I’m trying to imagine the BBC’s Eddie Mair interviewing Nelson Mandela, the elderly African squirming uncomfortably in his seat as Mair, like one of the late Eugene Terre’Blanche’s famous Dobermans, snarls ever more menacingly, foam dripping from his bared gums.
‘So, in 1961, with several others, you founded a vicious terrorist movement, Spear of the Nation, carried out bombing after bombing and pledged that if these tactics failed you would resort to guerrilla warfare and terrorism…’
Mandela looks askance: ‘Excuse me, I thought this was that programme where you choose records and a book…’
Mair shakes his head, face wreathed in disgust. ‘Pretty nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’ Mandela, evidently confused, says that he would like to take with him Althea and Donna’s late 1970s hit, ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, and can he go now, please?
It isn’t going to happen, of course. That sort of interviewing is reserved, on the BBC, for people from the political right, such as the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. You will never hear a BBC interviewer (except Humphrys, perhaps) stick the boot into a leftie like that, unless it’s lefties who don’t matter, like George Galloway.
The comment ‘pretty nasty piece of work’, addressed to a cosmetically ruffled Boris, was the moment that personal and political antipathy was allowed to spill into what was, otherwise, a perfectly decent interview. For Eddie Mair is without doubt a good presenter and interviewer. But have you ever heard the BBC attack Ed Balls, for example, in such a personal manner, with the presenter’s distaste clearly evident? And Ed is commonly regarded as being a ‘nasty piece of work’, (although he’s always been perfectly nice to me on the rare occasions we’ve met).
This was Boris week on the Beeb, where they decided that as they’d missed Savile, they may as well stick it to another monster before he gets to be prime minister. So we got Eddie’s interview on the Andrew Marr Show and a stunningly unrevelatory and rather self-congratulatory documentary from the pompous Michael Cockerell. In this latter, Boris was taken to task for three misdemeanours from his past: lying to his party leader about having done Petronella Wyatt, fabricating a quote for the Times 20 years back, and also the Darius Guppy business, which Boris’s opponents consider the most serious of the charges. I have to say, it seemed to me the least serious of the charges; a friend rings up and asks for the address of a reporter he wants beaten up, and a patently uneasy Boris ends the phone call swiftly with a murmured equivalent of ‘yeah, yeah’. No violence was occasioned as a consequence.
Lying to Michael Howard? The correct response to his party leader would have been to say: ‘Get back in your coffin and mind your own business.’ I have to say that — unchivalrous as this sounds — if I’d been schtupping Petronella I wouldn’t be in a great rush to tell anyone about it, least of all a member of Britain’s crepuscular Undead community. If Michael Howard had been possessed of more durable cojones, he wouldn’t have let it worry him one bit.
And then the Times quote? He shouldn’t have done it, sure. Journalists shouldn’t make stuff up and they should be punished when they are found to have done so. But surely there must be more clamorous skeletons in the Johnson closet than this? A misdemeanour for which he was sacked years and years ago?
One assumes that Boris decided to take part in the documentary in order to draw a line, to clear the books, to get this stuff properly out into the open, so that when the time comes to knife Cameron in the gullet he can do so without worrying too much about what the press might dredge up. Time will tell, I suppose, whether or not this was a wise decision. His misdemeanours did not bother me in the least. But the epic highborn smugness of the entire Johnson clan, who were also interviewed, most certainly did.
Who are these people who believe they have a divine right to rule over us, these privileged inbred scions with their ludicrous accents and questionable abilities and vaulting ambitions? To give the bloke credit, at least Boris doesn’t pretend that he is One of Us, that he has had to struggle to achieve the position in life he now occupies — i.e., Mayor of London and heir to Downing Street. Because of course he hasn’t — and neither has Clegg, or Cameron, or Osborne or any of them; it has been a gentle and easy elision from top public school to Oxbridge to running the entire country, the passage eased by immense affluence, ready-made connections and, often enough, when all this has proved insufficient, a little bit of -Daddy’s help. This stuff, the Eton-Bullingdon-king-of-the-world business, bothers me, and it may well do for Boris in the end, when the people of the country have had enough of it all. It is not a good way to run a country, as indeed we are now seeing.
But still, as a person, and shorn of all this stuff — if that’s possible — Boris is a more likeable politician than most we have around at the moment. If the chaotic buffoonery is all an act, then it is a good act, and an endearing act. He seems to me a less nasty piece of work than most of his Conservative political rivals.