A journalist called Nick, who once interviewed me for another newspaper, asked me for some help. He was putting together a webinar for some aspiring entertainment journalists, and was after my view on what, from the subject’s point of view, made for a good interviewer. I’ve been the interviewer more often than the interviewee by a factor of about 100 to one, but that didn’t stop me spouting forth. Spouting forth, of course, being the very thing interviewers are desperate for their quarry to do. For interviewees, Meghan and Harry arguably being exceptions proving the rule, spouting forth is generally to be avoided.
Being, like me, tragically eager to please is seriously risky. If a journalist was nodding along as I spoke, apparently hanging on every word, making sounds indicating their fascination with what I was saying, I found it almost impossible to stop. There was a showbiz journalist from the Sun who kind of played this in reverse. This cheeky rascal, who I’ll call Colin, because that’s his name, had a technique that enraged me, not least because it worked. It went like this: not long after I had started to talk he would stop writing, put his pen down, stare out of the window and even perhaps stifle a little yawn: a study in boredom and disappointment. This, it was later pointed out to me by an exasperated PR man, was a deliberate ploy that I should stop falling for. Without realising it, having assumed he was bored with whatever I was coming out with, I would start saying ever more risky things until he began to look interested. Fatal.
Another error I made was trying to be too droll, ironic or arch. This, I learned to my cost on more than one occasion, is always risky. It leaves you at the mercy of any journalist versed in the dark arts of sophistry. They can quote you with devastating precision but neglect to communicate the precise tone in which those precise words were said. This is even a danger with journalists who aren’t out to get you, as was the case when I was interviewed for this newspaper about the launch of Daybreak, successor to GMTV and predecessor to Good Morning Britain. That gig ended for me as abruptly as it has done for Piers Morgan, only with a good deal less fuss.
The journalist in question was Decca Aitkenhead, who wrote a very fair piece. The troublesome bit concerned what I said about our launch show. We all felt it had gone rather well and been positively received. But I related to Decca how, the following morning, I got into my car at 3.30am, picked up the newspapers and was surprised to read that, far from having produced the decent show we thought we had, we had actually produced a load of shite. The papers savaged us. Decca knew what I was trying to say, wrote it up intelligently and was in no way to blame for what followed: lots of headlines about the story that I had described my own new show as a load of shite. I plainly had not said that. I had only said that, to my surprise, the newspapers had said that. No matter: I was still on the end of a fearful bollocking from a senior executive the day it came out. “But I never said it!” I protested.
“You did!” she insisted.
“Well, yes, but but but …” I stammered.
I recall that several months later, ITV’s then controller, Peter Fincham, was asked at the Edinburgh television festival what it was like to have a presenter who described his own programme as a load of shite. I’m still asked about this, well, shite, to this very day.
You’ve got to be more careful, said everyone; so henceforth I was. I sought to take an approach best illustrated by an exchange I had with Tony Blair, then prime minister, when he came on a football phone-in with me. He said he always told young politicians to watch football managers in interviews and learn from them. Learn what? How to say nothing at all? Well, yes, sort of. Accordingly, I’ve gradually tried to focus on saying less and less, with some success.