John Walsh on Monday: Old interviewers are the nation's fifth estate

  • @johnhenrywalsh
IT'S BEEN a good week for former journalists. First, `Gorgeous' Gus Macdonald inherits the top transport job as John Prescott moves aside to concentrate on what, in his opaque idiolect, he calls `the coming areas - the urban and rural White Papers, housing and planning'.

One's heart goes out to Mr Prescott, not just for his habit of speaking in impossibly contorted metaphors (he is surely the only person in the UK who regards a Government White Paper as an `area', let alone one which is, as it were, approaching) but also for his endlessly backfiring vainglory.

Listening to his praise at the weekend for Lord Macdonald - `Here is a guy who will get on with it' - you couldn't help hearing an implied self-criticism, that Mr Prescott himself has always been a guy who will do no such thing.

When he selected the multiple portfolio of transport, environment and the regions as his personal fiefdom after the last election, we knew he was after too much, if only geographically speaking. It was a passion for ownership, the impulse of a Yukon claim-staker, a Gold Rush land-grabber.

Prescott was like some Dark Ages robber baron, wanting to have all the land, the roads, the fields, the lakes, the cart-tracks, the woods and heather-strewn hills under his control, so that he could feel securely in power.

But I digress. I'm intrigued by the rise of Gus Macdonald from Clydeside marine fitter and Young Socialist firebrand to Scottish Media Group mogul, life peer and Scottish Office minister who now assumes control over the future of the nation's road and rail networks. The point is that, as I understand it, he made it to this dizzying eminence by being a journalist who used to interview people. Not at Tribune, where he was circulation manager, nor at The Sunday Times or The Scotsman, but at Granada TV, where his walrussy moustache could be seen chairing the likes of Right To Reply in the dead hours of Saturday afternoon.

It was while he was editor of World In Action that he met Mr Prescott. He interviewed him, the two men got on well, Prescott steered stories his way and now, 15 years later, Gus's chickens have come home to roost.

This is the latest in a long line of journalistic elevations and it should cause anyone in the profession to stare out of the window in silent wonder. At one time, journalists aspired to be hacks-turned-novelists like Graham Greene or hacks-turned-dramatists like Tom Stoppard. Or they regarded what they did as a job for life, bringing a consignment of the news, a version of the truth, to the toast-racks of the world every morning. Rarely did they go into politics, with the odd exception such as Dick Crossman or Nigel Lawson. And those who got to be interviewers cherished their role as inquisitors of the powerful and famous. Now, it seems, one must regard it not so much as a career, but more as a stepping stone to the farthest shore of power and influence, whose presiding deity is Mr Alastair Campbell, late of the Daily Mirror and recently confirmed as being the second most powerful man in the kingdom.

It doesn't stop there. Look what becomes of female journalists. Sharing the front pages with Lord Macdonald yesterday was the lovely Lucy Heald, who was photographed on the arm of the boyish tennis player Tim Henman after their wedding on Saturday. Who is Ms Heald? She's a television producer. She met Timbo when she came to interview him for a documentary three years ago, and one thing led to another. Does this sound familiar? It should do. It's always happening. Jeremy Isaacs, late of the Royal Opera House, courted and married Gillian Widdicombe, the opera critic, after she interviewed him for The Observer (she had once famously interviewed a leading conductor in the bathtub). Alan Howard, the great Shakespearean actor, opened his front door one morning to be interviewed by Sally Beauman, the journalist- turned-novelist, and the two, in the words of that awful Spice Girls song, became one.

The newspaper interview is now the breeding ground for games of power and sex. Male hacks get the power and female ones get married, on the whole, but that's bound to change. It seems to me only a matter of time before Lynn Barber becomes Mayor of London, Valerie Grove enters the House of Lords and Andrew Billen takes over at the Treasury.

Speaking for myself, the only interviewee I ever found the least bit sexy was Keith Richards, the rock `n' roll vampire; and the only job I was ever offered by an interviewee was at a printing works in Fakenham. But I live in hope. Anyone got the number of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions?


MY DAUGHTER'S maths teacher has set her class the brilliant conundrum of imagining a dinner party in Heaven and deciding which 10 people they would invite to it. Oscar Wilde, you think to yourself, and Cleopatra, that would be an interesting pair, one so talkative and the other so polymorphously seductive, and Queen Elizabeth I, how fascinating she would be about, you know, armadas and virginity, and um, Napoleon and Josephine, if only to see how well they got on, and perhaps Jesus Christ, although obviously He would be frantically busy, sitting at his Father's right hand and running things in paradise.

On closer scrutiny, however, I'm not sure how attractive an idea this is. Historical figures can never withstand up-front inspection. You can somehow bet Fort Knox to a chrome washer that Oscar Wilde would turn out to be a relentless Irish snore, Cleopatra would be a raddled old baggage with an unfeasibly long nose, Napoleon would sulk in the kitchen all evening and Queen Elizabeth would smell like a side of blown beef. And given the prevailing atmosphere of sanctity, it would be hard to bitch about one's neighbours.

Things might be better in Hell, where you could at least get a close- up view of, say, Rasputin as he passed the broccoli to Macbeth and discussed housing conditions with Pol Pot. But again, you can sort of guarantee that the wickedest people wouldn't be what I believe are called A-type personalities, and wouldn't try very hard to charm the equally vile guests opposite them.

My daughter's friends have decided to invite Kurt Cobain, Aesop, Tutankhamun, Anne Frank, Walt Disney, Jane Austen, Groucho Marx, the explorer Mary Kingsley and, for some reason, both the Montgolfier brothers, possibly under the impression that they were a French boy band. This strikes me as an admirable list, though I would question the advisability of having Aesop to dinner, telling endless little anecdotes that all conclude with "...and the moral of that is..."

Myself, I'd bend the rules a little and invite luminaries from both paradise and pandemonium. On the door, acting as bouncer, would be Goliath. The head chef, Escoffier, would dish out orders to the parlourmaid (Mrs Beeton) while the coats would be collected by an imperturbably polite figure in black murmuring "Goot evenink" (Count Dracula). Ranged round the table would be Benjamin Disraeli, Marilyn Monroe, Socrates (just think of the to-and-fro of conversation), James Joyce, Queen Victoria, Ernest Hemingway, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Sam Cole-ridge, Jezebel and Grace O'Malley, the Irish pirate queen. But impossible it is to imagine having a conversation with any of them.


I HAD a small brush with fame a week or two ago, when I ran into Neil Hamilton in the loo at the High Court. No, it's not going to turn into a George Michael story; it is innocence personified. I was washing my hands at the only sink, and he was standing patiently behind me, waiting his turn.

Both of us had spent the morning listening to the testimony of Mohamed Al Fayed, with his constant assertions that Mr Hamilton was a crook and a greedy bastard. You could imagine Mr Hamilton not wishing to have anybody else drag up his past and call him names.

One is prepared, pro tempore, to give Mr Hamilton the benefit of the doubt, if only because I used to work with him at the Institute of Directors. Our spheres of interest did not collide much; he was a policy adviser or some such thing, while I was one of the editors of the institute's magazine. But we saw each other from time to time.

Now we were in the same cold white vestibule. I moved from the sink to the hot-air dryer. Mr Hamilton washed his hands and came and stood behind me. I turned round to apologise for taking so long and looked in his face. He looked at me. I was about to say "Hi, Neil" when a look of alarm spread over his face, a flicker of recognition of someone he had dimly known in the early Eighties...

Abruptly he was gone, hands undried. I feel bad about having caused such an honest man a moment's concern or having made him rush off, flapping the drops off his hands, the living image of Macbeth just after the murder.