UK Politics

Nick Clegg's radio phone-in and the masochism strategy

Nick Clegg on LBC 97.3FM radio phone in

It is a question producers at Radio 5live ask potential guests the whole time.

"Would you be willing to take calls?"

Immediately it is a different prospect for the person on the other end of the phone contemplating an appearance on the radio. It's a more dynamic, fluid, unpredictable and therefore potentially dangerous format.

No longer is it a one-to-one exchange with a presenter bound by the rules of impartiality and likely to be professional, reasonable and structured in their approach to questioning.

Not, of course, that that translates into an easy experience for a guest, but at least the parameters are a little more predictable.

Instead, Barry from Taunton, James from Sunderland and Mary from Dundee are on the phone.

Rehabilitation

The guest and quite possibly even the presenter don't have faintest idea what on earth they are going to say. Sometimes Barry, James and Mary aren't sure either. But the chances are if they have decided to give up some of their day to ring a radio station to try to drop a word in your ear they are not ringing up to say you're brilliant.

So what on earth is the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, doing going on the London talk radio station LBC every week to do a phone in? Not just once, but every week?

He is doing what Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former Director of Communications, used to call the "masochism strategy". In other words, go out there, get verbally duffed up, again and again and again if necessary, and attempt to appear calm, reasonable and human.

This is how the Observer columnist, Andrew Rawnsley, put it in 2005 to describe Mr Blair's approach:

"For a fallen celeb, the route to rehabilitation can involve submitting to a dose of ritual humiliation presided over by Ant and Dec. For a prime minister trying to rehabilitate his credibility with alienated voters, redemption is sought from a tongue lashing on TV."

Substitute Tony Blair for Nick Clegg and TV for radio, and you have the deputy prime minister's approach in two sentences.

Radio comes with another advantage for Mr Clegg. It is intimate. People often listen to talk radio on their own. Regular listeners build up a relationship with favourite presenters and stations, a perceived rapport. It can feel like a presenter is only talking to you.

It is, then, a deeper experience than watching the television for many, with more meaning and significance. So, over time, it is arguably a more powerful medium for changing peoples' minds.

Shifting perceptions

Politicians complaining about the media is a bit like fishermen complaining about the sea. It is pointless, because it is an inevitable part of the job.

But over time, particularly for politicians having a tough time of it, the voracious, incessant appetite of the modern media can create a narrative that is very difficult to shift.

Around it can build up what the politician might grow to feel is little more than a two dimensional caricature of the real them. But it matters, because in politics perception is reality. So perceptions have to be shifted.

I'm not saying a caricature has built up around Nick Clegg. That is for you to judge when he takes your calls on the radio.

But he is clearly determined to change some minds. And if that means getting duffed up down the phone in the process, then so be it.

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