Meeting television icons in the flesh is always a strange experience, but perhaps never more so than when meeting journalists. Sitting in the Union garden while waiting for a talk to start, the experience of glancing over to see the authoritative, ever composed Alastair Stewart gazing intently at a smartphone and smoking merrily away is nothing short of surreal. A similar effect was garnered when talking to Adam Boulton with his necktie loose and the both of us slumped on the leather chairs of the Union bar. It seemed a long way from hosting an election debate.
Boulton is known to many as the face of Sky News and over the past few years has provided us with forceful encounters with Conrad Black, David Cameron and (infamously) Alastair Campbell. Having just come from a panel discussion where he voiced his opinions on the political role of TV journalism, I asked him whether he thought the public enjoyed their interviewers displaying their own personality and thoughts.
“I don’t think people like impartial robots”, Boulton responded thoughtfully, before stressing that every interviewer had a different style and feel to their questions. “Some people always want to appear superior to the interviewee, whereas I’m happy to ask a quote ‘stupid question’, or a very direct question, because I think sometimes the simplest can elicit the most interesting answer.” Throughout the evening, all of the panellists had spoken of the need for a degree of aggression in certain interviews. Boulton himself recalled with seeming fondness one occasion when the much admired David Frost’s repeated questioning had presented TV psychic Uri Geller in a less than favourable light.
Not feeling that I could let an accusation of superiority complexes among his colleagues go unexplored, I decided to mention a specific name. Jeremy Paxman’s was the first to occur to me: a brilliant interviewer in Boulton’s eyes, but one whose style is undoubtedly not for everybody. “You may get a politician coming on and they’ve worked out in advance a line to take, but actually they haven’t really thought about it.” This is all well and good on Newsnight where Paxman has “clearly spent all day thinking about the interview, about ‘the question’ which he’s going to ask.” In his own specialist area of 24 hour news, though, Boulton feels a different approach is needed. When he is interviewing ordinary citizens (“I mean ‘civilians’ is the wrong word”), “sometimes what you’re actually trying to do is to help them to ease themselves and to get the message across.”
24 hour news is, however, still very much involved in reporting developing events and controversies, something which has gained it a great deal of scrutiny over the years. The Boston Marathon bombings are a recent example of the power this type of journalism has to spread misinformation, as wild speculation concerning the identities of those responsible dominated the American press and news channels. CNN even went as far as reporting that a suspect had been identified and arrested, when in fact neither of these things was true. Is it then the case that the demand for immediate information by TV executives and Sky’s own Rupert Murdoch is fundamentally undermining the integrity of TV news?
Boulton responded first to my mentioning the Murdoch name, in the manner of one who was very used to hearing the question. “I’ve worked for Sky for, I don’t know, 25 years and I’ve had maybe less than half a dozen conversations with Rupert Murdoch.” “We don’t get instructions from our proprietors.”
Furthermore, although he admitted that mistakes such as these could happen, he told me he liked to think that the editorial structure at Sky had developed a superior way of handling stories. “I can think of one example where the Ladbroke Grove train crash happened, and the police said at their first briefing that they thought more than 100 people had been killed. The BBC at the time went with that and they said ‘More than 100 people killed in London rail crash’ … Mercifully, that turned out to be about 60 people, and that clearly made a lot of difference to people who may have had people they cared about on that train.”
“We will report unconfirmed stories, but we’ll always say that these are unconfirmed. And we will always contextualise the information as we give it.”
This line of argument had done little to assuage fears of unprofessional journalism earlier in the evening, however, not only from members of the audience but from other panellists. In what was at times a very animated discussion (documentary maker Michael Cockerell at one point jokingly remarked, “Do you want me to be your brain?”), Alastair Stewart repeatedly warned that the political partiality of Murdoch-owned Fox News could easily spread to the news outlets of the UK.
Even as one of the stars of Sky News, Boulton was ready to admit to me that recent press controversies such as the phone hacking scandal damaged the reputation of his organisation by association. However, the main issue with British television news was not to him a low journalistic standard, but the market distortion provided by the free BBC.
“I think the most important thing about the development of television news in this country has been competition.” “If you go right back to news bulletins and journalists reading the news, all that was done by ITV. I previously worked with a company that did the first breakfast news.”
He went on to state that having an organisation that does not depend on subscribers makes it nearly impossible for other news organisations to make money. Not only this, but the model used in the USA was one far more suited to competition than that used in this country.
“If you look at how much of the news the BBC has to how much of the market that all of News International and Sky has, we have something like 11 per cent and they have nearly 50 per cent. They’re massive.
“In America, all the cable-carriers, Fox News and MSNBC and CNN make money not because they’ve got massive audiences but because they get a small percentage of the overall cable payment … and target a niche market which pays an amount of money which means that they’re highly profitable”
He maintained that until the BBC was unable to use its huge public resources to dominate the market, it is unlikely that we would be seeing any new Sky style companies any time soon. Even carrying ten per cent of the market, Sky News is “dependent on making a living on our parent company in the broader entertainment and sport context feeling that it’s worth supporting us in what we do.”
Well then, maybe Mr Boulton doesn’t have much to worry about. After all, the BBC itself is not short of controversy these days, with allegations of corruption and complicity in sexual offences seeming to blacken the name of the corporation day by day. The announcement that evening that the panellist Roger Mosey had been appointed the new head of BBC television was an apt demonstration of the crisis. As a final point, I asked the veteran interviewer whether he thought that affairs such as the Lord Mcalpine scandal were enough to dent the public’s trust in the BBC, and move the country towards his free-market ideal.
“I think one of the problems the BBC has is that it’s not just a media organisation; it’s also a national institution. So it sometimes responds to crises in a rather slow and defensive way and in the end that can be very damaging.”
At the end of the day, though, he remained optimistic about the BBC’s future:
“I have to say the tradition that has grown up in broadcasting through the BBC is one that I value.
“The reality is and, you know, there’s no point in denying it, that the BBC is such a central institution in the British public’s mind that the public will always cut the BBC slack, which it won’t necessarily cut to independent news organisations.”
Well, perhaps optimism with a hint of disappointment.