Why are you calling us nerds, Patricia?

A SINGLE OFFER flooded in from my agent recently. I’d pretty much forgotten I had one, it’s been a while.

“How
do you fancy being in the next series of Strictly Come Dancing?” Well
she knew fine well what I would say, what my editor would say and what
Channel 4 would say. But I said it anyway. Or I did once I’d partially
recovered myself from an extreme mirth attack.

“Er – the fee’s £25,000 you know.”

At
which point the mirth left me in an instant. Still ‘no’ though. (But
there was a sort of twinge, verging on a tiny little regret, at this
news). I don’t wish to appear up my own proverbial about all this
light-entertainment malarky, but there’s no way the powers-that-pay
around here would have let me do it.

It’s as simple as that.

They claim they want to protect things like reputation and image.

I claim they’ve seen me dancing and want to protect the public.

So
what’s all this got to do with the price of beans? Well I’d more or
less forgotten about the whole episode until the strange case of
Patricia Hewitt and the NHS suddenly reared up before my eyes and ears
during an otherwise rather quiet weekend in the newsroom.

Suddenly Channel 4 News was faced with its very own case of The Bastards.

Remember The Bastards? Let me help.

Some
years ago now, there was the hapless John Major, Prime Minister,
concluding a down-the-line interview to a presenter. Naturally enough,
the end of these performances is often marked by two reactions:
physical and verbal.

Physically the interviewee has to
disentangle themselves from the onesize- does-not-really-fit-them-all
earpiece. There is something in this TV ritual that appears to
momentarily disengage the brain from the tongue.

So to the
verbal. On this infamous occasion, Major suddenly gave vent to his
feelings and frustrations about the bastards gathering around within
cabinet and without.

His rather candid views spilled out and down
the line and into recording equipment which was, of course, running for
some crucial moments after the interview. Whoops! Of course the
comments were duly recorded, found their way to the wider world and the
rest is history.

And so to Birmingham, where Patricia Hewitt’s
squadron of focus groupies had somehow persuaded 1,000 NHS punters to
get together to tell her what was right and wrong with our health
services. Up popped the Health Secretary at her appointed time. Using
the 1,000 happy punters as a backdrop, off she went, telling us what a
laudable exercise in listening government the Birmingham affair was.

We
wanted to get into some other matters beyond what a laudable listening
exercise this was and how much Hewitt was listening: such as NHS
funding changes; alterations to doctors’

contracts and the
debacle over smoking in public (or not). The interview was reasonably
combative I’d say, but nothing unusual and certainly not heated.

So
I was rather surprised when, removing the earpiece, Hewitt suddenly
said to our producer there: “God – we got into some very technical
stuff there,” followed, seconds later, by: “Ah, but that’s Channel 4 –
they want policy nerdy stuff.”

To which our producer, probably suspecting that we could well still be recording, said not much at all.

Smoking
in public, NHS funding – policy nerdy stuff? Well I hardly think so.
Was it not actually pretty broad brush stuff with several areas to be
got through in the course of a not-live interview which, at best,
lasted five or six minutes? I certainly don’t recall that it felt nerdy
at the time. I didn’t feel nerdy – she didn’t sound nerdy. No, the
whole experience was definitely nerdless. Not that she was upset – more
baffled than anything else. And it left me rather baffled too. Because,
hang on a sec: are we in the meeja not continually told by politicians
– and some journos – that we are only interested in personality
politics and not the issues. Why don’t we debate policy?

Maybe
Hewitt just wasn’t in the mood. It was a Saturday after all – perhaps
we should lighten up. But then again, it didn’t strike me then and does
not strike me now as nerdy, in wanting to ask the Health Secretary
about the health service.

Maybe I had this in mind in asking
David Cameron about drugs. In the course of that interview, he
eventually gave a straight answer to a straight question that no, he
had not used any class A drugs while an MP. Cue attack from the Tories
calling the interview ‘cheap and obnoxious’. I might say that view was
shared by most of our audience who emailed.

So should we have stuck to policy?

Whatever
the Tories and our viewers felt, every national paper and TV news
programme picked up the story. All of which does slightly leave you
with the feeling that you’re damned either way.

Ask a politician about his (lack of)n personal drugs abuse and it’s dumbeddown personality stuff, cheap and nasty.

Ask about policy and you’re accused of nerding up!

I suspect they all doth protest a bit too much and, as Corporal Jones had it: “They don’t like it up ’em.”

Still,
the whole Cameron exchange did make it onto Have I Got News For You?,
which is more than can be said for the Hewitt asides, which have, I
fear, already met the utter finality of being wiped from the Channel 4
News server.

Which brings me to Strictly Come Dancing. If our
little Cameron a deux can be snapped up into the world of light
entertainment, maybe I should reconsider that offer. Perhaps the future
does lie there after all? Trouble is, my editor naturally insists on
reading this before you do – so I’ll be headed off at the pass.

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