Sir Roger Scruton and the perils of interviews

03 May 2019

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I LIKE Sir Roger Scruton. There: I’ve said it. I know him slightly, and once interviewed him at his home for a profile. He once showed a real friend of mine great and imaginative kindness when it was needed, even though the two men could not be further apart philosophically or politically.

These things matter when weighing up character. I think that his political views are reprehensible and wrong, but they are not what makes him interesting. I have read about half a dozen of his books over the years.

They range from the sublime to the ineffably silly. His Gifford lectures I found fascinating and profound, partly because his concept of God is so very close to atheism, but his book on the Church of England can reduce historians to helpless wheezing giggles. He is one of those men in whom the troubled adolescent is never far beneath the surface, and his intellect seems buffeted by an uncontrollably romantic imagination. I’m sure he’s been both flattered and exploited by the politicians to whom he has offered his support.

So the fight about him between the New Statesman, whose deputy editor got him sacked from a government advisory position (Comment, 18 April), and The Spectator, which accused the other weekly of malpractice, makes an interesting question of journalistic ethics.

I think the whole transcript of the interview makes it quite clear that George Eaton, of the New Statesman, wanted quotes that would make the philosopher look bad and generate headlines. He got them. Scruton was sacked from his quango. In the backlash, the whole transcript was published, and it could be seen by anyone who cared to look just how far out of context his words had been taken.

Interviewing is always more or less fraudulent in quite distinctive ways: both parties are pretending to sincerity more earnestly than in most conversations. The interviewer is of necessity two-faced: one face is turned towards the interviewee, and one towards the readers.

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The question of professional ethics is how far the expressions on these two faces should diverge. At one extreme, you have the work of the late Gitta Sereny, whose book-length interviews with genuine monsters such as Albert Speer were accused of sugar-coating his monstrosity by making him seem sympathetic.

At the other extreme, you have the political style of interview as a performance, where the whole point is to demonstrate the fraudulence, stupidity, and all-round moral inadequacy of the victim. Off to one side is the standard celebrity interview, in which both parties are lying, both parties know it, and neither much cares. The point is only to publicise the name of whatever the celebrity is selling (if it’s not themselves).

I have done both. When I started in journalism, I dreamed of catching people out, and sometimes succeeded. As I grew up, or simply grew older, I became interested in interviewing people as if they, too, were human.

Sir Roger, in this interview, says some things that are factually wrong, some that are silly, and some that most readers would disagree with. Perhaps there is someone out there who could talk for an hour to a stranger without falling into those errors. But it’s obvious that he is trying to think and trying to make himself clear. These are rare qualities in an interviewee, and he was not for one second forgiven them.

A journalist is not just a stenographer. When people say things that seem wrong and silly in an interview, they should be recorded, but also challenged on the spot. “Do you really mean?” is an extremely useful question. “It seems to me that you’re saying. . .” is another. Obviously, these are useful only when you are dealing with someone who wants to tell the truth — but Sir Roger did.

There are people on the Left who simply reverse the polarities of the Daily Mail: they regard all conservatives as utterly mendacious scum — enemies who must at any costs be crushed. But, Left or Right, we all work within a market that is much more interested in the pleasurable stimulation of outrage than in an attempt dispassionately to explore the ideas of a philosopher.

That is why I think that Alan Rusbridger’s suggestion that the full transcript of interviews be published alongside the edited version won’t really solve the problem. It will be a help, but few readers care deeply enough to explore these things. That is one of the reasons we edit them in the first place.

The problem seems particularly acute when it comes to conveying the religious dimension of stories — or, indeed, people. Even when journalists are scrupulous, they probably lack much of the needed background. The Religion Media Centre, an outfit which is trying to do something about this (Comment, 26 April), held a study day in London (which I missed) which contained a discussion of non-religion. That seems to me really important. Only the study of non-religion — which will, for most journalists, involve some introspection — can make clear that we all have metaphysical presumptions, and so give us the basis to examine other people’s.

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