Nick Ferrari: A very big man with a whole lot of bunny rabbit
Nick Ferrari thinks talk radio is easier if you're right-wing – you can say it like it is. He does. And so do listeners. By Ian Burrell
Monday 14 April 2008
He's done a lot has Nick Ferrari. He started in journalism as a boy, answering the phone at his dad's famous press agency. He went on to edit The Sun's "Bizarre" column and the News of the World's "Sunday" magazine, he was the launch editor of Sky News way back in 1989, he worked for Fox in New York and was more recently chosen by Richard Desmond to edit a new London free newspaper (though that never materialised).
Ferrari was also the director of programmes at the infamous Live TV, where he was dispatched by Kelvin MacKenzie to purchase a "News Bunny" outfit to front up the network's current affairs output. And right now he commands considerable influence as the breakfast show host on London talk station LBC, to the degree that he announced he'd stand against Ken and Boris for Mayor of London (that never materialised either, due to his divorce). He also has a book out, and presents his own theatre-based show.
So much stuff. You're almost tempted to take a look at his Wikipedia entry to find out just what else Mr Ferrari is up to. But maybe that's not such a good idea, given that it is heaving with personal detail of the "too much information" variety, with references to the sexual organs of both the presenter and his dog. It also relates a troubling story on the subject of Ferrari's bowel movements. "No, I don't have a colostomy bag," he says, putting the record straight at LBC's west London base.
Even more alarmingly, an unhelpful Wikipedia editor has entered the claim that a doctor told Ferrari "he was morbidly obese and would probably be dead within a year if nothing was done". Colleagues took it at face value. "A presenter here, Bill Buckley, sent me the most moving email: 'I'm desperately sorry, if there's anything I can do to help'," recalls Ferrari. "I'm fat for Christ's sake but I don't think I'm morbidly so, I don't think I'm dying, anymore than anybody else."
He's an industry heavyweight nonetheless, and with the mayoral election only two weeks away he's frustrated by industry rules that prevent him from influencing its outcome. "I can't be partisan at all, it's absolutely illegal," he says. "Yes, it does frustrate me, but it's the law. It would not be so in Australia and America."
He found a way round this on Thursday by hosting a debate in which Ken, Boris and the LibDem candidate Brian Paddick were quizzed by listeners and their answers analysed by a panel that included the London Evening Standard's Anne McElvoy and the former editor of the Daily Mirror, David Banks.
Ferrari is an influential figure in the capital, and he notes that at one point early in the mayoral race, one bookmaker named him favourite to oust Livingstone. Sadly, the early momentum of his campaign was disrupted by the collapse of his marriage and he was advised not to give up his day job. "My accountant told me 'If you go off and become the mayor of London you might as well sell the Big Issue at Waterloo'."
From a distance he has admired the Evening Standard's probing of Livingstone, who tried to get Ferrari the sack after he failed to cut off a caller's xenophobic rant about asylum-seekers ("He went out of his way to try to get me fired, he wrote to the previous management here, various radio authorities and God knows who else".) That lapse, in 2003, led to the Broadcasting Standards Committee, upholding a complaint that the presenter was culpable of "active reinforcement of prejudiced views about asylum-seekers".
Asked about that episode Ferrari says: "What I said that day was 'Let's try and clear up the truth and the fiction about asylum-seekers, ring up and tell me what you've heard', which with hindsight was provocative. I think somebody was telling me a story and I didn't listen fully because someone was giving me an instruction. My fault – I'm not pretending otherwise. But I would point to the fact that I do three hours a day, 46 weeks a year, utterly unscripted and that's the only mistake I've made."
Not that he's a shock-jock. "No-oooh. There's absolutely no shock-jockery in what I do. I'm somebody who tries to be entertaining in an informative way and informative in an entertaining way."
Ferrari is the son of Lino "Dan" Ferrari, founder of the Ferrari of Dartford news agency, and as a boy he answered the phone for the agency's young reporters, Richard Stott (later editor of the Daily Mirror) and MacKenzie (later editor of The Sun). He has newspapers in his blood and the format of his show reflects that.
"It's like a rambling early-morning newspaper conference," he says. "I've sat through conferences at the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the News of the World and The Sun. You get cynical, hardened journalists discussing the stories of the day and because they are all desperate to be top dog they all throw in witty one-liners to get the editor's attention. My show is a rambling tabloid news conference. All human tragedy is there but when you can you put a bit of light in the shade."
Though the Wikipedia entry suggests that Nick Ferrari, outspoken as he is, may have picked up one or two enemies along his career path, he is not easily embarrassed and a feature of his broadcasting is its frankness. "I can't expect the listeners to tell me sometimes the most harrowing, moving, upsetting or humorous stories about their lives if I never tell them anything about mine, it has to be a two -way street."
He then recounts the tale of one of his callers, "Claire from Temple Fortune". "She told me what it was like to be a teenage girl in Auschwitz. She goes through it and both of us were gulping and it was all very tough. She said I've told you things I've never even told my grandchildren, I said why are you telling me? She said "Because I know I can trust you". For my listeners that makes Auschwitz absolutely relevant, far more than any politician, any lecture, any rabbi, or church leader. It brings it all out in full, hideous colour. You don't get that from people unless you share a bit about yourself."
Ferrari suggests that talk radio comes easier to those who, like him, are to the right of centre politically. If you are more on the right wing of politics you are able to say right, prison works, we need to pay nurses more and what the hell is going on with MPs expenses. "If you're on the left you say prison does work in some cases but in other cases it doesn't. It's much more difficult to make it exciting and punchy. It's more succinct to be to the right. But humour has to underscore everything. It doesn't matter if it's The Sun, the Telegraph or The Independent, there has to be some humour. You read (Richard) Littlejohn he makes you laugh as well as scream."
Last Friday, Ferrari performed a version of his show for a packed audience at Croydon's Fairfield Hall. The performance he's most proud of, though, is his part as a talk show host in Ricky Gervais's Extras. His script, signed by Gervais, hangs in his toilet.
He talks reverentially about all of his famous ex-colleagues. Rupert, or "Mr Murdoch" as Ferrari refers to him was "Superb! Oh!-Fantastic!" He praises MacKenzie too, even though he was fired by him.
"Yes, of course he got rid of me from the old Talk Radio. He replaced me with Alan Brazil. What's the point in having breakfast on a sports station presented by a bloke who clearly couldn't shift his arse up to the halfway line?" he says, pragmatically.
When MacKenzie was his boss at Live TV, he was sent out to buy a 6ft bunny costume with "bloody great ears" for the station's "newscaster". "To which I replied 'What colour do you want the rabbit?' I didn't want to get it wrong – if I'd produced a white rabbit and he wanted grey I'd have got another kicking."
On his own initiative, Ferrari came up with Live's Topless Darts show and the notion of a weather report from a dwarf who couldn't reach Scotland on the map.
Ferrari is a natural-born raconteur and he could keep the media anecdotes coming all day long. "I was part of Bingo Wars, when (Robert) Maxwell decided the Mirror would pay out the first million pound bingo win and Mr Murdoch decided The Sun would beat him to it," he says, launching into a story that ends with eight Sun journalists guarding a bingo millionaire in a luxury hotel.
"So he's won a million pounds and the first thing he wants ...when he gets to this luxurious hotel ...is ...a plate of baked beans. The deputy night news editor had to go and find a plate of baked beans."
The World and London According to Nick Ferrari, published by John Blake Publishing, is out now
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