting Britain moving again.

I am generously assuming that amid the Brexit turmoil both have worked out a credible plan for keeping Britain booming – and blooming – outside the EU.

leadership rivals Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson both played a key role in the staging of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

We have not yet heard it.

It did Boris no harm to duck the first TV roadshow. The second did nobody any good. You may well read into this is an oblique criticism of the BBC.

I do not believe in kicking a man, the BBC or a Prime Minister when they are down. And the BBC is certainly down, if not out, over its manifest bias during this leadership election.

But it deserves a good word for its recent five-part series on the Thatcher years. This was by any standards objective and fair – and not because I appeared in every episode.

Boris Johnson looked distracted during last Saturday's leadership hustings in Birmingham.

If I have a criticism, it is that it was woolly over why Margaret Thatcher was kicked out by her party. Rather than abandoning her party, her party abandoned her for, it hoped, a quieter, less driven life.

It was a combination of her wearing form of government, a lot of sacked MPs or denied office, the poll tax and an economy gone wrong, thanks to Nigel Lawson, with inflation back up to 10 per cent and interest rates at 15 per cent. All that gave the Europhiles and wets their chance to topple her.

That said, the series showed there is still some objective lead left in the BBC’s pencil.

But – and this is crucial – it was entirely different from normal TV politics. Interviewees were allowed to spread themselves in answering questions about her tenure. It was, in short, aiming for understanding as distinct from entertainment. Quite like old times.

In my day, the problem with the BBC was that it set itself up as the alternative government. It knew better. It still thinks it does – over Brexit.

But in 30 years television generally has moved from educator to entertainer, shallow and celebrity-ridden. It is biased against understanding and for fun. Worse still, it has reduced the attention span of the average viewer to that of a gnat.

And yet Jeremy Hunt is trying to goad Boris into another TV confrontation.

Even today I would I try – as I did with Mrs Thatcher – to persuade the PM to submit him or herself regularly to “blockbuster” interviews if there were the likes of Sir Robin Day, Alastair Burnet, Brian Walden and Jimmy Young still around. A PM must personally inform the public’s understanding of what they are up to.

I cannot pretend that she always blessed me for imposing them on her, especially during crises, of which there were plenty. But they brought out her thinking, consistency and resilience because they were serious interrogators, not out for kicks.

This was television at its searching, educative best. Today the thought of interrogating a politician – and especially a Prime Minister – for an hour would make an audience-chasing TV executive incoherent with disbelief.

Wot, no opposing activist? No indignant housewife? No anti-racialist? No impoverished pensioner? And no “Green” juvenile demanding a national environmental emergency? How boring. Do you want the punters deserting our channel by the million?

This is why I think Boris and Jeremy Hunt are mad to agree to a double act on ITV on July 9. After all, the general public is not the target. It is the Tory grassroots who are voting. And they are getting 16 hustings across the country.

That’s enough – even for junkies.