Awestruck Kirsty lets Madonna off the hook

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The Independent Online

Whoever it was that styled the first British interview with Madonna since she adopted David Banda had decided that muddied shades of grey were out.

Kirsty Wark's exclusive for Newsnight was a surreally black and white affair, conducted in front of white drapes and a pair of gothic black candelabras on a petal-scattered table. Wark was dressed in white and silver while Madonna wore black ­ both women enthroned on Phillipe Starck translucent chairs and ankle-deep in ruffled silk.

Newsnight's set-piece interrogations aren't usually conducted in what looks like the boudoir of a boutique hotel ­ but Madonna is no ordinary interviewee ­ and after days of controversy over the motives and manner of her lady-bountiful gesture, this was no ordinary interview. The BBC 2 continuity announcer virtually swallowed her tongue, so awe-struck was her introduction.

Viewers hoping for a forensic corrective to Oprah's cheer-leading canonisation of the singer as a Mother Teresa with great dance moves would probably have been disappointed. Wark occasionally adopted the posture of pressing interrogation but crucial questions were never quite pushed home. Is Madonna's insistence that there are no formal adoption procedures in Malawi true or not? You might expect a Newsnight clipboard to contain chapter and verse on that ­ but Madonna's reading of Malawian legislation was the only one we got.

Why had Madonna decided to adopt a child in the first place, a process she said she had first talked about with her husband long before her involvement with Malawi's orphans? And why, having decided to adopt, did she select this particular child? The answers Madonna gave were heartfelt but begged as many questions as they answered.

"You looked at a lot of the other children, they were in even worse conditions," she said at one point. So why pass them by to rescue just this one?

And then, inexplicably, the interview suddenly slewed off track into Madonna's new childrens' book, extracts from a recent backstage documentary and a question about the singer's preferred candidate for the American presidency (Hillary Clinton, if you're curious). Were these deal-clinching commitments being ticked off to meet a pre-interview agreement? Or was there nowhere else to go in the face of Madonna's practised insistence on her own good intentions?

Back in the studio, mercifully free of scented candles and spa accessories, Paxman refereed a brief spat between Duncan Bannatyne ­ a supporter of Malawian orphanages ­ and Oona King, who singularly missed the point he was making. "It's wrong to say if you can't save 12 million, don't save one, " she said passionately ­ defending Madonna's motives and the value of the publicity she'd directed to the generational catastrophe of Aids in Africa. What if you can choose to save 1,200 instead of just one, though ­ provided you leave them where they were born? Whatever the ambitions of the set-dresser, shades of grey were just as much in evidence at the end as they had been when the interview began.

The conflicting stories

Madonna's account of the adoption of David Banda has repeatedly differed from that of his father, Yohane, a peasant farmer.

Aids

SHE SAYS... On Oprah, Madonna claimed David's mother and three siblings had died of Aids.

HE SAYS... "She [the mother] never went for an HIV test and died in Zambia at her parents' house, so how could anyone know if that is what she died of." Mr Banda adds that he only has two other children, both of whom died from malaria in childhood.

The Orphanage

SHE SAYS... Madonna told Newsnight: "From the day he was left in the orphanage, he wasn't visited by any extended family."

HE SAYS... "I visited David many times, too many to count." Mr Banda has added that David's grandmother was also a frequent visitor. Meanwhile, his brother Profra "saw him almost every day, sometimes twice a day".

Adoption

HE SAYS... Mr Banda claims not to have understood what he was doing when he agreed to let Madonna adopt David. "Nobody told me that by 'adoption' it means that David will no longer be my son but her's."

SHE SAYS... "I do not believe that is true. I sat in that room. I looked into that man's eyes. He said he was very grateful that I was going to give his son a life, and that had he kept his son with him in the village he would have buried him."

Money

SHE SAYS... In a Newsnight interview, Madonna claimed to have offered Yohane Banda money to care for David in Malawi. "I offered that option to the father and he declined."

HE SAYS... "These are lies. He was very much loved."

Religion

HE SAYS... Mr Banda claims to have been told that his son was going to a "very nice Christian lady" in the US.

SHE SAYS... On Friday, Madonna took David to the Shabat ceremony at Central London Kabbalah Centre. She confirmed that he will now study the faith: "I believe in Jesus and I study Kabbalah, so I don't see why he can't too."

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