Darling’s secret weapon in TV debate was briefing from Sky News bruiser

Published at 12:01AM, August 16 2014

He turned Nick Clegg into the TV star of the 2010 general election campaign. Now The Times can reveal how a former news presenter transformed the normally reserved Alistair Darling into the edgy, combative debater who put Alex Salmond on the defensive.

The secret weapon behind the first TV debate on Scottish independence is today unmasked as the bombastic former Sky News presenter Scott Chisholm, a no-nonsense bruiser turned media trainer.

Mr Chisholm is fast emerging as the assistant of choice for top politicians.

The veteran TV presenter, who also presented the breakfast show on the short-lived ITN News Channel, is known for coming to training sessions with war stories from his days interviewing Colonel Gadaffi, and Yassir Arafat, the late Palestinian leader. According to a rare account of his work from 2010, he declares that people should speak to TV viewers ‘like they are 10-year-olds.’

Mr Chisholm’s guiding hand is credited for Mr Darling’s unexpectedly strong performance in his TV debate against Mr Salmond. The former chancellor, who leads Better Together, the pro- union campaign, defied expectations by appearing the more passionate of the twoas he repeatedly hammered his opposite number on which currency an independent Scotland would use.

As Magnus Linklater wrote: “The man once voted the most boring man in Britain was not just angry, he was furious.” The coup had echoes of Mr Clegg’s surprising victory in the first TV debate of 2010, after a performance which saw him making a direct appeal to voters down the camera.

Mr Chisholm, a New Zealander, is well liked among politicians for his discretion. He refused to confirm yesterday whether he worked with Mr Darling, and initially denied helping Mr Clegg in 2010, according to reports.

He maintains a low-profile, but speaking at a PR Week seminar in 2010, he said he had one over-arching key message for clients — stick to simple language in order to get your messages through: According to the magazine, he said: “Even the FT uses language that could be understood by a literate 12-year-old, and the tabloids aim for a reading age of about 8 or 9. Think about that when you are talking to a print journalist.” In TV terms, this was just as important, he added: “Pitch it at a 10-year-old. If you use words that viewers have to process in order to understand, then they will miss the next three to six words you say.”

Mr Chisholm’s occasionally robust methods have caused trouble in the past. In 1992, he was suspended for two weeks after a punch-up with Chris Mann, his fellow Sky presenter. Mr Chisholm claimed he that had hit Mr Mann for being rudeon the phone to his wife, also a Sky presenter.

The fracas erupted again the next year when Mr Chisholm had a go at Mr Mann in a mid-show break in live transmission that led to a physical altercation afterwards. Both presenters left the station soon after.

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CMR Managing Editor Jonathan Clayton writes:

“Scott has shown how media training can transform a dull politician into a debate winner, simply by getting him  to message correctly and repeatedly. I worked with him in the past and enjoyed it thoroughly,  more importantly so did the clients!!!”

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