STV's Bernard Ponsonby will be hosting a political opinion poll in the run-up to the anticipated general election

FROM today onwards, Bernard Ponsonby is sure he'll be busy 12 hours a day soliciting your small screen vote for ITV throughout the entire four-week duration of the forthcoming general election campaign.

Scottish Television's chief political correspondent is fairly certain Westminster's worst-kept secret will emerge within the next 24 hours: we'll all be heading for the hustings on June 7.

Anticipating Tony Blair's decision, Ponsonby and his Platform team have of course already been hard at work preparing their election coverage. There will be nine special STV political programmes during the campaign. As in 1997, there will be five hour-long editions of Scottish 500, plus four half-hour individual face-to-face interviews with each Scottish party leader.

Operated in association with pollsters System 3 Scotland, Scottish 500 does exactly as its title suggests, featuring the views of a 500-strong representative panel of voters. Their opinions will be gauged at the start of the campaign, during it, and at its near-conclusion.

''We will register every change in their voting intentions as the campaign unfolds,'' says Ponsonby. He speaks with a naturally precise and slightly guarded air, choosing his words as carefully as any prospective candidate.

''In addition, we've put in bids for each party's national leader: Blair, Hague, Kennedy, and Swinney. They'll be in the studio facing questions from 100 of the Scottish 500's panel. We intend all our programmes to be voter-driven.''

To prevent the voter-drivers stalling in front of the cameras, they've been given a handy map of telly-land in advance.

''The key to the success of the Scottish 500 programmes is persuading our studio audience of 100 that they have ownership of the process,'' says Ponsonby. ''They have to feel able to

make a contribution to the

programme, so we've been acclimatising them to TV

lighting and sound equipment, for instance.

''We've been conversing with them for a while now, holding briefing sessions at meetings in Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. They'll get material during the campaign, starting with each party's manifesto whenever it's available. They are genuine members of the electorate, albeit slightly better informed.

''But they're not party activists. Unlike Question Time, you won't be able to spot their party agenda within the first few seconds of them opening their mouths.''

Prior to entering political journalism, Ponsonby had a party agenda of his own. Having quickly grown unhappy with life as an undergraduate lawyer at Strathclyde University, the teenaged Ponsonby became a researcher for SDP politician Dr Dickson Mabon. He penned press releases for the erstwhile Labour MP in his second unsuccessful bid to claim West Renfrewshire and Inverclyde in 1987.

With the emergence of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Ponsonby became the party's press officer in March, 1988. Shortly afterwards he became their first parliamentary candidate, contesting Glasgow Govan in a by-election and getting heavily cuffed - ''Not surprisingly,'' Ponsonby says - by the SNP's Jim Sillars.

Ponsonby left the SDP's employ - and resigned his party membership - in 1989, following the European elections. He became a freelance political reporter for BBC radio, and then joined STV as a researcher on Scottish Questions, working alongside such luminaries as Michael Gove,

now a front-line Westminster thunderer with the Times, former New Labour spin doctor David Whitton, and John Brown, the older brother of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is currently top-most PR panjandrum for Glasgow City Council.

Still only in his mid-twenties, Ponsonby and his air of double-breasted gravitas had become on-screen staples of Scottish Questions by 1992. What hideous childhood trauma directed him towards a life in politics? How sad a teenager were you, Bernard?

''Very sad. I never had a wild teenage side. I didn't drink until I was 18, but, like most journalists, I've been making up for lost time ever since. I'm thankfully not as obsessed with politics now as I was then. It all grew out of enjoying modern studies at school.

''No one else in my family was interested in politics, in fact I can't recall it ever being discussed. But there were big household fights over politics every Friday night between me and my younger brother.

''We'd both sit and watch Petrocelli on the telly at nine, and then I'd insist on watching Ways And Means while my brother would want some hip rock programme like The Old Grey Whistle Test. Every week he'd be shouting for my mum: 'He's watching that rubbish again!' ''

Has your former party allegiance ever been seized upon by a disgruntled politico, one who might feel that you've interviewed him over-robustly, perhaps?

''In Scotland it's common for most political journalists to have had a party background, and we're generally seen as fair. But it's never the intention to set out to have a rammy for the sake of it.

''You have to take the view that politicians want to use TV for party propaganda, and you have to get behind that. You have to be positive in your use of a degree of cynicism. You have to be equal in the way you treat everyone. The questions you put are straightforward ones.

''Politics now is about holding a certain line and not saying certain things. Between elections, politicians are determined not to make any firm commitments, particularly not on costings. So it's our job to say: 'How much are you going to spend on health and education, and where's the money going to come from?'

''There's also the fact that government is often about day-to-day crisis management, permanently batting on an uncomfortable wicket. There's a build-up of issues, and politicians become skilled at saying very little.

''It's a fact now that the most candid interviews are with people who aren't politicians, who are inexperienced. I remember I once doorstepped Bill Fyfe, then the chairman of Greater Glasgow Health Board, who was involved in constant rows with the board's management and unions.

''He stepped out of his hotel room, plainly not expecting to see me and a camera crew waiting for him. By this stage, Fyfe had become an embarrassment to Secretary of State Ian Lang, but Lang couldn't fire him. 'If Ian Lang asked, would you resign?' I said.

'''Of course,' he replied. This was broadcast on STV's 1pm news, and by 3pm Ian Lang had asked Fyfe to resign.''

Ponsonby's own resignation from the party political hurly-burly was relatively easy in the wake of his Glasgow Govan by-election experience in 1988. Being rejected at the polls taught him some valuable lessons.

''The biggest lesson was 'Don't be a Lib-Dem in Govan and expect to get elected','' Ponsonby says wryly. ''I lost my deposit and polled 4.1% of the electorate. During every election, after the vote is announced on the night by the returning officer, each candidate gets the chance to make a little speech.

''I turned to my press officer and said: 'I intend repeating what a failed US presidential candidate once said: The voters have spoken - the b******s.' Thankfully, she talked me out of it.''

Bernard Ponsonby: he's your man for informed political history with the merest undertow of parliamentary venom.

Life and times Bernard Ponsonby was born in Cambuslang.

l He attended Trinity High, Rutherglen.

l In 1989 Ponsonby was a guest speaker at the SNP's annual conference, held in Dunoon, where he entertained the party faithful with his impressions of his two main opponents in the Glasgow Govan by-election, Jim Sillars and Robert Gillespie, as well as the political commentator who eventually became an STV colleague, Colin Mackay.

l In addition to having worked on a range of STV political programmes, Ponsonby presented the first six series of Trial By Night.

l He speaks with great pride of the three STV documentaries he has made about Stuart Gair since 1993. Sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1989, Gair become the focus of a campaign to prove his innocence. This resulted in Gair being freed on bail last year pending an appeal.