The New Statesman Profile - Robert Kilroy-Silk

Our Man of the Year is a super-rich celeb who claims to know what the people want: the transient fam

In our search for the New Statesman's Man of the Year, we have been guided, as so often before, by the work of Hippolyte Taine. Every epoch, the philosopher wrote in 1864, has its ideal model of man: the knight in the Middle Ages, or the courtier "whose influence is displayed over the whole field of action or thought" in the Renaissance.

None of the superficially obvious candidates for our honour meets Taine's standard. Osama Bin Laden is a man of the seventh century, not the 21st. George W Bush has won the war Bin Laden started, in Afghanistan at least, but no one can be him or would want to be him. The year saw Tony Blair become the first Labour leader to win two landslides. Victory improved him, and glimmers of respectable government have blinked in the gloom. But, paradoxically, the suppression of the Railtrack looters and the promise to revive the NHS have heightened disgust with new Labour.

Our ideal modern man wouldn't tolerate disgust. He gives criticism, he most certainly doesn't take it. He doesn't waste time on conventional public service because he knows the service the public wants isn't good medical care, but to be an omega-list celebrity, if only for a moment. He feels the citizen's pain and lets us share it. Although he pockets extraordinary fees, he is clear that he is on the side of the people. People who cross or mock him must therefore be jailed for a sort of treason against themselves. He is authoritarian, but he is also tolerant. He can accept any vice and pardon any crime as long as the sinner confesses.

He is Robert Kilroy-Silk.

Democratic Britain treats double-barrelled names as the mark of the elitist beast. Kilroy-Silk has been "Kilroy" for almost all of the 2,300 programmes he has made since he became the first daytime host in 1987. (Tony Benn would be "Wedgwood" if the BBC were to give him a morning slot.) "Kilroy" will keep accusing and sobbing, sentencing and hugging, for a while yet. The BBC has extended his contract by three years and displays no sign of wearying of him as he approaches his seventh decade. Politicians lose elections. Mathematicians burn out at 30. Nurses drop from exhaustion. "Kilroy" goes on to the crack of doom, because the great questions he has put before the nation - Have we all gone mad? Who do they think they are? - are not of his age, but for all time.

To see his mind at work, take his treatment of Cherie Blair. On 25 November, he wrote in his Sunday Express column: "So Cherie Blair decided to follow Laura Bush and champion the rights of women in Afghanistan. Good. And about time, too. What kept them? Why did it take them so long to wake up to the repression of women by the mad Muslims?" There was a disappointing note of grudging praise in his voice. The best he could do was go for Blair's tardiness in waking up to the plight of women under the Taliban. As the condemnation came from a man whose programme showed no interest in the gender balance in Central Asia before 11 September, the blow was glancing at best.

Clearly dissatisfied, Kilroy returned to his theme a week later. "What is Cherie Blair up to?" he asked. "Who does she think she is? One moment she is the Prime Minister's wife traipsing round the country posing for pictures. The next, she's Ms Booth, QC, too busy making big money to smile. The next? Well she's a combination of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Women. Twice within a fortnight, she has had herself flanked by sycophantic ministers while she launched a policy initiative. First, the campaign to liberate Afghan women and secondly to eliminate domestic violence in Britain. Ms Booth did not get elected in her own right."

This was more like it. The questions - always rhetorical - hit Cherie from every direction. If she traipses round the country behind her husband, she is an archaic little wife. If she pursues her career in the law, she is a neglectful mother and a money-grubber to boot. If she doesn't take up the cause of Afghan women, she is a hypocritical feminist. If she does, she is a constitutional monstrosity usurping the place of accountable politicians.

The "so? oh yeah?" style that Kilroy threw at her is his signature. When Charles Kennedy called for the Americans to stop dropping cluster bombs on Afghanistan, Kilroy spat: "So he wants more American and British servicemen and women to be killed when we invade Afghanistan, does he? Can't he think straight?"

When the Foreign Office negotiated with Spain on the future of Gibraltar, he asked: "So why is Tony Blair ready to dump loyal British citizens when Margaret Thatcher was prepared to send a task force thousands of miles to stop the land-grabbing of another Spanish-speaking country? Is he prepared to go down in history as the great betrayer?"

Cluster bombs are mines that may explode under British troops in Afghanistan. Spain is not going to invade Gibraltar. However, no concessions can be made by Kilroy. His target must always lose and he must always win. Similarly stringent rules govern his show. Victims are sages, their suffering makes them right. The sexually adventurous are welcome, so long as their promiscuity hurts no one or they are prepared to repent by describing their past in detail on camera. The unapologetic sinner cannot be tolerated. As Chris Morris implied in his spoof Kilroy debate between "good Aids" victims and "bad Aids" victims, it is not what you do that concerns Kilroy, but your attitude when you do it. This is contemporary morality in a sentence.

Good and evil are fluid categories when expediency demands flexibility. There is no greater criminal for Kilroy than the love rat. If he refuses to acknowledge the pain he has caused, Kilroy incites the audience to ask if hanging is too good for him. In 1995, the tabloids found that Kilroy had had an affair. It produced a son, Danny. He gave the mother £200 a month, which the Sunday Times said was 0.5 per cent of his estimated income of £500,000.

Kilroy pre-empted the papers by exposing himself in a show on absent parents. "Us parents are coming in for criticism yet again," he began. The love rat became victim. In a country where everyone from David Irving to Jo Moore appeals for sympathy, Kilroy's masterly expansion of the ranks of the persecuted demands to be honoured.

Kilroy has been a man of the future since 1986. He began his career as a university lecturer and became the Labour MP for Knowsley North. His media work consisted of a book, The Role of Commissions in Policy Making, and an essay that he contributed to Socialism since Marx. He became Labour's home affairs spokesman, and his concern for prison reform distinguished him as a bleeding heart. With his good looks, he might now be in the cabinet he excoriates, if he had not led the flight from left politics to show business that marked the triumph of Thatcherism.

Kilroy insists he has no regrets about abandoning serious work. He tells interviewers that the BBC expected him to do Newsnight or Question Time. "You've got to decide: do you want to be Terry Wogan or Robin Day," the BBC told him. "I said: 'I don't want to be either. I want to be me.' I wanted to stick with Kilroy . . . I found it more interesting and it paid more."

Being him pays a great deal. Like everyone else in power, he insists his wealth makes him an enemy of the elite. "The establishment has got its knickers in a twist" is one of his favourite opening lines. Earlier this year, he exposed Blair's hypocritical pretence to be "one of us" with the populist cry that, "unlike us", Blair doesn't have "to queue to check in, and is driven to the plane".

If Kilroy's condemnations of "parasitical" asylum-seekers, "the foreign-born Peter Hain" and the "peasants, priests and pixies" of Ireland sound a touch xenophobic, he has also displayed a readiness to support common men of whatever colour. He recently took up the case of a motorist who was intimidated by the police in Cheltenham. "Why? Because he was black." The effect was spoiled slightly when we learnt the harassed black was his chauffeur, who could presumably take him to Heathrow in the Blair manner.

Kilroy was surely right to prefer the chat show to heavyweight news. You can imagine a BBC2 without Newsnight, as Greg Dyke's work to turn the channel into the screen version of Elle Decoration reaches its fulfilment. But a BBC without Kilroy or its rivals is unthinkable. The programmes soothe an aching need to expose the self, which appears insatiable. Kilroy boasted that many contributors to one show - on the effects of a mother's suicide on children - "felt more comfortable in our TV studio than talking to their family or friends".

Like many men of action, he has little interest in motive. He didn't find it odd that his studio fodder preferred confessing everything to a perma-tanned stranger, and a few hundred thousand indifferent viewers, to having an honest talk with the family. Others must grope for a theory that captures him. I like the explanation of the philosopher Timothy Bewes - that in a postmodern world where writers, causes, texts, genders and nature are dismissed as false constructs, the confessional is the last refuge of authenticity. Parading the intimate makes one appear truthful in a culture where everything is suspect.

The anti-philosopher Julie Burchill has a blunter explanation. Contemporary celebrities are personalities, not talents. If the Spice Girls, Madonna and Kilroy himself can be stars, why should anyone else hold back?

It is usual at moments like this to quote Andy Warhol's merry prediction about everyone being famous for 15 minutes. But Kilroy and Trisha and Oprah don't offer fame. No one has gone from their studios to be a transient celeb. What Kilroy gives is the chance to feel famous; to experience the egotism which swells when your petty existence is treated on a par with the private life of royalty; to be the centre of attention, if only for 30 seconds. His audience is like the hungry and homeless Big Issue seller who catches the whiff of caviar when a restaurant door swings open in the West End. It's not an invitation to dine, but it's better than nothing.

Many more people can feel famous than can be famous. Kilroy is an ultra-democratic philanthropist spreading the feeling of fame to the greatest number. He welcomes one and all - so long, that is, as they deal with him in a truly meaningful and sincere manner.

Two years ago, the papers reported that all kinds of fakers were popping up on the show. A disc-jockey from south London pretended to be a cocaine addict when he was a disgracefully law-abiding citizen. The Swann Multimedia Model Agency said it sold guests to Kilroy at £150-a-throw to talk about kinky sex and going out with porn stars.

Kilroy, the ex-prison reformer, told the Today programme that subversion of his life's work was insufferable. Docu-fakers must be prosecuted. The usually punitive Home Office refused to respond. Perhaps it reasoned that a crime of making a fool of Kilroy was too easy and too tempting, and worried the creaking jails wouldn't be able to cope with the influx.

Ministers should resolve to reconsider Kilroy's demand. He deserves a hearing. To be the voice of the proletariat from a Buckinghamshire mansion, an empathetic friend to those who play ball and a stern punisher of cynics who won't, isn't merely the work of the Man of the Year: it is the lifetime achievement of our epoch's ideal model of man.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The ignorance of the Islamophobes