LOOKING FOR MR BIG

Millions of fans have thrilled to Roger Cook's uniquely confrontational style of investigative journalism. Recently, however, he has been coming under attack from the respectable as well as the disreputable
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ROGER COOK moves quickly for a big man. In one iceberg glide he brushes aside the doors of the Central Television restaurant, crosses its sea of pale carpet, and looms against my table. His eyes dart and brows arch in a surprisingly small face; the bulk is in the cranium widening behind, the waist belted in vast chinos below. And in the thick fingers that crush my hand.

He smiles. He makes a heavy-handed joke, with gastric details, about being poisoned by a prawn salad the last time he ate here. A waiter appears, and he complains, smiling again. Oddly, the waiter decides to argue. The laugh leaves Cook's voice; his television tone of exaggerated, indignant calm appears. For a minute he earnestly lectures the waiter into submission with his experience of food poisoning all over the world, while lunch Muzak loops perkily in the background. "I'm not telling you this in an accusatory fashion," he says. "It's just that you ought to know, really."

The waiter retreats, and Cook's determined playfulness returns. He talks about being mistaken for Tony Blackburn, and about John Prescott signing an autograph "Roger Cook" to avoid disappointing an elderly lady. He tells a funny story about a death threat: "The guy from the UDA rang up before the programme went out, and said that I was a dead man if the programme went out, and then he ran out of money... He rang back and apologised and said he'd had to go to the corner shop to get some money, then kept on reading their statement." If someone does try to knock him off, he adds, "It's only going to end up in the programme."

This refusal to be scared by the bad guys has made Cook a hero to a lot of people. Thousands followed his consumer crusades on Radio 4's Checkpoint in the Seventies and Eighties, and an average of 10 million have watched each of his 80 primetime television investigations since 1987, when the very first Cook Report saw him confront leathery-skinned expat fugitives like Ronnie Knight and Clifford Sacks on the "Costa Del Crime" with the accusation, "You are a crook who has escaped justice" - and get thrashed in the street with an umbrella for his trouble. Tabloid stories thicken his profile like so many steaks: "Roger Cook And TV Crew Beaten Up By Spanish Fishermen" (Daily Mail), "Telly Sleuth Nails A Pub Racket Gang" (Sun), "Crocked Cook Reports Back For Action" (Today). Linda MacDougall, a producer who used to work with him, remembers: "People used to come up to Roger and me on the street, and say to him, 'You're so brave. Let me shake you by the hand, Mr Cook.' And then Roger would simper a bit."

A SMALLER number of people loathe Roger Cook. Some are the ones you'd expect to: money-launderers caught by his cameras eye-ing up drug dollars, car "ringers" filmed waving baseball bats at his head. Others are more respectable. "There are people in the media - two or three I can name - who absolutely hate me," he says, trying to sound surprised.

It's not hard to see why. Documentary- makers of the old school dislike his populist methods and envy his popular audiences. Meanwhile more specific, and serious, criticisms of The Cook Report's standards swirl around him in a libellous cloud. Mostly the criticisms are off the record, but every now and again someone puts a head above the parapet. In the last four years the BBC, Channel 4 and a respected Guardian journalist have all had a go.

Most recently, there was the battle over cot death. Two Cook Reports last year argued that babies died from inhaling a toxic chemical called antimony, which was given off by fire retardants in their mattresses. A panic ensued: a helpline set up by The Cook Report received 75,000 calls and thousands of parents rushed to buy retardant-free mattresses. The Cook Report was attacked as simplistic and irresponsible by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth Cal-man, and by the main cot death charity. Then the editor of BBC2's science flagship, QED, Lorraine Heggessey, commissioned a double-length examination of Cook's evidence. Broadcast in March, the QED programme was intricate, highly critical, and produced by MacDougall, who had left The Cook Report because she "hated it". For anyone doubting its target, QED used and attacked clips from The Cook Report, and only introduced its own theory about cot death (that parental smoking was a contributing factor) after half an hour.

This row is continuing; another, about a Cook Report investigation of Arthur Scargill, has been going on for five years. In 1990 Cook had alleged that Scargill used Libyan money intended for his members' strike fund to pay off his mortgage, an allegation that was later found to be untrue. The Cook Report never withdrew its allegations, but Scargill did not sue. Last year, Guardian reporter Seamus Milne published a book about the demonisation of Scargill, The Enemy Within, and accused Cook of going after Scargill with little evidence and continuing the pursuit as that evidence fell apart.

Milne's book echoed and expanded accusations made in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme directed by Ken Loach in 1991. Heggessey was the reporter on Dispatches, and the programme's anger against The Cook Report was quite open: it criticised Cook's investigation of Scargill point by point (as well as attacking a previous, unrelated programme). For the climax, Loach sent Heggessey and Yorkshire miners' vice-president Ken Capstick to turn Cook's infamous doorstepping technique against him, by confronting him on camera as he was eating breakfast in a Birmingham hotel. Racing in past potted plants and gurgling fountains, they stood over Cook shouting breathless questions like "Why didn't you tell your viewers the truth?" as his bacon and eggs arrived, then pursued him down the street and right up to the door of the Central Television building. Cook's reaction was interesting. He seemed to be waiting for a scrap as the camera shakily approached his table: leaning back, thick arms folded, a hint of a smug half-smile. As Heggessey and Capstick bombarded him, he just sat there, refusing to answer apart from requesting a time for a formal interview. Eventually they got to him a little - his nostrils flared as he headed for the door - but the lasting impression was of defiance just kept intact. Cook, you felt, knew enough about set-ups and rude questions to keep schtum.

Four years on, with a new series of Cook Reports just starting, his professional armour - a sophisticated alloy of silence, denial and rationalisation - is still near-impenetrable. Question his programme's research, and he reminds you The Cook Report has only been successfully sued once (for libelling a corporal in the Black Watch in an investigation into army bullying). He is unrepentant about his cot death programmes: "They're wrong. There are a lot of people - and it's not a nice thing to say - who are doing quite well out of the cot death industry."

This is typical Cook: positioning himself as the lone voice against the vested interests, then making a devastating accusation in a level voice, softened by his New Zealander's intonation. He defends himself as he attacks others; there seems barely a separation between television Cook and interview Cook.

His defence of The Cook Report's methods is as well rehearsed as a good set-up. He describes an operation governed by careful, rational planning and a close-knit team of dedicated researchers. The "stings" are organised on neutral territory where possible. At every step of the process there are Cook's rules. The Cook Report do collaborate with the police - "Some of these things end up being virtually joint operations" - but not if their sources don't want them to. They only entrap "when we can prove that it is something somebody does as a matter of course", and they leave private property when they're asked "for the third time". It all sounds very sensible. The trouble with Cook's moral and ethical code is that it is, when you examine it, remarkably flexible (they don't trespass "unless we absolutely have to"). Also, it is not invariably obvious to viewers that it is being followed. "I don't go to people's front doors," he insists; yet he knocked on someone's front door in the first edition of The Cook Report.

Cook reminds me several times that violent confrontation is not the point of the programme: "The public positively don't like seeing me hit." But he can't resist a tasty anecdote; and so, gradually, he admits that he likes a bit of rough and tumble. "I suffer from fear in arrears," he says, a little proudly. "I proceed into most things with this bizarre feeling of invulnerability." Sometimes it's the danger ("When we stung a man from the UDA - who went down for 10 years - I was 300 yards away from help. They were all in the van. And I doubt they'd have come anyway..."); sometimes it's the action ("This guy who stole cars went for everyone with a baseball bat. I just stood there, stood my ground. He went for everyone else who was running..."); sometimes it's just "adrenalin". "When you see Roger psyching himself up to do a doorstep," says MacDougall, "it's not a pretty sight. He's saying, 'I don't like it,' but you know that's what it's all about..."

Cook says the show isn't about him, that he only appears for a couple of minutes in each programme, and that his lack of onscreen ego ("I'm a fairly ordinary bloke who happens to have an extraordinary job - and is lucky to have it") is the source of its popularity. But he's not convincing. The Cook Report's packaging - the dominating voice-over, the rap on the door that punctuates the theme music - has always said: watch the fat man take them on. And despite his efforts at self-deprecation, Cook can't resist saying: "The Cook Report isn't a format. It's a chap."

COOK always wanted to be a serious journalist. It was the one constant aim in his early life: born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1943, he followed his parents, Alfred, an artist, and Linda, all over outback Australia, as Linda took housekeeping jobs on cattle stations. Roger Cook went to boarding schools and thought about becoming a vet but failed to complete his BA at Sydney University: he was already spending too much time on local radio. "On occasions you'd be asked, 'Would you like to work in these country stations?'," says Cook. "On day one you went in and turned the radio station on."

He joined the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a reporter. It was the Sixties, but the ABC was still conservative and deferential to authority; Cook was not. "I did a programme about a group of Aborigines who had been taken on to a reservation miles from anywhere - even though they were fifth-generation city-bred," Cook says. "I didn't think it was right, and said so, and allowed them their say." He was moved from writing the news to reading it: "I didn't like that very much."

Cook walked out of ABC, worked at an advertising agency to raise the necessary money, and left for London in 1968, a few years after Clive James, Germaine Greer, and the rest. He had long hair and Leftish politics, but he chose a straighter path, making industrial documentaries. Then a chance to provide news items for Radio 4's The World At One came up; Cook took it and was launched, contributing to PM, getting on television with Newsnight and Nationwide, and inventing Radio 4's investigative consumer show Checkpoint.

The Cook method of aggressive investigation developed quickly at the more irreverent BBC. Interviewing the elderly Rose Kennedy for PM in 1974, he asked her - in a meek voice - why she and her husband Joseph had backed the Nazis to win the Second World War. But it was with Checkpoint that Cook really made his name. A 1980 programme about cowboy plumbers was typical. Cook established the plumbers' guilt by patient interviews with their victims, on-the-spot moralising (calling them "the dastardly duo"), and a clever sting (hiding microphones in a flat, inventing a tiny plumbing fault, and recording them as they charged a fortune to fix it). The climax of the programme was what would become trademark Cook: the plumbers' bosses beating him back from their doorstep with coshes as he asked, voice leaping, "Why do you find it necessary to hit me?"

Critics loved Checkpoint. "Because it was Radio 4, it got terrific reviews," says Cook. "The same philosophies, the same standards apply now on The Cook Report, and for some reason it's 'downmarket'. That's bollocks."

He could have a point. Kenneth Calman did write off his cot death programmes as "an inappropriate way of presenting new scientific data". But Calman's lofty dismissal implied an important question about The Cook Report: do its infamous crook-chasing methods - the shaky camera, the scary music, the bellowed accusations - discredit its attempts to take on more serious issues?

The Cook Report can verge on comedy, something Stephen Fry caught and exploited to perfectly camp effect in his parody series This Is David Lander. The suitably pear-shaped Fry investigated stray anti-aircraft missiles "buzzing around" people's washing, was knocked unconscious by a robot, and caught a British Eurocrat with his trousers down, all the while fruitily intoning about "taxpayers' money" and "the public's right to know". It was hilarious and Cook haunted every scene; he may not want to think so, but a lot of the people watching The Cook Report are laughing, too.

BUT who decides what the fat chap on The Cook Report does, whose door he raps on, who he pursues along suburban pavements? Cook would like you to think he does. Some of his colleagues don't agree: they say Cook is well-intentioned but manipulated. Tim Tate was a producer on the first series; he remembers: "We used to have editorial meetings and the other producers would say to an idea, 'That's all very well, but who's gonna hit Roger?' Roger would object, but they didn't give a damn... He could say, 'I'm the one on the programme - I'm not gonna do that', but that's a card he could only play once a series."

Tate says the chief producer Mike Townson decided the programme's direction: "The Cook Report quickly became the Townson Report... He said, 'We're making films for Sun readers. This is the doorstep show...' " Townson used the then buzzword "infotainment" a lot, and coined a new one: "confrotainment". Tate says that Townson would tell Cook, "You're the man who says the words" and keep him away from the office: "He sent him on a day-trip to Jamaica to get him out." MacDougall agrees with Tate's picture: "Roger is brought in at the end... He just says what he's told to."

The great television entrapper was himself trapped. The Cook Report was important to Central Television, a massively popular factual series at a time when ITV companies were being attacked for shrinking their documentary programming. The pressures to hype stories were substantial. "It was absolute hell in the office," says MacDougall. Seamus Milne thinks this tabloid urgency gave The Cook Report a right-wing slant in its choice of - Cook's word - targets. "The pressure is so great to come up with the razzmatazz, you can't afford to go after the powerful people, the establishment - be-cause they'll sue - so it pushes your material in a certain direction, against people like Scargill."

Cook rarely talks about Scargill. He doesn't criticise Townson by name, perhaps because Townson had a stroke last year and is no longer working on the programme. But he lets hints of dissatisfaction with the Townson regime undercut his denials. "I never get levered into an event that I don't want to do," he says firmly, "because it's my neck at risk. The producers may not even be there when the heavy stuff goes down." He mentions frequent "arguments with a previous editor", who "wanted to pace things faster", which "will not happen again".

Is there pressure to come up with the goods?

"Once we're rolling, an ITV film crew is the biggest taxi meter in the universe... You've got to be sure, 'cos you can't throw it away..."

Cook will admit frustration with the way The Cook Report has been promoted: "Some of the early promo ads, which I pulled, depicted me as a punchbag. It doesn't have to be promoted that way now, and it never did have. It had colossal audiences, anyway..." His voice trails off.

SO THE indestructible TV Cook has his worries, his sadnesses even. He wants to be respected and informative like World In Action, not sating some lager-led "appetite" for scapegoats and thumpings like an American tabloid show. And his frustration seems to stem from more than professional ego. He says: "I think journalism is quite often a parasitic profession, and it's nice to put something back, to able to right the occasional wrong, to get laws changed." The Cook Report has prompted legislation on child pornography, the closure of a squalid refugee camp in Hong Kong, and an extradition treaty between Britain and Spain.

"He genuinely does care about the people we make programmes about," says Tate. When Cook talks about his cot death programme, which he often does, his blue eyes bore into you with something more than melodrama. And when you accuse him of being a vigilante or an arm of the state, he snaps "You must be joking" with an exasperation too withering to be fake. He wants to get the bad guys: "Occasionally you meet one who comes into the likeable rogue category, but they're still a big bastard." His politics keep changing, he says, "but I haven't lurched to the Right as I've got older."

The problem with Cook's work is that his well-intentioned ends and populist means can become a kind of righteous malice against the people he's decided are public enemies. A considerable operational "pragmatism" (Cook's word) stems from this; in the case of Scargill, the ends seemed to justify almost any means. The Cook Report were so convinced the Libyans had paid Scargill's mortgage that they never actually asked him about it directly. More generally, the visual grammar of The Cook Report, unintentionally slapstick as it is, shows its subjects through a guilty filter - because we're used to seeing "crooks" being shown that way, largely by The Cook Report. In the era of Neighbourhood Watch and police tracking travellers and security cameras everywhere, it seems that we increasingly share Cook's tendency to depict people as guilty until they can prove their innocence.

The Cook Report is very British, with its voyeurism, its mild have-a- go hero and, crucially, its moderately violent context. An American version never got off the ground because Cook thought he would quickly get killed. This middle-Englishness is one reason why some people in the media dislike him; yet his style of journalism is actually very modern. "The Cook Report pioneered the way mainstream documentary is going: towards a brisker pace and a flashier look," says John Corner, Professor of Politics and Communication Studies at Liverpool University.

OFF-SCREEN, Cook does indeed live at a secret location "somewhere deep in the country", with security precautions and the watchful eye of the local police. But he doesn't use the mirror he's got for spotting bombs under his car, and you suspect the retreat is more for privacy than for security. One of his old colleagues tells me where his house is anyway, un-prompted. On the few days that he's not working, Cook just wants to stay at home unmolested, watch motor-racing and cook Sunday lunches for his family. In his bluff way, he is soppy about his second wife Frances and his nine-year-old daughter Belinda. He shows me a picture of them, both blonde in a silver frame which stands on his desk in his sparse office.

Cook is every British suburban Dad's fantasy: quiet, slow to rouse, but an ITV Clint Eastwood (without the guns) when the streets need cleaning up. His calm in confrontations reminds you of an angry neighbour, straining self-righteously to show he's reasonable. He says he wants to do a less confrontational, more issue-based show now, with Townson gone. Cook hurt his back last year in a car crash, and he's had his first twinges of fear in the fray ("I thought to myself as this guy lumbered towards me, 'Is this the time Cook does his first runner?' ").

But that's not very likely. The most animated moment in our interview comes when he tells me this story: "I was taking a short cut from Oxford Street back to our central London premises, and some yobboes from a building site came out and started shouting, 'Fucking grass! Arsehole!' - all that sort of thing. I thought, 'Whose brothers are they? Someone's who's suffered at the hands of the programme?' And I quickened my pace to avoid a confrontation, and they quickened theirs and started shouting 'Coward!' I turned round a corner... and there was a skip in the way - I can't go anywhere. So all I can do is turn around and do the lion-taming bit: show no fear, fold your arms, and glare at them. The voices gradually faded away, and I said, 'OK. Who's first in the skip then?' And they all went." !

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