Jonathan Dimbleby

Sunday, February 24, 2002 by

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a government minister with bad fortune must be in search of a scapegoat. But it was the good fortune yesterday of all those who chanced upon the Jonathan Dimbleby show to see the government minister in question searching for the scapegoat utterly humiliate himself, and betray any lingering doubts in the minds of even the most committed of New Labour apparatchiks and apologists that this governments raison d’être is based almost exclusively on the subtext of style over substance and presented in the language of spin over truth.

This was a piece of genuinely electrifying television that not just chipped at, but stripped away the pervasive lies that surround the decaying edifice of New Labour and laid bare to the viewer the unimpeachable fact that socialism is dead; long live the new forces of conservatism.

There can be no doubt that the performance of the – let’s get the clichés in early – beleaguered, embattled Minister Stephen Byers, was that of a dead man walking. Here was a man who presided over the Rover/BMW fiasco in a previous ministry and had waltzed into a new portfolio, in which he has presided over a series of cock-ups, calamities and unmitigated disasters that in his short period in office encapsulate and magnify even the worst excesses of almost two decades of Conservative rule. This is no mean feet, dear reader – this a monumental achievement of outrageous outlandishness that even Gargantua and Pantagruel would be hard pressed to believe, let alone commit. In the best of all possible worlds this is the worst of all possible outcomes.

With the added bonus of the revelations of a possibly former employee being splashed over the front page of The Sunday Times, the timing of Byers’ appearance on Dimbleby’s weekly lunchtime grilling took on added significance. Why he chose to honour this engagement is beyond me. Kudos? A pious belief in his inherent righteousness? Or just the inherent arrogance that is increasingly the trademark of New Labour? Whatever the reason, I’m just thankful that he did go on and subsequently reward us with an hour of top class entertainment.

Memorable political moments on television have been few and far between for me. I can only recollect a handful of moments that have genuinely moved me emotionally and had me transfixed to the screen. As a child, I remember the arresting sight of Nixon walking up the steps of the helicopter on the Whitehouse lawn, turning and waving to the assembled press corps and staff. I remember sitting at home sharing a cup of tea with my father as the news broke of Thatcher’s resignation as leader of the Tory party. We exchanged glances and let out a simultaneous cry of “Yes!” as the Iron Lady dissolved into tears on our flickering screen. “Now you know how the miners, the dockers – whole swathes of people – felt” I yelled with delight as the bête noire of Socialism began her inexorable decline before my very eyes. And how could I ever forget the sight of my fiancée, her best pal and my next-door neighbour unleashing a wild conga down our street at god knows when in the morning after watching Portillo lose his seat at the ’97 Election? These are the moments that are indelibly etched on my memory. Others hover in the subconscious but my distaste for politicians (as far as I’m concerned they all fall into one three camps – pimps, pushers or prostitutes) leads me to invariably shy away from watching them as a rule.

But even the most committed of political atheists like myself could find no reason not to watch Stephen Byers being taken to task on Jonathan Dimbleby. And taken to task he was by both the host and the audience. This was exhilarating, captivating and, above all, a genuinely spellbinding slice of television. Employing the typical devices of refusing to answer specific questions, rhetorically (and defiantly) stating that he would be judged on his record and resorting to clichés or statistics when in doubt, Byers simply dug a continually deeper hole for himself as wave after wave of constructive and erudite criticism was heaped upon him. The sense of anger that emanated from the audience was stunningly palpable, and each and every question that seemed only to heighten the bear pit like atmosphere. The half answers, empty rhetoric and defiant arrogance that Byers’ peddled served only to hammer home the nails of his coffin.

When Dimbleby pressed him on the question of someone lying, Byers prevaricated until finally stating to his inquisitor ” that someone was not recollecting the facts”. This was a devastating admission. Clearly, any doubts that existed as to this man’s ability to hold office (or, indeed, his credibility) were shattered by this revelation. Dimbleby had picked at the rotting carcass and exposed the putrid actuality of the situation. There then followed a passage of farce rooted in the absurd. Employing the phrase done in for the F-word, Dimbleby quoted a senior civil servant; “We’re all done. The whole department’s done. It’s been the biggest cock-up ever and we’re all completely done.” The audience guffawed as the Minister shifted uncomfortably. A passive response at humour from him failed miserably. The coup de grace was delivered by a Geordie (it’s always a Northerner, isn’t it?) who reminded him of Labours’ stance to privatisation in opposition and their embracing and furthering of it when they came to power. A clearly struggling Byers could only resort to empty rhetoric once more. He was done. He had been done royally. He had done himself. And do you know what? It was a fucking joy to watch. And remember, this was before we even got onto the disaster that is Railtrack, the NATS fiasco or the roads dilemma. (I so wanted NATS to be fully discussed – this was a privatisation that even the Airline Pilots’ union vehemently opposed. Not exactly a renowned hotbed of militant Trotskyism there, eh?).

But still, mustn’t grumble. What a delicious way to start a Sunday afternoon. Watching a politician being hounded, caught and ripped apart by the voters. Watching a politician failing to comprehend or grasp the contempt with which he is held. Watching a skilled interviewer deconstruct the veneer – nay, illusion – of respectability put up by the interviewee. Watching him fillet the interviewee like a skilled slaughterhouse man would the carcass of a prime Aberdeen Angus bull. Watching the politician being left hung up and hanging on the line with his entrails spilled out for all to see and trample over. This was brutal, uncompromising and bloodcurdlingly joyous television. I liked the taste that was left in my mouth; I want more.


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