‘I bet you’ve never been spat at,’ a fellow right-winger once said to me, with barely disguised pride. We were speaking the day after an episode of Question Time. I was still slightly bruised from the booing, and this effort to cheer me up worked well. I may have been booed, but at least I had not been used by the audience as a spittoon.
Such are the consolations for anyone willing to appear as the token right-winger on radio and television in Britain. The downsides are obvious. Your day is wrecked, usually with very little notice, for a few minutes of airtime during which you’ll get across half your point, if you’re lucky, while having your character impugned by fellow guests and possibly the presenter.
While many hosts are impartial, almost none will be on your side. Coming back from a book tour of the US a few years ago, I asked a fellow right-of-centre pundit why it was such a pleasure being on the American media. She replied, ‘It’s because there the hosts ask us our opinion, allow us to give it and then thank us for coming on.’ If you are a right-winger on the British media, the main motivation of the presenter tends to be ‘How can I expose this person as a liar, racist or some sort of denier?’ Certain presenters behave as though their entire stack of liberal credentials are at stake. Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark is an example of this phenomenon, striking a weird, flared-up-nostrils, ‘What horrible smell has come before me?’ pose before even asking the first question. Another popular presenter’s aim is to try to catch you contradicting yourself. So having been cut off in the middle of your first answer, your second will be interrupted with, ‘But I thought you just said…’
Then of course there are the other guests. Here we get reminded of one of the great truisms of politics: while the right tend to think the left are misguided, we rarely think they are evil. The favour is not returned. It is a lesson I continually forget. I have now spent years of my life merrily turning up to studios looking forward to an exchange of ideas on some interesting subject, only to walk into a trap (if my fellow guest is experienced) or be rammed into by a rage-filled amateur (if they are an occasional contributor). Female academics are the absolute worst. For some reason, the ones put up against me are not only sociopathically left-wing, they have also never done their research. If it is late at night, my main incentive is to get back to whatever dinner I have left. They, by contrast, turn up sometimes actually shaking with rage in the hope of slaying a mythical fire-breathing dragon.
If it is a live show, there is also the -matter of the audience. ‘Why are all audiences so left-wing?’ is one of the questions I get asked most. Despite some broadcasters’ attempts to balance their audiences, the answer is obvious. Try it out on the NHS. You are live on TV. If you mention ‘our hard-working nurses’ you will always get a clap. Say ‘The NHS is the envy of the world and we need to secure it for future generations’ and you have a home-run. But say, by contrast, ‘Like most things, the NHS has its ups and downs, but let me tell you about some truly scandalous screw-ups’ and you will be taken out on a stretcher. The left are very good at telling people the lies or half-truths that people want to hear and which make them look nice and compassionate. This looks good at home, and remember — everyone’s families are watching. And so everyone drifts to the drippy left. It may be a thankless task, but the self-appointed role of a conservative commentator is to prick the complacent left-wing consensus and attempt to inject into the debate those things which before the age of moral preening we used to call facts.
Apart from the comfort of doing this, there are not many upsides. Despite the insinuations of some couch-bound opponents, you wouldn’t do it for the money. The highest-paying current affairs programme on British TV pays contributors £150 and takes up about a week of your life. Most programmes pay disturbance fees in the tens of pounds. I’ve no idea whether left-wing man can live on punditry alone, but right-wing man cannot.
Perhaps I shouldn’t make it sound so unappealing, since at some point I would like to retire and allow a new generation of innocents to get duffed up for a bit. The openings are there, and you don’t have to be very right-wing in Britain to fill the right-wing chair. And although nobody in the studio will be on your side, many people at home will be. The fact that they — not to mention the gods — are on your side should be incentive enough.