John Sergeant: You Ask The Questions

So can the news still shock you? Were you a difficult child? And what's the truth about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's relationship?
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The Independent Online

Born in Oxford, John Sergeant, 60, joined the BBC in 1970 as a reporter on radio news. He was a special correspondent in many parts of the world, covering conflicts including the Vietnam War. After 12 years as the corporation's chief political correspondent, he became political editor of ITN in 2000. Since leaving ITN, he has appeared on Have I Got News for You and has been a judge on ITV's Vote for Me. His autobiography, Give Me Ten Seconds, was published in 2001. He lives in Ealing with his wife Mary, and has two grown-up sons.

Born in Oxford, John Sergeant, 60, joined the BBC in 1970 as a reporter on radio news. He was a special correspondent in many parts of the world, covering conflicts including the Vietnam War. After 12 years as the corporation's chief political correspondent, he became political editor of ITN in 2000. Since leaving ITN, he has appeared on Have I Got News for You and has been a judge on ITV's Vote for Me. His autobiography, Give Me Ten Seconds, was published in 2001. He lives in Ealing with his wife Mary, and has two grown-up sons.

On which story you were reporting were you most terrified?
Paul Davidson, Ipswich

When the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974. The Greeks put a machine gun on the top of the hotel I was staying in. It was their strongest position against the Turks, so the Turks decided to bomb the hotel. I was told later that they were halfway from Turkey when they decided that it wouldn't be a good idea to kill lots of journalists. We were trapped there for two days, and I was extremely frightened. I remember trying to listen to Round the Horne and not finding it funny at all in those circumstances.

As a reporter, you must have seen the worst of human nature. Can the news still shock you, or have you become immune to the evils of humanity?
Helen Drury, London

No, I haven't become immune. One of the awful things about becoming older is that you become more sensitive. It's because you can look at any scene of horror and imagine what it is like to be the father, the son, the brother. When you are younger, you are much more wrapped up in yourself, so a lot of these scenes don't seem very real. Also, I've been to many war zones, so I can imagine quite easily what it's like to be there. When I was in Vietnam as a young reporter, I think I was much better able to cope than I would be now.

Are the British media guilty of "hotel journalism"?
Liz Fielding, Brighton

Yes. Many journalists don't leave their hotels often enough when covering a war. And it's getting worse. Baghdad is a classic example: you simply can't go out on the streets without an armed guard. It's an astonishing reversal. In the past, you always went out. When I covered Vietnam, I was there when the little girl ran naked down the street with napalm burns, an image that became symbolic of the war. Things were very different then. I only communicated with my office once a week. Now journalists are trying to feed 24-hour news channels.

Were you a difficult child?
Pat Duncan, by e-mail

I'd like to think I was difficult. I was disruptive in classes, but that was because I asked lots of questions: it was the kind of disruption teachers generally like. The awful truth is probably that I was good at school. I did try to run away from home once when I was four or five. But my brother peed on the bread we'd got for our supplies, so we had to go back.

The people have spoken and they want Rodney Hylton-Potts. What do you think of this, and do you feel partly responsible for his triumph because you were one of the judges on the reality-TV programme that he won, Vote for Me?
Claire Hardy, Newcastle

I try not to feel responsible. I certainly spoke against him at every point. A lot of people are worked up about immigration at the moment, and that was why he won. I used to fancy myself as a politician when I was younger, but not once I had became a successful journalist. As a political correspondent I got a lot of the fun of politics - the trips, the dinners - but I didn't have to kill anyone, or sack anyone. I don't crave that awesome responsibility.

What is the truth about the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?
Clive Read, by e-mail

The truth is that they are involved in a hideous personality struggle. Some people say that there is an element of ideological struggle involved, but I don't think so. I think it's much more: "I want your job." I believe Gordon Brown will take over eventually. He is leadership material. Any rival has got to do a lot of work in the next few years to catch up with him.

When Jeremy Paxman interviews politicians, he apparently asks himself: "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" What do you ask yourself when interviewing politicians?
Owen Ballard, Chichester

What I ask myself is: "How can I ask the hardest possible question in the politest possible way?" Often, I ask what appears to be an easy question to draw them into two harder questions, hoping to ensnare them. Of course, this approach can backfire - in 1981, I asked a member of Leon Brittan's constituency about his budget, which was amazingly unpopular at the time, and she just fainted.

Did you have any idea that John Major was having an affair with Edwina Currie?
Harriet Manning, Chester

No, I didn't. Like everyone else at Westminster, I kicked myself when I heard. I also thought (like lots of men), why her? She was such a go-getter, very extravagant, eager to make an impact. She was the last sort of person you'd expect to have a discreet affair. It shows what a gambler Major was. At many points, he was amazingly vulnerable to her letting the cat out of the bag.

Boris Johnson. Discuss.
Ben Granger, Birmingham

Boris has to make a decision about whether to be a clown or not. People love the way he blurts things out. They think he's blurting out the truth (although he doesn't always). To be a top-notch politician, you must have a very clear idea of what you are doing. Sometimes, it seems that Boris doesn't.

Is it true that you once had a brush with death while in a car with John Simpson? If so, what happened?
Ursula Jones, Cardiff

Well, we thought it was a brush with death. We were in Derry in Northern Ireland together in the early Seventies. I was driving our brand-new hire car back to the hotel car park. When we got there, the door was wrenched open and a man shouted: "Don't move or I'll blast your head off." He then drove us into the Bogside at about 80mph. John was extremely cool, as you would imagine, and I was extremely uncool. When we got to the Bogside, we were let go and told to walk back. John even asked for our tape recorders. As we walked, we realised the awful truth: the man was not armed. He'd threatened us with his thumb.

What can you achieve in 10 seconds?
Chris Hardman, Birmingham

Pulling an argument together. I used to ask for a prompt when I had 10 seconds left on a live broadcast so I could bring it to a neat conclusion. That's why I called my autobiography Give Me Ten Seconds, because I was trying to sum up my life, which has been immensely complicated - as everyone's is. This was my conclusion: "From an early age, and throughout my long journalistic career, I've always tried to chart my own course, to be myself."

How important is schoolboy humour to grown-up news reporters?
Penny Harold, London

Very important. When you're up against the apex of power, the temptation to fool about like schoolboys is enormous. One of my favourite moments happened in Okinawa in Japan, at an economic summit. I was standing in the hotel foyer when Tony Blair walked past with his entourage. I thought: "What shall I do now?" I decided to bow - we were in Japan, after all. As I did so, a voice from the back said: "Lower, Sergeant, lower!" It was Alastair Campbell.

'Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy' by John Sergeant is out now (Macmillan, £20)

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