What with fundraisers, festivals, speeches, interviews, inquiries, breakfasts, lunches and dinners, not to mention life on websites, twitter, Facebook and the like, I spend a lot of my time answering questions. Which means it is quite rare to be asked a question I have never been asked before.
So many thanks to a man called Gary who was in the audience which packed out the King’s Hall in Ilkley last night to see me interviewed on stage by Christine Talbot of Yorkshire TV, as part of the town’s literary festival.
To say that his virgin question was rare indeed is not a complaint, nor a criticism of the audience who quizzed me on subjects as varied as David Cameron and whether I thought he had learned from TB, whether and how I thought Ed Miliband could win the next election, whether Andy Coulson would survive, whether the press needed to be tamed, whether the election TV debates had been a good idea, whether I had changed my views on Iraq, whether TB hated confrontation, or why we ‘pandered’ to the City (I said we didn’t). There were questions too on Burnley FC, the British and Irish Lions, Malcolm Tucker, why I had written my two novels and whether there would be more, and lots more besides, plus all the questions Christine asked in the opening half hour about my diaries. Her favourite bit was when Peter M and I came to blows. I explained that it wasn’t much of a fight, and got the loudest laughter of the evening for my description of Peter’s punch. Loudest mid-event applause by the way came when I urged people who read the Daily Mail to stop it, right now.
But as for the never-asked-before question, here goes, from the man in the second row .. how did I feel about the fact that China’s ruling Communist Party based its communications strategy on the New Labour model?
The audience laughed gently. I played for time, with a bit of eye movement to roll with the laughter, then said I thought I knew what the question was based on — a story by The Guardian’s Beijing correspondent a while back that Chinese government spin doctors had been given a copy of The Blair Years to help them in their work.
But no, said the man … he was an academic specialising in Chinese communications and the New Labour modelling had been revealed in a book by a renowned fellow academic, whose name I didn’t catch. More laughter from the audience, as they realised I couldn’t dance around this one …I was going to have to answer directly, and say how I felt that the Chinese Communist Party based its comms model on the one we had devised.
After a few seconds thinking about it, I admitted to a certain pride. It was, after all, a command and control comms structure, so to have a command and control country as big as China reckon that the model worked was, as I tweeted last night, moderately flattering. And no, that does not mean I support the Chinese approach to media control and human rights. .
A few questions later I was asked to reflect on how the observation that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ related to the New Labour era.
I pointed out that compared with our Chinese friends, democratically elected leaders have a lot less power. Indeed, my new friend Gary (who picked up the ‘free book for best question’ prize at the end of the evening) nodded in agreement when I said that perhaps one of the reasons the Chinese economy had been advancing so rapidly of late was precisely because the government had far greater power to take and implement decisions, not held back by the views and rights of their people … and no, this is not an argument to kick out democracy, just an observation worth thinking about every time an infrastructure project is held up by a decade long public inquiry.
Barack Obama is routintely described as the most powerful man on earth because he is President of the only superpower. But American presidents are surrounded by checks and balances, as he has been finding out rather painfully, a pain which may become more intense after the upcoming elections. Meanwhile the Chinese go marching on, New Labour grid, rebuttal and strategic comms guidebook at the ready.
I wonder if they couldn’t give my diaries out to all the citizens as well as the spin doctors. Big Al’s not-so-little Red Book. Wouldn’t harm sales at all, and I’m sure my publishers, Random House, would do a nice special sales deal if the government opted to get one for all 1.3billion citizens. Come on Mr Wen Jiabao aka Prime Minister of the most populous nation on earth … this has to be a two-way relationship, and if you’ve taken our comms model, I think there should be a bit of payback in the direction of those who designed it. You are a bit more of a capitalist country than you let on, after all.