Community News
Gorkana meets Jonathan Dimbleby
30 November 2012

A recent Gorkana briefing with the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby heard from him what makes a good guest on his radio programme Any Questions? And the leadership and communication themes that he drew from writing his latest book Destiny in the Desert which charts the events leading up to the El Alamein, the battle that took place seventy years ago and was so crucial to Churchill’s strategy for conducting the war.

Any Questions? Was first aired on BBC Radio in 1948 and Jonthan Dimbleby has just celebrated his 25th anniversary chairing the programme. Over its two airings on Friday evening and Saturday lunchtime it attracts an audience of 2 million.

It is largely a political programme with the core of the panel made up of politicians but they are also looking for interesting independent voices (Weber Shandwick’s Alex Deane was a recent guest). During Jonathan’s stewardship, he has noticed a perceptible change in the way politicians engage with the show as the media has changed.

“They are much more media savvy. They are trained almost all of them in how to handle the media. They were much more delightful when they were not so trained. They are also much more regimented. Some, the best, completely ignore what they are given by their parties as any politician coming on to the programme will have been briefed by their party headquarters. You cannot afford to get it wrong now as you are immediately tweeted into oblivion.”

However, he cautioned against people following their briefs so closely that they are almost reading from a script. The danger is that they lose their authenticity as a voice and people should only need a rough briefing to hold their end up on any issue.

In terms of guests for the show, “We’re always looking out for new people”, he said. “The producers are always looking out for new and diverse voices. But also who can speak on a range of subjects interestingly. It’s no good having someone who is a one trick pony on a single issue. People in public relations are sending us names and we often follow them up.”

He was also positive about the role of the communications industry. “Everyone relies on public relations, everyone who come on the show does in one form or another. And everyone affects to say that they don’t like PR or “I don’t need it”, but the sensible ones do in public life. Look what happened at the BBC without PR very recently.”

Destiny in the Desert

Perhaps more than any other theatre of the Second World War, the North African campaign came to be dominated by the characters of the leaders and commanders. Straddling the entire breadth of the narrative was Churchill, and Jonathan found himself gaining a greater appreciation of his strategic qualities of strategy and dogged perseverance that contributed to his success as a leader as he wrote the book.

“I started off feeling ambivalent about Churchill. Clearly he was a great political leader who could find the rhetoric to describe moments effectively to inspire. Those phrases like ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ and ‘We will never surrender’ have come down throughout the years but a lot of people at the time had got rather tired of the rhetoric. They would say ‘Oh he’s banging on again, can’t he just a win a few battles’.

“I knew he was a great political speechmaker, I knew he had an amazing story and he was undoubtedly unbelievably hard working. I don’t think anybody in public life had work so hard and for so long as he managed to do at the same time consuming copious quantities of alcohol from the morning through to night.

“But what was stunning to me about him is that from the very beginning he knew that without America the war would be lost and his entire focus diplomatically was getting Roosevelt first of all to supply aid, secondly weapons, and thirdly fighting where he wanted and where he believed the Americans should fight as allies.

“He had an unchanging clarity of vision. He never ever faltered when those about him were saying ‘Yes, but perhaps, but what if’. He took risky decisions, he had the courage to take great risks but he also had the courage to make terrible mistakes. To the victor the spoils. He turned out to be more right than wrong.

Churchill’s voice is also truly authentic: “He would never have had a spin doctor, he never believed in spin. He loathed the BBC. At one point in a secret session in the House of Commons he said, ‘I do wish that Members would understand this war is not being conducted by simpletons and dunderheads as the comic papers would have you believe. Any featherhead can have courage in the good times but to have courage in the bad times is the test.’”

As a counterpoint to this was his third general in the desert. “Montgomery was his own spin doctor and he did understand PR”. Compared to his predecessors generals Wavell and Aukinleck, “Montgomery, who was the least talented of the three militarily and was by far the least likeable was nonetheless the best spindoctor of the three.

“He knew how to do PR. He knew how to use the media. He brought the media around, he told them great lies and they swallowed them. It served the case of PR that there would be no retreat [before El Alamein despite all generals having a contingency plan] and that was circulated around the world and probably did have a benefit in morale.

“And certainly Montgomery was very good at going amongst the troops and would ask them whether they had what they needed. Quite a lot of the troops would say that he was just a PR artist but others would say he would actually stop to listen. He was very inspiring because he was very determined. He had a great gift for phrasing which would often get back to the press. The qualities of Montgomery were in part the qualities of a very good PR man and PR men can also be very good men, but he was not a very good man.”