Iain Dale, broadcaster, publisher, former Parliamentary candidate and the most successful blogger in British political history, sat down with Charlie Edwards. In the first in two parts, he talks about his miraculous C grade in A-level German, interviewing Nick Griffin and being told someone would end their marriage live on his radio programme.
How do you interview the king of interviews? His “In Conversation With…” series in the Total Politics magazine, which he publishes as part of his Biteback media empire, sees Iain Dale grill figures from the world of politics. By day he runs one of the leading political publishing companies in the UK, by night he presents a talk show on LBC radio. In December he retired Iain Dale’s Diary, which was the most successful political blog in UK internet history.
We met on a typically drizzly Westminster afternoon in the lounge of a hotel. Plush furniture, moody lights, napkins, the full works. As a fellow West Ham fan, once the niceties of ‘Disappointing result on the weekend’ were shared and drinks were ordered, I started my very own “In Conversation with Iain Dale”.
Radio host, magazine and newspaper columnist, publisher, entrepreneur, former Conservative party candidate, can you sum up in your own words, who is Iain Dale?
How can I answer that? I am just someone who enjoys the political and media world and tries to get as much out of it as I can. At the moment, I am doing two full-time jobs, running my publishing company and my LBC show; which has meant one or two things I did enjoy doing have had to fall by the wayside. The older you get, your priorities do change a bit, you become less embarrassed about things you like doing that other people would find ridiculous, like your taste in music for example, which is pretty shameless in my case. I like to have a packed diary, but I would rather it was that way round rather than constantly looking at an empty diary wondering what to do. Almost every hour of every day I am doing stuff. I try to keep weekends free, unless the Andrew Marr show comes calling. There are certain things you just can’t turn down. Only being 18 months away from 50, you really do start re-evaluating what you want to do with the next 15 years of your life, you only get one chance at it and I started doing the radio stuff because it’s what I always wanted to do. There was no way I would turn down the opportunity to present a live show every night. It’s what I had been trying to do for ten years, so I had to make it work somehow, probably at the expense of some of my personal life. I live in London three nights a week, I don’t see my partner or my dog for days on end.
You didn’t start out very political, you studied German at university, didn’t you?
“German, Linguistics and Teaching English as a Foreign Language.” Made a lot of use out of that didn’t I?
So where was the shift?
Well, I was always interested in history and politics. It never really occurred to me to study politics at university, I was very much a ‘B’ student, crap at most things. German was the only thing I really excelled at in school. I was even rubbish at that when I started, but I went on a School Exchange Trip and came back and was top of the class in the End-of-Year exam, teacher thought I’d cheated. Something just clicked in my brain and I knew that is what I wanted to study. I knew I wasn’t going to get three A’s at A level, which in those days was much more difficult, and I got a B History, C in… erm, I can’t remember now. C in German I think, and an E in Economics, which I hated. In those days, you could get into University of East Anglia with two Cs, and I had an absolutely brilliant time and I don’t ever regret doing anything else. I did a bit of politics, in my second term I did a unit on Thatcherism, and it was the term of the 1983 general election, and the course tutor was a Conservative, John Charmley, a famous historian now, and I was very involved in the election campaign in Norwich, and he said “You’ll learn far more being involved in that than coming to my classes”, and he just gave me a First at the end of term writing a couple of essays and turning up to none of his lectures. That was the first election campaign I was involved in and never looked back really.
Once you established a career in journalism and politics, with the blogging, standing for Parliament and running David Davis’ party leadership campaign in 2005, your career took a turn once more. How did the idea of the publishing company and Total Politics come about?
Well before Biteback, I did work for an internet politics TV channel called 18 Doughty Street, where I hosted a TV programme. When that finished in May 2007, I thought what do I want to do? I had the idea for Total Politics some time before that, when I ran Politico’s bookshop, we had a magazine called The Politico. It was really to sell books, but we had a few political articles in it, and lots of people told us we should turn it into a proper magazine. So that’s where the idea came from. So I whacked out a business plan, took it to Michael Ashcroft and told him I think this could work, he liked the idea and to cut a long story short, he got back to me and here we are today with the magazine and the book publishing company too.
Your Total Politics interviews are pretty legendary.
Damn, I should have brought you my book!
Well, it is on my to-read list, actually.
Well, we have plenty of copies left…
Who has been your favourite interview subject?
Well I am absolutely useless at spotting a story. I would come out of an interview thinking, well that was really boring, and then we’d go back and transcribe it, and the editor Ben Duckworth would say “Here are the five stories you have missed” and in virtually every interview we have done, we’ve got national coverage out of it. The only one I thought “Wow, got lots of stories there” was with Peter Mandelson, where I talked to him for about an hour and he could not stop himself from giving me stories. I did think to myself has he pre-planned on giving me these little nuggets? That got massive coverage in the papers. Alex Salmond was one of the first ones I did, and he said in the interview “Well Margaret Thatcher wasn’t all bad”, which for a Scottish national leader to say was tantamount to treason, it dominated the Scottish news for three days.
The most bizarre one was definitely Nick Griffin. I thought long and hard about doing him, whether I should interview him or not, whether it was the right thing for the magazine. But they have elected representatives. What do you do? Ignore them and hope they go away? To my mind, you confront these people. So I interviewed him for two and a half hours, 23,000 words came out. The magazine used about 4,000, and in the book I put in about 17,000, because I think it was important that people saw how I did challenge him. I treated him exactly the same as any other interviewee, and it helped to see him and listen to the flaws in his argument. He just couldn’t argue some of his points; those who try to no-platform the BNP are helping them by letting their argument go without debate.
How do you approach an interview?
When I do these interviews, I go in and do them as conversations. I don’t go in wanting to do a Paxman and trip you up. I think if you go in with an aggressive attitude, the interviewee is going to be on the defensive and therefore will shut up shop and not give you anything interesting at all. So I immediately try and put them at their ease, and I would literally just banter with them. It’s two political people having a chat, rather than journalist-interviewing-politican, and it kind of works that way. I don’t go in with a massive list of questions; I might go in with a few, as I often ask people on the blog and on Twitter to suggest questions, because I think the wisdom-of-crowds idea is a very powerful one.
I once interviewed Peter Kurucz, the Hungarian West Ham reserve goalkeeper, in his third week living in Britain. It didn’t go particularly well, I’d say that’s possibly my worst interview. Is it harder to interview someone you don’t agree with politically?
Not really. It depends on the interviewee. If they go in suspicious, worried about what the outcome is going to be, it’s probably not going to work. I always show people previous interviews that I’ve done. Harriet Harman has agreed to sit down with me and I’ve sent her loads of interviews I’ve done with other Labour politicians. She will automatically think, “Tory blogger trying to stitch me up”. That’s not my agenda in an interview. I want to try a get beneath the argument, not coming out with the same old trite phrases they usually do in interviews, and generally with me they don’t. Jacqui Smith was a good one, I’d never met her before, but we got on like a house on fire. She opened up in a way I thought she had never had before with other people before, and if I can get people to do that, it will work. If their mind is elsewhere, they think I’m going to stitch them up, it’s not going to be a good interview. I’ve just done Douglas Alexander, he’s a really nice guy, but I don’t think there was any big news story out of it, but it is one which can give the reader at bit more of an insight into his character then they had before.
Right, back to my list of questions…
Ha ha, you’ll learn…
Who would be your perfect interview subject?
Well, I dedicated my book to Tony Blair in the hope that he might actually give me an interview one day. I would have love to have interviewed Ronald Reagan, oh and Jeremy Paxman. I have tried to intersperse all the party political people with people in the media, Andrew Neil, what a lovely bloke. We sat down on the day Gordon Brown left Downing Street and both of us were really watching the news whilst we were doing the interview. I really enjoyed Adam Boulton, and I want to do Nick Robinson at some point. Perhaps one or two foreign leaders, we have been trying to get to Angela Merkel but we haven’t had any luck.
Some big names stopped blogging last year, including yourself, is it an indictment of blogging at the moment? What is the future of political commentary on the internet?
Well I think if we all stopped for the same reason, then you could say that it was the end of blogging, or whatever. But we didn’t, they were all different reasons. I am starting a new site in April or May, but it wont be pitched the same, because there will be lots of people writing for it. I had thought about starting it immediately after the other one, where I would write once a day, but there would be lots of other people contributing too. It would have been a mistake to do it so soon, it would have been like the times I have tried to have guest posts on my blog, and my readers would tell me “We don’t come here to read other people, we come here to read you.” That’s great for me, but it meant I couldn’t go on holiday, I just had to keep churning it out. The new site, which I still don’t know what to call, will have about thirty people writing for it. The intention will be almost a proper online magazine. It won’t have a party political bias to it, it will have Conservatives, Labour, heck, even Lib Dems, and we are going to have a film reviewer, book reviews, a couple of sports writers. A lot of the contributors will be well-known, there will be some that nobody’s heard of, but who I think write really well and deserve a wider audience, and I can add people onto the list as we go along. It is being designed at the moment, but I hope by the middle of April, it would be launched.
It’s the future.
Yeah, I think it is.
The collaborative nature has been the success of Conservative Home… Labour List…
When it comes to… I’ve just completely lost my train of thought. Does that ever happen with you?
Oh god, yes. Especially on LBC.
So there’s just a dead silence on the radio… Have you ever had any awkward moments?
Well we had a few last night. You know Fabio Capello has forgiven John Terry? I thought we should do an hour on forgiveness. After the half-past news, this woman came on and she said “My husband has been abusing our two-year-old baby.” I just sunk. Oh my God, what the hell do I say to that? Most of the time, I just let people talk, and I did let her talk. Another woman we had on she said “My husband has had an affair, and I chucked him out.” “Even for just one affair?” “I just could not believe a single word he said after that.” Luckily I had a friend who was a psychologist who came on to MSN, and he was feeding me lines all the way through, making me seem so much more knowledgeable. At the end of the hour, we concluded that you don’t have to forgive someone, if you step out of moral boundaries you have to expect that. It was odd because I went into it wondering how someone could go years without talking to their parents, brothers and sisters, but after the hour I understood. We had some really good calls on there, actually.
It does sound a little bit too ‘Jeremy Kyle’…
It was! It really was! I like doing hours like that, most of the time it is about politics. I like stepping out of my comfort zones with topics like that, and that really was out of my comfort zone!
Do you control the agenda of what items to put in the show?
On the whole, I do. They will suggest things, and often the things that I want to do has already been covered in other shows, which is a pain. I knew that hour would be quite difficult. But the key is doing subjects that you know will drive phone calls. Sometimes, you get it wrong. And other times, you get subjects that may not particularly interest me that are really popular. I didn’t think an hour on opera would generate the most calls, but it did!
Well if you ever need a stooge, just give me a text “Charlie, I need you to ring!”
Well I would love to have someone there every night with me, someone I could bounce off, but they won’t have it. If you’re having a conversation in the studio you exclude the listener, as a presenter you have to build up the relationship, and that’s why they really encouraged me to talk about personal things. If listeners know about you, they relate to you, as a friend and are more likely to ring you up. Even if they don’t contribute very much, someone in the studio would be nice just to have there.
Like Mark Lawrenson on Match of the Day?
A little bit. In the American chat shows, like Johnny Carson, he used to have a guy on the other couch throughout the programme, and sometimes contribute three words a night, but was still an important part of it.
Well I’m available if you need me Iain, as you said earlier, there are a few things you just can’t turn down…
IN THE NEXT PART:
ON THE COALITION: “The Lib Dems haven’t quite got to grips”
ON PARTY MEMBERSHIP: “All you get is further requests to send money”
ON ED BALLS: “Ed Balls has developed into a serious politician – I never thought I’d hear myself say that”