Kirsty Wark: Woman of substance answers back

As a 'Newsnight' presenter, Kirsty Wark is used to interrogating politicians and celebrities. But as one half of a powerful media couple, she too can find herself in the spotlight. Ian Burrell meets her
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When Gerry McCann sat on stage in an Edinburgh conference theatre packed with an audience of television producers, editors and reporters last month, calmly explaining the rationale behind the extraordinarily proactive media campaign that has accompanied the search for his daughter Madeleine, he did so at the behest of his fellow Scot Kirsty Wark.

McCann was speaking at the time when the coverage was turning sour. Under gentle questioning from Wark, he acknowledged that the publicity machine he had deployed in the wake of Madeleine's disappearance, was beginning to backfire and that the continued presence of the family in Portugal was becoming, as he put it, "counter-productive". Days later the McCanns would be packing their bags and returning to Leicestershire.

But McCann insisted that he had been right to engage with the media from the outset and claimed that American experience of child abduction suggested that "a fast aggressive response saves lives". He also insisted that the high profile of the case had done a wider good. "Madeleine's abduction has done more for missing children in Europe than anything else before it."

For Wark, 52, who had secured the interview through a former nanny of hers, who is a friend of a friend of the McCann family, the frank explanation of what appeared to some observers to be eccentric behaviour by a father in such a position was a coup – and one conducted in front of an audience of her peers. As a memorable Wark interview it can be added to a long list that already includes the questioning of political and cultural icons from Margaret Thatcher to Harold Pinter. She has won kudos and invoked controversy, beating the rest of the global media to clinching an interview with Madonna at the height of the Malawi orphanage story and then causing uproar in Scotland with her recent on-air exchange with nationalist leader Alex Salmond.

Wark has presented BBC2's Newsnight for the past 15 years and also hosts the arts strand Newsnight Review but though she is closely associated with the corporation she has a freelance contract and is a multifaceted figure. She is writing her first novel and has a documentary project pending on the global fashion industry. In Scotland, in particular, she exerts considerable influence and she is half of one of the most powerful media couples in Britain, with her husband, the television producer Alan Clements. The couple live in Glasgow with their two children and Wark does 65 working days a year in London.

"My carbon footprint is pretty hellish, I go south by plane," she says slightly guiltily over a cup of coffee. "Unfortunately the [rail] tracks are linear and if the train breaks down I am in trouble. But I come home by train overnight ....when I can. It's an efficient way of travelling – I'm home for the children waking up in the morning."

Wark has to be careful what she says. She is paid to hold people to account but is a widely-recognised figure in her own right and comes under close public scrutiny. When Wark and then Scottish First Minister, Labour's Jack McConnell holidayed together with their families at Wark's Majorcan villa, Scotland on Sunday published pictures and came up with the headline "Villagate". The story followed criticisms that a television production company then owned by Wark and Clements had been commissioned to make a four-part BBC Scotland documentary on the controversial Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, even though Wark had been on the panel that chose the architect for the project, which ran massively over budget. SNP leader Salmond wrote to the controller of BBC Scotland to complain and warned that the programme was "in severe danger of becoming a whitewash".

Then when Salmond appeared on Newsnight in June of this year, the pair jousted fiercely before the presenter cut her guest off in mid-sentence. The BBC website was swamped with complaints. "Pointlessly discourteous", "rude and unprofessional", "loud and bullying," were just three of the angry comments. Newsnight's editor Peter Barron defended Wark but admitted that Salmond had been "cut a way that appeared rude and dismissive". The presenter wrote to the politician to apologise.

Recalling the incident, Wark says: "I think the viewers like to see a robust engagement. I'd be horrified if anyone actually thought I was rude. But I did have to thrash out that interview very quickly and it was compounded by the fact that there's this great wide-shot of the studio where it looks like I'm turning my back on Alex Salmond because I'm turning to interview a guy on my left. All these things came together," she says, before admitting "it was possibly not the finest hour".

Since the exchange she has enjoyed another "perfectly robust" interview with the SNP leader, with whom she apparently does not have as bad a relationship as some viewers suspect. "He certainly never complained. But there were Scottish viewers, and probably some nationalists that would be less than happy," she says. "I don't know if they thought I had an agenda. I think overeager is how I'd like to put it."

As for her company's series on the Scottish Parliament, she is defiantly proud of the "rigorous" programmes and the architecture. "A lot of people are seeing [the series] again and it's become a kind of tool because it's had so much information about the whole process. If you talk about the building itself, I'll defend the building to the hills."

She came under further criticism over her interview with Madonna last year, with this newspaper declaring "Awestruck Kirsty lets Madonna off the hook". Part of the carping centred on the way the interview room had been decorated, with gothic black candelabras, white drapes and petals scattered across a table. It was hardly what Newsnight viewers expected.

Wark explains that Madonna was not as Machiavellian as some have suggested and that the interview location – a "bland room" in the New York offices of Warner Brothers – had not been dressed for the benefit of the BBC. "The set was a bit of a problem but never mind. We had to slip in behind a series of interviews about her new children's book so we had to take the candles and the drapes, which would not have been our choice."

Getting the interview at all was a great scoop, largely engineered by a BBC producer. "We'd had a bid in to do Madonna for a long time. And then it came up at the time that she had been taking flack and she wanted to do a British interview," says Wark. "She watched old Newsnight interviews. It was completely straight, completely unstarry. She didn't have any fuss."

Wark says she found Madonna "Interesting. I think she's pretty fiercely smart but very guarded." So was that why she didn't give Madonna a more difficult ride over the controversy surrounding the star's involvement in separating a child from his father? "I did ask those [questions]. Some of those were there and some were in the longer [BBC4] interview. But I did ask these questions definitely."

Her view is that Madonna adopted David Banda because she "wanted to make a difference". "It's not an accoutrement. If you take a child you take a child for life." Her antennae are highly tuned to spot acts of media manipulation but the presenter has a similar trust in Gerry McCann's willingness to appear at the Edinburgh Television Festival: "I don't think he was doing it from a self-serving point of view at all. He would be the first to say he has had a good relationship with the media by and large."

She is understandably proud of the longer-form interviews she has made for BBC4, securing such star names as Woody Allen, George Clooney, Michael Moore, Tina Brown and Tracey Emin, demonstrating again her breadth of knowledge and interests. Political guests on Newsnight tend to get a rather different treatment, but Wark says that those that come on to the programme prepared to play ball are the ones that emerge with the most public credibility.

Asked to pick the best Newsnight performers, she names a couple of Tory nearly men. "Someone who is incredibly thoughtful and an incredibly good performer is William Hague," she says. "I would say someone like Michael Portillo is interesting to listen to, unconstrained. He has got a great brain, he's an interesting character to listen to. Being liberated from the straitjacket of being a minister does help immeasurably."

Newsnight's future is, as her presenting colleague Jeremy Paxman has pointed out, severely threatened by the impending budget cuts at the BBC. "I think that everybody who works on Newsnight feels passionately about it and we don't want to see our ability to cover the big stories properly, in depth and laterally, chipped away at, to where it's just impossible," says Wark, worrying about the show's means of carrying out investigative pieces. "We are a pretty lean machine as it is – we really are – and I just don't know what we'd be doing if we take heavy-duty cuts."

Away from Newsnight, she has a proposal pending for a BBC1 programme on fashion. Sadly, it is being proposed by RDF, the production company at the centre of the "Crowngate" affair, so will remain pending until the completion of a BBC inquiry. So Wark is something of a fashionista? "I'm very interested in that," she confirms. "[The programme proposal] is about the way the industry operates, right back to the fabric markets, which are how people decide what we are going to wear that season."

Politics, current affairs, architecture, fashion – and literature. Wark, who has previously interviewed the likes of Toni Morrison and Donna Tartt, is part way through her first novel, which she has set in Scotland. "To be honest, all I've got so far is 12,000 words. But it'll happen. I've got the ending, it's the bit in the middle that's the problem. I just take my time," she says, admitting that her literary ambition is a subject she finds difficult to talk about. "You know it's one of these things where people say 'Oh, I'm writing a novel' and you go 'Oooohh, noooo!'."

The novelist Anne Tyler is near to the top of Wark's wanted list for future interviewees, along with Meryl Streep, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She may get the chance to tick one or more of these boxes when she broadens her carbon footprint a a little more, flying to New York to prepare for a Newsnight Review special.

This mix of culture and politics is what Wark is happiest with."I've never been somebody that ever thought that there was a great divide between people who are interested in news and current affairs and people who are interested in the arts. I think that Newsnight should be a political-cultural show in the broadest term. I'm very lucky to do both."