The Andrew Marr Show, 9am, Sunday mornings, is one of my staples of news media. The eponymous man himself has sadly been out of the action for some time, recovering from a stroke that incidentally put the fear of god in me. Marr, beanpole extraordinaire, wasn’t a picture of health in the strictest of terms but he didn’t look at all unhealthy. I think to my horizons and the likelihood of being that type – an ostensibly hale ticking time-bomb. Exercise is being seriously considered.
With the series continuing in his absence, we’ve seen a string of stand-ins, a veritable conveyor belt of the high calibre journalists of the BBC. Between Landale, Vine, Reid, Raworth and Williams, the ailing Marr might be fretting more than his condition should permit. But long commitment to the BBC and seniority probably keep him safely and I think more that the future of our news programming is in safe hands.
But then Eddie Mair went and shook the boat. You may have seen this radio news veteran appearing with increasing consistency as another lieutenant of Newsnight in the past couple of years. Being staunchly loyal to Paxman, Wark, Maitliss and Esler, I am always wary of newcomers but he settled in smoothly enough. Bringing that satisfying disregard for status and authority, a sort of truth to power vibe and enough sarcasm in the average delivery to skin a cat, I was even pleased.
Sadly however, Mair took this carefully refined style about ten steps too far against Boris Johnson yesterday morning. It’s hard to say why. Perhaps because Johnson is famous for providing the most obfuscated answers to the most simple questions, something that riles serious journalists to no end. Paxman of course is famous for abandoning the script in favour of extracting something even approaching sincerity, but despite adding to his legend, these occasions are still cringeworthy.
And those occasions would largely take place during the late night shift of current affairs analyses. I must say that even Marr can push the tone of a Sunday morning politics show to the edge. But in a sense it’s what I always want to see, politicians or public figures being forced to confront the undiluted or PR’d truth and being asked the questions they would rather not be asked. It’s the entire point of journalism. Failure to do so simply makes you purely a publicity mechanism.
What Mair did to Johnson in this interview was more akin to a hatchet job. The presumed purpose of the interview was to discuss London housing and other mayoral issues but, as I’m sure you may have seen, it descended into an unpleasant and rather one-way flow of barbs from the interviewer. Calling on unsavoury but isolated incidents from Johnson past, Mair ultimately accused him of being “a nasty piece of work”.
That alone is unacceptable. It isn’t a journalist’s role to pass that kind of judgement on their subject, and certainly not in that kind of manner. It wasn’t confrontational in a traditional sense, it was just rude and while I rarely prescribe to the notion of deference to the office, it was simply that. Rude. Mair made a poor host of himself and this all being secondary to a tactic in his trade that I find as equally lacking in integrity as any accusation he levelled against Johnson.
Blind-siding is equivalent to laying down the terms of a negotiation for which both sides prepare, and then coming to the table with a completely different set of tools. The express purpose being an expedient victory. Rather then a well-planned but also challenging interview we had an awkward inquisition and a very uncomfortable mayor actually trying to help Mair out of the mire. But Mair wouldn’t be helped and from the performance I detected the greatest sin.
Bias. The best rational explanation I have for this affair is that Mair brought his personal dislike of Johnson or his politics into play and thus he even directly challenged the man’s integrity. Hard stuff and not adequately supported by an upcoming documentary on Johnson, nor his ever-simmering ambitions for the top job in the country. It would have been difficult to condone during the typically raucous pursuit of political distortions during the late night slots, but Sunday morning?
Embarrassing. For Johnson, for Mair and for the show. A show, for that matter, that seeks to attract the big names in politics and society, which sounds to me like a reciprocal arrangement. Guests enjoy the publicity, often for the price of a grilling but ultimately both sides come away with something. Being ridiculed and insulted doesn’t appear to be worth the trade in my humble opinion.