DAVID GAFFNEY says seeking redemption doesn’t always go to plan, as Baroness Mone discovered
It is more than four years now since Emily Maitlis conducted that BBC interview with Prince Andrew, which left viewers far beyond the royal household wide-eyed and slack-jawed with disbelief. Not to mention the manager of Pizza Express in Woking.
During a podcast earlier this year, Maitlis admitted to significant foreboding beforehand, acknowledging she had been acutely aware the interview had “all the potential to be a car-crash”. Those fears were realised, of course, but as Maitlis later recalled with relief, “not necessarily in the way I was thinking”.
Journalists spend a large chunk of their lives trying to persuade people to talk to them, with a lower rate of return than you might think. They are as accustomed to throwing Hail Mary passes as they are to being told to sling their hook. As Maitlis explains: “We’re always bidding. You bid for everyone; for presidents and popes and God… so it’s never a surprise when something doesn’t come off.”
You can imagine her peers around the world – each with their own ambitions of training cameras and microphones on public figures – watching that edition of Newsnight and thinking “thanks Emily, that’s screwed any chance I ever had of persuading embattled celebrity X to do an interview with us”.
It turns out they needn’t have worried. As Michelle Mone and Doug Barrowman demonstrated to great effect on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, a turkey with a big enough ego will gladly vote for Christmas if it means they are the centre of attention for a while.
And so the disastrous set piece TV interview with a big name interviewer has established itself as a must-have accessory for every ill-advised public relations campaign. See Hannah Ingram-Moore versus Piers Morgan for more in this genre.
The subjects, presumably, believe it will be their moment of redemption. The media allow that possibility to dangle tantalising in the air, secure in the knowledge that there is another much more likely and more newsworthy outcome in store.
It’s not that a high-profile interview might not be a good opportunity to set the record straight, or prove how harshly you’ve been treated, or even – whisper it – to apologise. However, that only applies if the record wasn’t already unbending, you suffered an injustice, or if you are, genuinely, sorry.
Did none of these people think, by exposing themselves to intelligent questioning by seasoned interrogators, they might only succeed in digging themselves more deeply into the hole they were in? I always wonder: did they ask for professional advice? Perhaps they did, but ignored it. Maybe they were advised to do it. However, when you have scarcely any reputational credit in the bank before the cameras start rolling, it’s not as if the odds are stacked in your favour.
What was abundantly clear to me by the end of the interview with Mone and Barrowman is that they feel desperately hard done by. A little sympathy here please people. Whoever is to blame for the circumstances that led them to this point – and we were offered their advisers, the media, the Cabinet Office – it is certainly not them.
I wonder if Mone still considers the statement “lying to the media isn’t a crime” to be the ace card she evidently thought it was when she played it. Not only does that suggest that avoiding criminality is an acceptable measure of decent behaviour for a public servant, but it fails to recognise that the media is a proxy for the public. Her lack of respect for journalists and journalism betrays her disdain for the people she is unelected to serve as a member of the House of Lords.
Writing in The Times last week, Alex Massie noted that: “If politics is conducted shamelessly, it will inevitably attract the shameless.” It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching Mone squirm, but I think I preferred it when David Threlfall’s Frank Gallagher was the most unseemly character you could expect to see on television at Christmas time.
David Gaffney is a senior partner at Charlotte Street Partners