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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006, 16:34 GMT
Blair goes interactive
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Anyone browsing the Downing Street website of late will have spotted a new push to go interactive - to engage directly with the public without those irritating reptiles in the press pack getting in the way.

Tony Blair, Will Hutton and Anne McEvoy
Mr Blair was interviewed by journalists
Voters are being asked to use a new online system to petition Tony Blair.

Cabinet ministers have engaged in web chats with voters.

And Thursday was Tony Blair's turn to go digital with an online interview conducted by members of the public.

If that conjures up the image of the prime minister sitting in front of a computer screen being bombarded with e-mails and tapping off replies, then think again.

It is whispered Mr Blair does now have a computer in his office, although whether he ever uses it to browse the internet or fire off emails remains a bit of a mystery.

Green ink

So this interview was conducted in one of Downing Street's quietly opulent drawing rooms, with a brace of Turners, I believe, gracing the walls, and a couple of TV cameras discreetly capturing the results for later broadcast - "as live" as it's known in the trade.

It was hosted by two journalists, Will Hutton and Anne McElvoy, who had spent a large part of their morning sifting through more than 500 e-mails to select a representative bunch of questions to put to the prime minister.

Armed police at Heathrow
Terrorism was amongst voters' concerns

Green ink is, of course, difficult to detect on a computer screen. But any journalist worth their salt can spot a "green inker" at a hundred paces, so any of those questions were, presumably, binned. Spoil sports.

Of those left, it appeared top of the list of voters concerns were Iraq, law and order and terrorism - and a perceived threat to civil liberties by draconian measures to combat them - the environment, pensions and why we have not yet had the promised coroners' bill (apparently there may be some good news on that one soon).

There did not appear to have been any questions from the public about when the prime minister intended to stand down or whether he was anointing Chancellor Gordon Brown as his successor - that was left to the journalists to ask.

Primarily, they were not there to force their own questions on the prime minister, although they were allowed a few free hits of their own.

Different agenda

And that is probably the nub of it as far as Tony Blair is concerned.

Voters may well be unpredictable, even dangerous - Margaret Thatcher discovered that in the aftermath of the Falklands war when famously harried over her role in it by a voter during a phone in programme.

Tony Blair has also suffered at the hands of members of the public who have managed to slip under the wires and get to him in public - think of Sharon Storer haranguing him over the NHS in the 2001 election.

But what is also probably true is that the public has a different agenda to the one pursued in Westminster and, as far as the prime minister is concerned, the media.

His last, fractious and grumpy monthly press conference, for example, was dominated by whether he believed Saddam Hussein should hang. Not a single question was put to him on that one this time.

Tony Blair has always believed he is in tune with the voters' agenda and, if he refuses to be blown off course by the media's agenda, can still address their concerns.

This fresh approach to the internet is another attempt to cut out the media filter and get straight to the punters - expect more.




QUEEN'S SPEECH 2006

KEY COVERAGE

ISSUE-BY-ISSUE COVERAGE
 

ANALYSIS AND FEATURES
Boxing gloves Gloves are off
Tony Blair denies using politics of fear... then warns Cameron he faces a thumping

BACKGROUND
Pomp and pageantry

HAVE YOUR SAY

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