New Times,
New Thinking.

A trip to the GMB sofa and a lesson for lying politicians

Also this week: awkward encounters at my book launch and Prince Harry takes on the Mirror.

By Rob Burley

I’ve spent more than 25 years behind the camera, so it felt weird to find myself sitting on Good Morning Britain’s big glossy set with Susanna Reid and Adil Ray. I was there to promote Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying to Me?, my slightly sweary part-history, part-memoir chronicling the televised 60-year tussle between broadcasters and politicians.

After a sleepless night worrying whether I could say “Good morning!” in a sufficiently jolly way for breakfast TV, my big moment arrived. “Welcome,” said Susanna and the tension lifted; my “Good morning!” sounded suitably delighted and we were off. But as the “segment” got under way, someone was missing: Piers Morgan. I know Morgan moved on – or stropped off – some time ago, but the idea for my book started here at GMB in the days when Susanna and Piers were a TV team. Back then, in December 2019, I’d watched Boris Johnson avoid the GMB presenters by hiding in a fridge on an election campaign stop. As the editor of Andrew Neil’s election interview show, I knew all about that – he’d dodged us too – but that morning the idea for the book started to percolate. How, I wondered, had the relationship between politicians and TV interviewers ended up in the deep freeze?

Running the 2019 clip was the obvious starting point for my GMB appearance. But Prince Harry’s High Court case against Mirror Group Newspapers put its former Mirror editor, Morgan, back in the headlines over accusations of phone-hacking. Running a clip of his days preening in the GMB chair was suddenly too much. Morgan was being airbrushed out. Cancelled. The discussion went well and he was quickly forgotten. I’m sure he’s fine with that. After all, when it comes to perceived slights Piers is no snowflake.

[See also: Have a little sympathy for Prince Harry’s hacking claims]

Andrew Marr the pussycat

There was no shortage of stars at my book launch at the beautiful Hatchards on Piccadilly. Andrew Marr – my former colleague and the NS’s political editor – made a speech that pushed back at my portrayal of him in Lying Bastard. I was mortified. What had I said to upset him? Had I mentioned ears? Was he cross I’d told the story of him sloshing milk over Theresa May’s £4,000 silk trouser suit? No. He was unhappy that I’d described him as “nice”. Now LBC’s king of the monologue, Marr is a man with his voice back. The show I helped him set up has grown its audience by almost a fifth since its launch last year, yet I’d reminded readers of vanilla, genial BBC Andrew. After his speech I apologised, but it turned out he wasn’t really cross with me. “I just needed a theme,” he said, smiling. What a pussycat. I told you he’s nice.

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Team Marmite

If Marr was pretending to be cross, the BBC board member Robbie Gibb wasn’t faking it. On launch day the Times wanted his take on a story from my book. This was what the kids call awks. Robbie had been my boss at the BBC. The story, that on the day after the Brexit vote he had told me to forget about the Leave campaign’s dodgy claims, including that pledge on the bus, and move on, was not a good look. So when Robbie arrived at Hatchards he was peeved but, after a pointed aside about how he’d helped get me into the BBC (“No good deed goes unpunished”) was soon over it. He spent the rest of the evening having fun with his friend in political comms, the equally Marmite Seumas Milne from Team Corbyn. Unlikely comrades. It was nice to see them both.

Andrew Neil wrote this week that Lying Bastard has brought “renewed prominence” to the question of how we do political interviewing. Good. But is the BBC listening? This week it gave serious airtime to interviews with Andrew Tate and Phillip Schofield. I’m sure the director-general, Tim Davie, is pondering whether these are the right priorities. Tim, if you haven’t had a chance to read beyond the headlines, please get in touch and I’d be happy to provide a copy of my book.

[See also: The BBC needs to stop being its own worst enemy]

Parrot politicians

During my weeks of promo I’ve kept in touch with my colleague Beth Rigby, Sky News’s political editor. As we swapped potential questions for her interview with the Prime Minister at the G7 summit in Japan, it struck me that, as one of life’s winners, Rishi Sunak might have struggled with losing in the wake of last month’s local election results. I suggested Beth ask him how he copes with defeat. She loved it, gave it her expert spin, and threw him off thoroughly. Stumped, he resorted to parroting his five pledges. Note to politicians: robotic repetition isn’t working for you. Next time you’re interviewed at least try to appear authentic. People can spot evasion and deflection, and – whether making promises on net migration or trying to summon up fake enthusiasm for Brexit – nobody likes a lying bastard.

Listen to Rob Burley’s discussion of “The art of the political interview

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine