Last week I found myself in a tent in the Oxfordshire countryside, talking about the art of the political interview. Are they still worth doing? Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Theresa May are natural raconteurs, the type of interviewee to say something unexpected and intriguing. Other politicians, meanwhile, are full-time character actors. When you interview Jacob Rees-Mogg, surely you’re talking to “Jacob Rees-Mogg”, a method performance that puts Daniel Day-Lewis to shame.
Then I watched Nigel Farage’s appearance on The Andrew Marr Show on 12 May. He was mean and aggressive, apparently upset at the idea of an interview at all. He was particularly vexed to be asked about his own past statements. Of course, he could not answer questions about the Brexit Party’s European election manifesto – because it doesn’t have one. My favourite moment came when he was asked about climate change and he high-handedly implied that there are bigger issues at stake here than the possible deaths of millions of people due to global temperature rises. Ah, Brexit.
In the wake of the interview, the mainstream right hailed his performance. Majestic! Impressive! He’s playing 12-dimensional chess! These plaudits were slightly undermined by the suggestion that Farage was so angry that he came off air and swore at a producer. It reminded me of the praise for Donald Trump in 2016, until it became obvious that his aggro tweets were not a calculated masterstroke; he just loved sounding off. This is one of the great advantages of being a right-wing man of a certain age. People see you having a standard-issue temper tantrum and assume they must have missed that bit of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
Like Trump, Farage has a sizeable and vocal base. I don’t doubt there is an audience for his bullying and hectoring. But I cling to the belief that most of the country, left and right alike, would have watched that interview and thought: what a fool.
It has become fashionable on both the radical right and the radical left to bash the BBC, but last week demonstrated its worth in a media landscape full of echo chambers. Without the collision between different viewpoints that it enables, we would be a more atomised, angry nation.
I don’t say that lightly – I hate doing debates where the premise is: “Should feminism exist at all?” But excusing yourself from having to make your case by staying safely in your bubble is a terrible idea. Just look at the trouble Ben Shapiro got into when he faced Andrew Neil on Politics Live. The US pundit, hailed as the right’s champion debater, had what can only be described as a strop when faced with direct questions about his views on Israeli settlements and abortion laws. He even accused Andrew Neil – yes, that Andrew Neil – of being a left-wing patsy.
Nigel Farage also appeared to have been deeply triggered by his contact with journalism. In a Telegraph column he complained that, “Marr produced a piece of paper and started reading scripted questions relating to things I allegedly said or thought years ago – questions, by the way, which I am certain I have been asked by others on many previous occasions.” A piece of paper! Scripted questions! This is voodoo.
And don’t you love that weasel-word “allegedly”? If he’s been asked those questions so many times before, you’d think he’d know whether or not he called for people with HIV not to be allowed into Britain, or praised the statecraft of Vladimir Putin.
The rest of the column is a self-pitying dirge, interspersed with flagrant untruths and shady assertions. The BBC doesn’t cover his rallies – as if “political party campaigns at election time” is inherently newsworthy. He only recently appeared on Question Time, for the 33rd time, after he had to “fight like crazy to secure my seat on the panel”. (He told LBC this was because the BBC wanted a female panellist for gender balance. “Fine, we’ve got some great women, we can give you Ann Widdecombe or Claire Fox… But actually, you know what, I’m the founder of this.” Women: know your place. This is the Nigel Show. On whether he called a BBC producer a c***, he had this to say: “Sometimes in the heat of the moment we say things.” Then, later, we try to suggest we didn’t say them without actually denying them.)
His column included this whopper: “At no point, until last week, did any major BBC programme invite any representative from the Brexit Party to appear as a guest.” But Claire Fox, a candidate for the Brexit Party in the European elections, appeared on Politics Live on 24 April. Perhaps BBC Two isn’t major enough for Nigel Farage? He will not rest until our national broadcaster projects an image of him on to every home in Britain.
Give me strength. It’s bad enough to watch someone work through the list of populist tactics provided in Umberto Eco’s “Ur-Fascism” – machismo, hatred of difference, disagreement as treason, the obsession with betrayal, appeal to social frustration – without his being so whiny about it.
The left would be better placed to fight all this, of course, if it didn’t indulge exactly the same tendencies. The pro-Corbyn websites do good trade out of stories suggesting that the BBC is hopelessly biased against the Labour leader. (“You know it’s a PMQs disaster for Theresa May when Laura Kuenssberg praises Jeremy Corbyn,” claims a Canary piece from 13 February.) There are frequent complaints that the BBC doesn’t cover marches and rallies, as if people listening to rambling speeches is televisual gold-dust. Guys, I get it. Five minutes of the Today programme and I want to de-evolve my limbs and return to the sea, too.
But these are dangerous times, and the BBC is one of the few shared spaces we have. So I was wrong to be pessimistic: political interviews matter more than ever.
This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question