This interview appeared in the September edition of Total Politics Magazine in 2010.
I read on Wikipedia that you were tutored by Vince Cable at university.
Only briefly. In my final year at university when I was doing political economy and political science at the University of Glasgow. Vince arrived from Oxford to do his PHD at the department of political economy and he did handle some of the tutorials that I had to go to.
Does that explain your aggressive nature at interviewing him? Because you’re the only interviewer that’s ever actually properly questioned him. Everyone else regards him as a God.
He wasn’t the most exciting of tutors I do have to admit that. He was very Labour in those days. Those were the days when he went on to become a Labour councillor in Glasgow. I thought it was time, since the Liberals were playing for the big time, to treat them seriously and treat them the way we do everybody else. And no more so than Vince Cable who so often had been treated by the media not as a politician seeking power but as a pundit. No one ever asked Vince “why are you arguing that?” They always said “what do you think of that?” We treated him like one of us, we treated him like a journalist and that helped his stature to grow. So I decided it was time to treat him as a politician seeking power like any other and not as an impartial pundit. I think all of the media has been culpable in treating him too much like an impartial pundit. When he’s treated in the same way as we would treat Alastair Darling or George Osborne I do think you see a different Vince Cable.
How would you characterise your interviewing style?
Some have said it’s aggressive. I don’t think it’s aggressive so much as desperately trying to get them to answer the question. The questions I ask are quite straightforward and they’re not long winded and most of them can be answered by yes or no. Sometimes people criticise me for being rude or interrupting too much.
When you have a particular politician on the programme and you’ve interviewed them before, do you automatically change your interviewing style because you know what you’re going to get from that politician?
Yes. You try to cut them off at the pass. By now you know what the stock answers are going to be to difficult questions so you try to frame the question in a way that allows for that. I have to say it still doesn’t result in getting very clear answers. It’s really frustrating to try and get clear answers from politicians. I came close to losing it with Douglas Alexander. The idea that Peter Hain and Ed Balls were not sending a massive neon sign saying “look, if you can beat a Tory by voting Lib Dem do that”. For him to come on to the programme and deny they were saying that I think was, for me, a low point of honesty in the campaign.
Are there any points – I mean particularly in an interview like that – where because you’re on the BBC you feel you have to slightly pull your punches, are there guidelines of interviewing that you think you have to adhere to?
I think you cannot - unless it is so demonstrably true - say “why are you lying to me?” I think that’s probably unacceptable for the BBC. In the Alexander case, by the technical letter of the law, of what they had said, in a sense he was right. But we all knew, in a grown-up world what they were really saying.
And I think that’s probably right. I think to accuse someone of lying is a pretty big step. But I have no doubt that Mr Alexander knew that day he was being less than honest with me, which is not the important thing, but he was being less than honest with the viewers. Viewers were as angry as I was with him.
You’ve got the best of both worlds as far as I can see with interviewing. You’ve got the straight talk which is about the only programme now on television where somebody comes in for a question for more than ten minutes.
But do you think the reason why we don’t have programmes like Weekend World or On the Record, the Sunday lunchtime programmes where one politician would come under inquisition for up to 45 minutes sometimes. Is it because TV people think viewers now have the attention span of a flea?
Correct. I think it is. It baffles me why Straight Talk isn’t run on BBC 2 rather than just on the News Channel. We think we’re now dealing with the MTV generation, the generation that’s been brought up on the two and a half minute pop video. And they don’t think we have the attention to stick with anything, so everything on TV has to have pace and constant movement and constant changes. And of course that‘s true if you’re talking about something where you want to get a mega-audience. But if you want something that gets a decent audience and a serious discourse I still think there’s an audience for that. And there are so many platforms that the BBC has now. And it’s cheap television too.
Even with your fee.
Haha. Even with my fee it’s still pretty cheap television.
I used to do the hour long interview when I was doing 18 Doughty Street. People absolutely loved it. Which of the three programmes do you get most out of?
I enjoy This Week. It’s fun. This Week has to be different because we come off the back of the network news and then an hour of Question Time, which therefore means we’ve had an hour and a half of traditional mainstream current affairs. John Lloyd from the Financial Times complains that This Week is too cheeky and irreverent and gets politicians to do silly things. But after 90 minutes of current affairs you can’t then give people another hour of mainstream current affairs. You have to think of a different way of doing it and that’s what we’ve tried to do. The Daily Politics is the one that I enjoy most because it’s straightforward interviewing, it’s straightforward politics. We’ve imported some of the irreverence and humour from This Week into the Daily Politics and that’s just happened over time.
Do you think that sometimes on This Week, the production team have their meeting and think how can we top having Timmy Mallett on?
I think sometimes, when you’re trying to get different names onto a show, like a different kind of person who aren’t the mainstream politicians then sometimes you just get the wrong person. She didn’t appear in the end, but I don’t think Lady Sovereign was our finest hour.
I went to bed five minutes before so I missed that.
Well I wished I’d gone to bed. Actually it turned out OK in the end, I forget what we were talking about but we had a much more sensible conversation with me, Diane and Michael than we would have if Lady Sovereign was there.
Why would anyone be interested in Timmy Mallett, Jade Goody or whoever thinks about anything?
We have quite a younger audience compared to most political shows and we use that kind of celebrity name really just to keep you through to the end. Not you, because you’re already gone!
Have you ever gone into the office and they’ve said: “Guess who we’ve got this week?” And you’ve just said, “That’s gone too far?”
I’ve come close. And there’s been a couple of times when I’ve said I really don’t’ want to talk to that person, as I don’t care. The ‘Lady Sovereign slot’ is the final five minutes of the show and its twenty past twelve by then. We have a lot of students who switch on then after coming back from the pub. When you push the boat out you don’t always get it right. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.
Would you say that your time as editor of the Sunday Times was your happiest time in journalism?
No, I would say that now is my happiest time.
Really? Joking aside you do actually always seem to be revelling in whatever you’re doing at the moment, but it must’ve been fantastic to have been editor of the Sunday Times at that time.
Being editor of the Sunday Times for 11 years in the 1980s with the politics as it was then, very different from today, and with Wapping to do as well, was huge. I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it. It was fantastic. We were doing things I think that really mattered. I’m very proud of what we achieved with the Sunday Times and what it stood for in those days, but it quite often wasn’t enjoyable because there was so much stress. For 13 months I had two bodyguards with me wherever I went and a special forces trained driver. Also I had [Rupert] Murdoch in my life. Although overall Murdoch and I got on pretty well and there were very few times when we had harsh words he was always an omnipresent figure in your life. When the phone rang, was it him? And if you had a big decision to take, you had to ask yourself what would Rupert do? Second guessing Rupert is still the biggest industry in News International. The joy of that is that someone like that can make you editor of the Sunday Times or ask you to go and start Sky television. But it’s also a huge presence in your life which it’s not healthy to have for too long and I had it for 11 years. I should have gone after 10 actually. We parted on good terms, though. The falling out came after my book came out and he hasn’t spoken to me since. I just wrote how I saw all the plus sides and the warts as well.
Do you think the BBC took a risk with you?
No, I don’t think the BBC has taken a risk at all. I think the BBC has been very careful to use me in a episodic and cumulative way.
I suppose by that I mean you are quite opinionated, you have your own opinions, you’re not frightened to voice them on the programmes, which most other political interviewers do not do.
Yes, I had a history. Most BBC presenters have done nothing but the BBC. And they have no hinterland. They all have strong views of their own but quite rightly they keep them quite because that ‘s what we should do. I had a history before the BBC and people know what my views are on a number of issues.
But it’s quite rare that they take on people who’ve got a history.
I think they found it advantageous to take on someone who is outside the normal BBC culture and they also know that wherever my own views are it doesn’t matter whether you’re Labour, Liberal or Conservative I don’t take any prisoners. And the biggest rows we’ve had is with interviewing Conservative politicians who think they’ve been treated unfairly. So I’m quite comfortable and I think the BBC is pretty comfortable too that we’re an equal opportunities kicker.
You were there at the start of Sky News, what effect do you think Sky has had on the BBC and BBC journalism?
The first thing Sky proved, which no one believed at the time was that there was a market for 24 hour news. People didn’t think it would work in Britain and I think we showed it did work and the politicians liked it and the other journalists liked it as well. It gave Sky an entree into political elite which hadn’t really wanted Sky to exist in the first place. I think if Sky News was to close down now there’d be an outcry among the politicians and the political elite. And the BBC then had to follow suit. 24 hour news is here to stay.
Do you think though that it’s been a wholly good thing because you could argue that it has led to, or at least it’s contributed to the rise in spin?
Well the real rise of spin came with Mandelson and Campbell in the mid-90s and I don’t think that had anything to do with 24 hour news. That was in their DNA and they knew above all that New Labour had to be a marketing message. I don’t think that had anything to do with 24 hour news. It’s the bear that needs to be fed. Feed the bear, feed the bear. Though sometimes I don’t understand why politicians do it. Why don’t they just step back? Why do they keep on having to feed it all the time? I don’t understand why they do that.
Do you ever wonder why politicians just take it in interviews when you or John Humphrys or Paxman are having a real go at them? They never hit back do they?
No. I do sometimes wonder. I try not to do this but if you ask them a question and they’ve barely got two words out before you’ve interrupted them I sometimes wonder why they’re not tougher on that. Cameron did it within the month of becoming Conservative leader and then he seemed to drop it.
How on earth do you fit in all the things that you do and I’m sure you get asked this. I mean, you do all the TV stuff, you have the Spectator, PFD, God knows what else. You must be the most brilliant time manager in history.
Brilliant may be too strong a word but I’m good at time management and I run my own diary. I tell my PA what’s in my diary not the other way round. I book all the appointments myself and I carve it out and I’ve got good attitude over time.
It’s a good job being your PA then
Well actually don’t mock it, it is. Compared to working for a Chief Executive of a big company it is. Because I do all my own letters
You are very sensible. I think whenever I’ve emailed you you’ve answered it within about three minutes. Peter Mandelson’s the same.
Is that right? I haven’t got Peter Mandelson’s email address. If I had I would try it out. I put together a portfolio of work after leaving the Sunday Times in 1995 so I’ve got used to doing it over fifteen years. I do it myself and the other thing is I’m single. I haven’t got a family to worry about, I haven’t got a family to give quality time to, I haven’t got a wife who’s sitting at home nursing her ire saying “where is he, he’s not home, yet again?”
Do you regret that?
Yes I do regret it. But you know you can’t have everything, and one of the minuses is not having children and not having had a wife. The plus is that I’m in control of my diary and all the time is for me. It’s quite a selfish existence.
Did you actually make a decision?
No, it just happened. If this had been even ten, certainly fifteen years ago I’d have said I would have got married and had a family life but that’s just how it is. I didn’t set out not to have a family. It’s just the way it’s been and that’s why I’ve always taken more interest in my godchildren because if you haven’t got children and you are very fond of kids. I get on well with kids. I’m invariably the one that the baby gets passed to quieten it down.” This weekend I’m off to Dubai for a board meeting and some other meetings with a magazine company in Dubai. If I was a family man that would be more a difficult thing. I think my partner would be saying “Come on, do you have to go to Dubai now? We’ve not seen you for four weeks” whereas the only person that cares is my housekeeper and she’s pretty glad to see the back of me. Sadly the dog doesn’t get to see me at all because he’s in France.
What have you brought to the Spectator?
I think we’ve brought it into the 21st century for a start. It’s now a well-run business and it is a proper business. I inherited something that was already on the way to becoming a better business because Conrad Black had begun to do that and we built that process. It’s now an independent stand alone company and of course we share the same owners as the Telegraph but this is a magazine company now in its own right which is looking to grow and is a magazine that makes profits and that protects our independence. I learnt a long while ago at the Economist, from Alastair Burnett, me that if you make money you are independent. And I think with Fraser [Nelson]we’ve modernised it and made it very much part of the centre right debate.
Can you say what happened with Matthew D’Ancona?
No. I mean Matthew was doing a lot of other things and had a lot of other things to do and you know editors are like football managers. Here today, gone tomorrow. As a former editor myself I know what it’s like.
Moving on to the election, do you think it was a good thing that the whole campaign was dominated by the debates?
In retrospect no. The debates turned out not to have the seminal influence we thought they had. The whole campaign built up to them, and then came down from them, build up to the next then down, up, down. And sometimes the campaign went dead other than for the debates.
But they are here to stay. How do you think they should be reformed for next time?
They have to free them up more. They’ve got to be freer. I think the anchorman has to have a role. Not to assert himself or herself too much into it but I think that they have to have more power to do a follow-up up a question, or to ask for clarification or say “I’m sorry Mrs Smith didn’t ask about that, she asked about this, could you answer the question?”
I haven’t seen the BBC coverage because I was presenting LBC's programme but there's been a lot of comment about your boat...
Well, it wasn’t my boat
You know what I mean
I wish it was my boat
Did it work?
I think it worked. David was anchoring the television centre coverage from 10 at night to at least 6 in the morning, so you needed a bit of light and shade. The people who’ve criticised this have mainly been newspapers that have an anti-BBC agenda in the first place, so any excuse to give them a kicking. Also, the same newspapers who complained we had some celebrities on the boat are the papers who live by celebrities. The Daily Mail has endless celebrities every day.
I suppose the point is do we need to hear Bruce Forsyth’s thoughts on politics during election night?
First of all you need a break. Every media that’s on for that length of time, or whether it’s a newspaper with lots of sections needs light and shade. It cannot all just be relentless ‘here’s another result’. The people on television themselves need a bit of a break, just even three or four minutes, because the BBC doesn’t have commercial breaks, just to draw breath and say “right while Andrew is interviewing Bruce Forsyth on whoever, what are we doing next? What’s going here?” Of course the papers all concentrated on Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins and so on. Let’s not forget that on the night we had the first interview with Alastair Campbell as well. We had Simon Sharma and David Starkey, I interviewed Andrew Rawnsley, the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber, Will Hutton on the situation in the markets and at ten past five Lord Ashcroft, so it’s interesting the papers have done “oh we don’t want to hear from all these celebrity non-entities and so on”. The fact is we had an enormous mix of people.
Would you like to be the main presenter on the BBC’s election night coverage next time?
Well that’s categoric. I thought you might duck that one.
Sure. I mean I’d love to do it. I don’t think it's going to happen but I'd love that. You know the first time I did television was as Alastair Burnett’s researcher in February 1974 election which he anchored. If you see the opening shot, because they did aerial shot when Alastair comes out, you see a young fresh faced lad sitting a few feet sunken behind him and that was me. My job was to write little notes and pass up to him about Newcastle Central’s coming up, the Labour candidate’s called Pickup and he’s a lorry driver. I always liked the way Alastair did that. And yeah, I'd always love to do that but I feel that there are many more ahead of me
I would have thought there were only a couple - Huw Edwards and Paxman. They are the only serious ones. Do you care what politicians think of you. In fact do you care what anyone thinks of you?
I don’t know what politicians think of me because they never say, and if you have had as much bad publicity as I’ve had from the newspapers then life wouldn’t be worth living if you cared what they thought, but in some sense you care. You know sometimes it can be annoying or even hurtful. You can’t dwell on it too much. There’s no point. It used to matter a lot more but it would be false to say that it’s now just water off a ducks back, but if you have the kind of profile I have you just have to take it.
Producers at the BBC tell me about the high amount of preparation you do for your programmes. How much do you actually do to get on top of a subject, particularly on Straight Talk? What’s the process for that?
Rod Shepherd and Amy, his assistant, produce fantastic briefs. I then work through them and whittle them down and add in things. In a sense my whole life is a research project. I am across nearly all the major issues and I do a lot of research for myself. I make my own folders, I make endless notes and keep the folders up to date. I just genuinely just absorb information myself and so I try to be as well prepared as possible and then on top of that I have the brightest people on the BBC preparing their notes and their background for me as well and if I take what I’ve done and then add in what they’ve done when I go to do a major interview I’m pretty well informed. I see quite a lot of interviewers struggling when they deal with economics, and economics is the lifeblood of politics, no more so than now. It was really a sensible decision of mine to do Political Economy at university. It really was. Particularly at Glasgow which has such a wonderful economics department that really set me up. It gave me a competitive advantage over nearly everybody else. To have an economic background, to be economically literate just gives you confidence. Even interviewing the Chancellor you know that obviously he sees the secret papers and so on but there’s nothing he can tell you that can baffle you.
Does your nickname of ‘Brillo’ annoy you?
It’s in with the woodwork now. It’s just, to complain about that, what was it that Enoch Powell said? It would be like a sailor who complains about the sea.
How much do you hate Private Eye?
I don’t hate Private Eye.
They do seem to have a thing about you don’t they?
Yeah but that’s a bit... I mean I get on very well with Ian Hislop. They always think there’s bad blood between us so they put me with Paul Merton but there’s no bad blood. Last time I was on his team, not Paul Merton’s. Private Eye is strange. I used to read it religiously when I was at the Sunday Times, now I just see it every now and then.
It’s a bit like a paper blog now
Sometimes when you are in it you think “oh I wish they hadn’t said that” and then you’re not in it and you think “oh, don’t I matter anymore?” The one thing that they get completely wrong is the picture in Private Eye of me and ‘Pamela Bordes’. Except it’s not Miss Bordes.
It never has been Miss Bordes. That was a picture of a woman from New York that I was going out with in 1995. She worked at Fox and she is an Afro-American. She’s not Asian, she’s not Indian, she’s not British. She’s an Afro-American. The picture was taken as we came off the beach in Barbados by Terry O’Neill and it’s been presented now as if a) it’s Miss Bordes and b) that we were in some kind of nightclub and I’m there in this stupid shirt in a night club. It was a beach we’d come off hence the baseball cap and the beachwear. And this woman, this lovely, lovely – I’ve not seen or heard from her for 15 years – she’s no idea she’s the most famous face in Private Eye. But it’s not Miss Bordes. Anyone slightly looking at her would see these are the features of an Afro-Caribbean lady, but sometimes these public schoolboys are not very good.