DECCA AITKENHEAD is one of the best interviewers in the business; so, her account of what happens when the customary machinery breaks down will teach you a great deal about how journalism works. In August 2008, she was sent to interview the then Chancellor, Alistair Darling. He was on holiday, but had agreed to meet her at the tiny croft on the Isle of Lewis where he was staying with his wife.
“His wife, Maggie, a gregarious former journalist, called me to make the arrangements,” Aitkenhead recalled in The Sunday Times, after Darling’s death last week. “‘We’d invite you to stay at the croft,’ she said, ‘but we go through the spare room to get to our bedroom, and you probably wouldn’t want Alistair walking past your bed to go to the loo in the night.’ It was quite the image.
“When the photographer and I arrived, I barely recognised him. Standing at a little wooden gate, hair blowing wildly in the wind, he had a bowl of Maggie’s soup in one hand, and was pointing with the other at eagles overhead.”
Not only did he greet her like a normal human being; he talked as if she were one, too. He said simple, obvious, true things about the state of the country and of the economy — this was at the start of the Great Financial Crisis, something from which the West has never properly recovered. “The economic times we were facing, he said bluntly, ‘are arguably the worst they’ve been in 60 years. And I think it’s going to be more profound and long-lasting than people thought. . . This coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour Party has had in a generation, quite frankly. Both the general economic situation, and in terms of the politics.
“In the face of such a crisis, he admitted, a cabinet reshuffle would be meaningless. ‘Frankly, if you had a reshuffle just now, I think the public would say, “Who are they anyway?”’”
Aitkenhead is trying to be sympathetic here. The whole tone and purpose of her piece is that Darling was a man of outstanding decency and integrity who should be remembered for these qualities. Yet she can’t avoid using the verb “admitted”, a journalistic tic to suggest that the interview took place under caution, and that the person interviewed was certainly guilty of something, and the only question is what.
Yet, the whole point of the story is that Darling was speaking without caution — as Aitkenhead was, too: talking to Maggie Darling, she found herself “within minutes disclosing personal confidences I’d never even shared with close friends”. But these, of course, were not going to be shared with the readers, either. To frame the problem in an obsolete technology, the power not to print what’s on your tape recorder is much more to be feared than the power to print it.
In the croft on Lewis, the atmosphere was so intimate that none of them in the room, including the Darlings’ press secretary, seemed to notice that what he had said was unsayable and inadmissible on the mainland. The bubble of shared humanity popped a fortnight later only, when her interview was printed in The Guardian: “A fortnight later I walked into my local newsagent to see “WORST IN 60 YEARS!” on every single paper’s front page. Magazine interviewers are seldom lucky enough to land a scoop, and my phone was buzzing with congratulatory texts, but staring at the headlines, all I felt was blind panic.”
WHAT this story illustrates so unforgettably is that any interview with a powerful figure is false at its root. As the interviewer, writing up afterwards, you are constructing a simulacrum of an honest, human conversation. If it was the real thing — assuming your subject is capable of such warmth, and that you are, too — it would damage their career most horribly. I don’t mean that people never tell the truth in interviews: it’s my experience that they very rarely lie. But all the most interesting, true things — the ones that they have to know to do their job properly — are taboo. The only way in which they can reach the public is under Chatham House rules. Never forget this when you read an interview with a public person.
There is a curious double bind involved: Darling would have been wholly unfit for his job if he had not understood how terrible the situation was and acted on his understanding. But to say it publicly diminished his power, and, with it, his ability to affect the situation that he’d quite correctly diagnosed.
IT IS not just politicians. Academic theologians know that Moses probably never existed, and that St Paul was a less assiduous correspondent than the Bible suggests — and the only thing protecting them from obloquy is their obscurity. That used not to shelter them: older readers will remember the case of the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, whose tragedy was that he could express himself concisely only when he shouldn’t have said anything at all. And, while X/Twitter lasts (I give it a year), absolutely anyone can become briefly notorious for giving their honest opinion.