The LBC presenter and author speaks about his new book ‘Why Can’t We All Just Get Along…’ at The Wells Literary Festival
At the beginning of 2020 Iain Dale was looking forward to introducing his new book to more than 30 literary festivals and think tanks over the course of the year. His appearances having been dramatically reduced by two thirds in the wake of the pandemic, one could initially be forgiven for wondering whether the reason we can’t ‘all just get along’ might actually be that current circumstances no longer afford us the opportunity to see each other.
With the doors of so many literary festivals remaining closed this year, it is indeed testament to the hard work and dedication of the behind-the-scenes staff at The Wells Literary Festival that Iain was able to take the stage in person on Friday.
The venue, Cedars Hall in Wells, was full. Notwithstanding this achievement, as anyone who has been to a socially distanced theatre performance or a night at the cinema recently will recognise, a full venue in 2020 is a rather moveable feast.
Every second row was cordoned off and the others hosted audience members sitting a safe distance from one another. However, far from the space seeming underpopulated, this new seating arrangement gave the hall a surprisingly laid-back, intimate atmosphere.
The relaxed spacing gave the event the feeling of a ‘night in with a friend’, a dynamic not always possible in the bustling, packed rows of a completely full theatre.
Having eavesdropped on one or two conversations in the bar before the doors opened, a ‘night in with a friend’ was exactly what many had come to see.
Radio develops a unique relationship with its audience and many of the people sipping their pre-show gin and tonics were clearly regular listeners to Dale’s LBC show.
‘Wasn’t he good last night?’ one commented to her friend. ‘Oh yes, and so much better to have him in the evenings now’, came the reply, ‘It’s so nice of him to come all this way to see us.’
After a brief initial delay to allow the many members of the online audience to take their virtual seats, we began.
Event guidelines preventing the presence of an interviewer, Dale took to the stage solo and proceeded to entertain – without notes – for the next 40 minutes.
The less charitable amongst us might be forgiven for thinking that this feat would come as second nature for someone who talks for a living.
However, several less successful attempts by others in the industry (who shall remain nameless) have proved that this switch from radio host to ‘treading the boards’ is not always as seamless a transition as it was for the LBC stalwart.
Having thanked the organisers for the unique opportunity to be Gina Miller’s ‘fluffer’ (if you don’t know, look it up – as he advised two slightly puzzled looking older ladies in the front row), Dale began to explain the genesis of his latest book.
‘Why can’t we all just get along’, we were informed, was inspired by the unlikely double act of the BBC’s Emily Maitlis and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I.
In her 2018 Christmas message, The Queen had spoken of ‘treating the other person with respect [despite] the most deeply held differences’.
This struck a chord with Dale as he had just been tweeting similar sentiments to his ever increasing army of Twitter followers: ‘If you gratuitously insult me…swear at me…are hateful or homophobic…I will block you with no warning. And no regrets’.
Twitter – he informed the audience later in the evening ‘…is a sewer. If you’re not on it – don’t join.’
His tweets on the subject were soon picked up by the Mail on Sunday who commissioned him to write a 1,500 word article on the decline of public discourse.
Shortly afterward, Dale was reading Emily Maitlis’ book Airhead which chronicles many of her experiences in journalism and interviewing. Less than a quarter into the book he decided: ‘this is the book I want to write’ and, as he continued to read, he starting jotting down a few working chapter titles inspired by memorable moments from his own career in news and politics.
Later, after a short conversation with his literary agent, the idea for ‘Why can’t we all just get along’ was born.
A divided age
In an age of increased polarisation and division, one could do a great deal worse than calibrate their rhetorical compass with the good manners displayed by Dale in his ever-popular radio show.
His show is the antithesis of the ‘echo chamber’ format used by so many talk shows today. Neither is it a platform for a ‘shock jock’ to belittle and deride callers for an apparent lack of intellect or simply the temerity to espouse an alternative point of view.
‘I always respect the fact that someone has the guts to pick up the phone and talk to me. The least I can do is be polite and allow them to speak’, was the first of many thoughtful sentiments that were to be met with resounding murmurs of approval in the hall.
‘Too many in the media are looking for the next big news line…ramping up the rhetoric in order to get clicks’. Completely true, the nodding heads in the hall seemed to concur and, what’s more: ‘isn’t it nice that someone who has forged such a successful career in the media can still hold this view’ – seemed to be the general consensus.
It seems that over the past few years, conflict itself has become a commodity in much of the media. As he continued to speak, an optimistic Dale assured the audience that the toxic state of today’s discourse could be ameliorated by simple courtesy and respect for differing points of view.
The radio show
Clive Bull, one of Dale’s LBC colleagues once said that ‘it’s easy to get the phones to ring on a radio show…all you need to do is ask if anyone out there has had a parking ticket that they disagree with.’
In no time, the switchboard would be full. But, as Bull pointed out, would it be a phone-in anyone would want to listen to?
Dale’s show certainly has no shortage of callers and, as evinced by the fact that he has already won radio presenter of the year twice in his short radio career, clearly no shortage of listeners.
He is successful because he has created an engaging middle ground between the ennui and the humdrum churned out by the easy ‘parking ticket’ radio format and the two -dimensional, contrived battles so often generated by the self-styled ‘superstar’ presenters.
For the Many
He also hosts a weekly podcast with – as he winningly described her, ‘the Strictly Come Dancing Star, Jacqui Smith’ (others may also know her as the Former Home Secretary to Tony Blair, Jacqui Smith).
In addition to the political insight and perspicacity that is a feature of their weekly discourse, one of the oft mentioned charms of their podcast is the fact that they can disagree whilst remaining civil.
Their views on Brexit, the Conservative government, the Labour Party and myriad other issues are by no means always aligned but, as Dale said on Friday, ‘…in over 200 episodes, we’ve never had a full on row’.
This capacity for balanced and civil discourse has allowed Dale the opportunity to interview many household name politicians.
He engaged many in the hall as he regaled us with stories of Boris Johnson and Theresa May – those around me leaning forward in delightful anticipation as our host remembered the day of the infamous ‘Iain Dale Question’ that many still think may have done for Prime Minister May’s premiership.
(NB As with a good book review, a good literary festival review should not contain spoilers. Suffice to say, it was wonderful anecdote and I urge people to buy the book and read about it in full)
An interview, Dale suggested, should be more of a conversation than a call to arms. If the interviewer approaches their guest with the (somewhat apocryphal) Paxman technique of assuming that ‘this politician is lying to me and therefore I must treat them as such’ then they will never engage in a constructive dialogue.
The end of the night
As the night drew to a close the audience, both in the hall and online, were permitted to ask questions.
The regulations preventing the passing of a communal microphone or shouted enquiries from behind masks, there was a rather unique few minutes of audience members sending emails from their telephones which then popped up on a screen onstage.
Turning on a sixpence, Dale answered questions on print media, American Politics, online abuse and more.
He even found a moment to bring the conversation back to the next act up at Cedars Hall, Gina Miller.
All in all, he was quite the warm-up act!