Bernard Ponsonby of STV’s Politics Now, is one of the very few political reporters with an effective style of interviewing - forceful, penetrating, but productive. Whereas the others fall back on the simplistic neo-Paxman style of repeated closed questions with a pre-determined agenda, Ponsonby actually gets issues debated, and elicits real and often revealing responses from politicians in a true dialogue that is marked contrast to the arid, stereotypical exchanges of many of the others.
He is on good form here with Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland. She is more than a match for any interviewer, calm, unruffled by pressure, and capable of stonewalling with the best of them against aggressive, simplistic interrogators, but she responds to Ponsonby’s approach, and real clarity emerges.
Bernard Ponsonby opens by echoing recent attacks on the SNP administration’s well-deserved reputation for competence in government, based on a series of recent events and the resignation of Stewart Stevenson over the weather crisis.
Nicola Sturgeon refers to the quite exceptional severity of the weather, but acknowledges freely that there were aspect of the Government’s response that did not match up to their own standards. The lessons had already been learned, as demonstrated by Keith Brown’s response this week.
Were events dictating the Government, rather than the Government dictating events? Bernard Ponsonby’s question again related to recent events such as the Scottish variable tax rate issue.
Again, a free admission from the Deputy First Minister that nobody in Government - and nobody who has been in government - is immune from making mistakes. However, she makes the point that this SNP government “has made many fewer mistakes than our predecessors.”
This contrasts sharply with the ‘never apologise, never explain’ responses that politicians are forced into by the simplistic, less effective approaches of other interviewers - cynical, stereotypical exchanges that reveal nothing. In fact, the now notorious Raymond Buchanan/Stewart Stevenson interview was a particularly egregious example of this, one that forced a good man into a resignation for the good of his party.
Bernard Ponsonby then came to the issue of the moment – the Green Paper on funding higher education in Scotland – and suggested that it might be an example of the Government avoiding tough choices by simply presenting options.
This rather ignored the obvious, that the purpose of Green Papers is to do just that – present options, not make proposals. They are consultative in their very nature.
Nicola Sturgeon said immediately that Mike Russell had made it quite clear that the Government would present clear cut proposals- would go into the election next year “making it absolutely crystal clear what our preferred position actually is …”
The SNP Government believed that education should be based on the ability to learn, not on the ability to pay, and that was why upfront tuition fees were ruled out. A graduate contribution was one of the six options presented. It had been made clear by Mike Russell that the government would not necessarily implement all of these.
Bernard Ponsonby pressed the point – was the graduate tax being ruled in or out? The Deputy First Minister repeated that it was one of the options in the paper. She rejected decisively the suggestion that the Government was evading the option, and repeated that the SNP would state its position clearly before the election, in the campaign.
N.B. The above clip inadvertently chopped off the end of Alan Cochrane's remark - he said that the election was Labour's to lose ...