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June 29, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:26am

Tom Newton Dunn on Times Radio and how he was never told what to write at The Sun

By Charlotte Tobitt

Times Radio’s man in Westminster Tom Newton Dunn insists the new station has “absolutely no intention to give anybody an easy ride” despite its pledge to be less adversarial.

Instead, the former Sun political editor says presenters will point out when an interviewee hasn’t answered a question without “metaphorically clubbing them over the head”.

After 16 years at The Sun, first as defence editor and then political editor since 2009, Newton Dunn has taken up his “dream job” of chief political commentator for Times Radio.

He spoke to Press Gazette ahead of the station’s launch on 29 June with an exclusive Boris Johnson interview.

Breakfast show co-presenter Aasmah Mir has already spoken of the station’s aim to avoid the “old fashioned adversarial approach” to interviews.

Newton Dunn says interviews can be “thoroughly challenging and thoroughly engaging” without confrontations that make the listener feel uncomfortable.

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“Every politician I’ve ever interviewed, you almost always get more out of them by being nice to them, having a human conversation with them, and it relaxes them and they end up opening up a little bit more,” he says.

“And if we’ve got some pretty strong questions we want them to answer you can point out the fact they just simply haven’t answered that without necessarily interrupting them 15 times in one sentence…

“It doesn’t mean at all you’re prepared to go soft on people, you’re just prepared to go at them in just a slightly more subtle way perhaps.”

Outside the Westminster bubble

As well as appearing on shows across the schedule, Newton Dunn will present a three-hour Sunday morning show with former Labour MP Gloria de Piero.

He hopes it will rival Andrew Marr and Sophy Ridge on TV by giving a “slightly different, outside of the bubble take”.

All in all, he says he “would struggle to tailor-make a job I would enjoy more”. “Crucially I get to bang on about politics all the time.”

Newton Dunn points to BBC Radio 4, 5 Live and LBC as competitors but says “the list runs out there”.

“That’s the fascinating thing about current affairs speech radio in Britain. There are very, very few of them and in terms of what I think we’re trying to do – serious, intelligent, witty maybe, informed type of radio, current affairs broadcasting across the whole schedule 24 hours a day – that really doesn’t exist almost anywhere.”

‘No Sun editor ever told me how to write a story’

Although he’s traditionally a print man, Newton Dunn has experience hosting Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster and as a panellist on the likes of Question Time and Any Questions.

He won’t miss the evening print deadline– he was “notoriously late” at filing – but will continue writing columns for The Sun and still enthuses about the newspaper world.

“I think it’s brilliant we’ve got such a robust, healthy, loud and sometimes aggressive print media because that’s precisely what you need to hold power to account,” he says.

But he says political stories he wrote for The Sun could just as easily be seen in the Times, FT or Guardian and that the paper’s reporting has often been misconstrued as a result of its leader columns and headlines.

“I’ve never reported politically from a particularly politically biased view and I’ve been lucky to work for five different editors on The Sun who have never ever, and I can tell you this hand on heart, ever said ‘here’s the story, I want you to write it like this’. Not one of them has in 11 years of being political editor.

“They’ve always said ‘what do you think the story of the day is? What’s the best line on this or that? Great, in which case file it like that’.

“I think it’s really important to differentiate the editorial line of any newspaper, as in what the newspaper believes in its leader columns, to the reporting line.”

And although social media has accentuated “some of the unfortunate cultures of society and the Twitter lynchmobs of this world” this type of criticism is a long-standing issue.

“Britain has for generations, for centuries probably, obsessed over newspapers and newspaper readership and it’s something to do with a slight class obsession which I pray is beginning to go but it was a really big thing what paper you read and it delineated you as a certain type of person… it’s a horrendous snobbery quite frankly, it’s always appalled me.

“I think all papers, not just The Sun, have a very unfair stereotype of it largely formed by people, potentially class based or potentially not, who really know absolutely nothing about the paper and almost certainly never read it.”

Some sympathy for Government on Covid-19

Reflecting on his last few months as political editor, which focused on the response to a global pandemic, Newton Dunn says he has “possibly a degree of sympathy that isn’t necessarily shared by some of my colleagues for the plight and the difficulty” of the Government in its media strategy.

“They have an extraordinarily difficult job on their hands and there is no playbook how to deal with a coronavirus pandemic,” he says.

He praises the daily press briefings which finished last week and says this “may not be a bad thing really because I think they’ve served their time in terms of the interest as worthwhile events”.

And he acknowledges it’s a “fair point” that health and science journalists should have been prioritised over political correspondents earlier on.

“Political journalism, like everyone who’s had anything to do with the pandemic, has been on a bit of a learning curve as well.

“I think a lot of political journalists, certainly I, thought it was quite easy to be an expert on the science quite quickly, you could do a bit of cramming up on the R rate and suddenly you can interpret the figures all on your own, and you really can’t. This is fiendishly complicated stuff.”

Tom Newton Dunn in brief

On quoting Number 10 sources anonymously:

“It turned into a bit of a cliché… I would however defend the concept because there is a lot that happens in politics in the grey area.

“There is a lot that politicians want to say whether they’re in Downing Street or in the House of Commons as MPs that they may not want to necessarily say on the record but is still thoroughly worth reporting.

“The idea that if they don’t say it on the record that it’s somehow disingenuous or wrong really isn’t true.”

On his new Sunday morning politics show, G&T:

“Different types of guests, still the big-hitters from the Government and the opposition you’d expect but we’re coming at it from a slightly different take, a slightly different outside of the bubble take that I hope is going to really appeal.”

What he was most proud of at The Sun:

The Help for Heroes campaign: “It was putting troops on the map in terms of people understanding what they’re doing, not sympathising as such but empathising and respecting their work and their sacrifice without necessarily having to agree with the politics of why they were there and that was so important and we had real impact.”

On his own politics:

“I have some sort of politics but I’ve never tried to declare them and to be honest I’m not sure I fully understand them myself. I’ve never been party-affiliated, I don’t associate myself with either the left or the right.

“I’ve got great sympathy for a lot of causes on both the right and the left and a lot of antipathy as well. So I’m not a very easy person to pigeonhole.”

Picture: News UK

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