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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Hannan's Call to Order
Veteran political broadcaster Patrick Hannan
It is one thing your almost guaranteed not to hear during election campaigning but Patrick Hannan - presenter of BBC Radio Wales's political programme Called To Order - is ever optimistic

There's one thing I'm waiting for in this election campaign.

If the truth were told I've been waiting for it through a considerable number of election campaigns and it hasn't happened yet.

But that doesn't mean I can't keep hoping.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Any Questions: Mr Kennedy did not know

It's this: the unprecedented moment when a senior politician says: "I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that question."

Or, even better: "Do you know, I hadn't thought of that. You're quite right."

I say unprecedented moment, but that's not quite true.

Long before he became Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy said on an edition of Any Questions: "I don't know," and as a result got a large number of letters congratulating him on his refreshing honesty.

Despite that, though, the evidence of this campaign suggests that he's not convinced of the value of the technique.

There are moments when you think it might just happen.

Famous smile

For example, there was the question put to President Clinton at a time when he was still denying misconduct with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office.

As the president finished a press conference a reporter called out: "What advice would you give Miss Lewinsky?"

Clinton paused for a moment, looked back towards his questioner and turned on that famous smile.

"Good question," he said, and moved briskly on.

For a man in deep trouble it was an unanswerable question and his response told you exactly how deep that trouble was.

Former US President Bill Clinton
Artful dodger: Former US President Bill Clinton

It's every interviewer's dream to ask the question that suddenly exposes the flimsy nature of a politician's argument.

I should add, though, that it's every interviewer's nightmare that he will ask the question that will reveal only too clearly the depths of his own ignorance.

The latter event is much the more likely since politicians are not always particularly concerned about the connection between question and answer.

Many years ago I got quite close to the former in an interview with George Thomas, later Viscount Tonypandy, who was then Shadow Welsh Secretary.

"That's a very naughty question," he said archly, when I'd inadvertently asked him something that threatened to reveal what he was really up to.

When the interview finished we were both glad to be able to release our suppressed laughter.

The truth is that in general politicians say what they want to say and you can only follow the advice of the late Donald Baverstock, the Welshman who was a pioneering figure in current affairs television.

"Do the damage in the question, boy," he used to say.

Just occasionally, though, there is another way through.

Viscount Tonypandy
Ticking off from the late Viscount Tonypandy

Many years ago, when Lady (then Mrs) Thatcher was Leader of the Opposition (yes, that long ago) I interviewed her in Swansea and tried to get her to answer a question about an industrial dispute involving the Ford Motor Company.

She stonewalled for some time before walking away. She turned back for a moment and said: "You were very persistent," and continued on her journey.

Later, however, as she went walkabout in a local market, the cameraman found a worker from the local Ford factory.

He thrust the man in front of Mrs Thatcher and said: "Ask her now."

Mrs Thatcher spoke at some length about the dispute because, of course, this was a voter and, as such to be treated with the greatest respect.

The moral of this is, if you want a straight answer from a politician, don't ask the professionals to get it for you.

Patrick Hannan's weekly political programme, Called to Order, is live on Radio Wales, 93-104FM, 882 and 657AM, and DSat channel 867.

You can also listen to BBC Radio Wales live online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/live/rwv5.ram.

e-mail: order@bbc.co.uk

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