Monday, March 25, 2013

The Nightmair before Breakfast

“You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”

Eddie Mair’s interview with Boris Johnson yesterday morning was a brutal disembowelling, a deflating of one of the great characters in politics, and it was great fun to watch. I doubt, however, that it will do much damage to BoJo’s reputation in the long run. As the Prime Minister said today: "Never underestimate the ability of Boris to get out of a tight spot."

Those tearing into Johnson yesterday and today hated him already; while those he has charmed in the past — and he has been electorally the most (the only?) successful Tory politician of the past two decades despite his many foibles — will soon forget this. Johnson, like Bill Clinton, has an easy knack of making people overlook his failings.

Yet it was quite a surprise how poorly he handled Mair. Johnson tends to be good at moving on after gaffes. He has, after all, had a bit of practice. The usual method is to apologise (something so few politicians ever consider when in the wrong), quip something in Latin or preferably Aramaic and steer the conversation on to something else with lashings of charm. I don't know why he didn't do the same yesterday; it's not as if he was hit with new weapons.

The three questions about his personal integrity that Mair put to him had all been aired extensively in the past and, grating though it must be for them to come up again, Johnson could have waved them off with his usual “admit and apologise” strategy. Here’s how:

Did you make up a quote while working for The Times? “Yes, gosh, that was terribly poor form of me. Schoolboy error, quite rightly given six of the best and sent packing. I never thought my own godfather, of whom I fabricated the quote, would grass me up. Still, it was years ago and everyone knows about it.”

Did you lie to Michael Howard about your affair? “Yes, cripes, who hasn’t lied when confronted by a beak about having an affair? Quite rightly given six of the best and sent packing. Deeply regret it now. Mea maxima culpa.”

Did you tell Darius Guppy you’d give him a journalist’s address so he could get him beaten up? “Yes, that’s been gone over lots of times as well. Very bad of me, but the old bean was in a dreadful state and chums say silly things in private conversations that they don’t mean. I never did act on that promise. Don't you have any new questions you want to ask me?”

I think the main reason why Johnson handled these questions so badly is Mair’s manner. He is like a disapproving headmaster, never sneering or raising his voice but able to make his subject feel small and his own displeasure quite clear. It has the effect of making politicians feel bashful and ashamed.

The quote at the top of this piece, a damningly blunt attack, was delivered in a calm, level tone and so felt more damaging. Mair is the ideal iron fist inside a velvet glove.

I experienced the Mair method myself 18 months ago when I went on Radio 4’s PM to talk about The Times’s scoop of getting hold of the RFU dossier into England’s poor rugby World Cup.

Mair, in the same calm but damning tone, accused us of sensationalism, saying that we had “only published the negative comments and none of the positive feedback”.

I replied that the three dossiers leaked to my colleague, Mark Souster, amounted to 100 A4 double-spaced pages and that over the previous four days we had given 23 pages of The Times to reporting what was said, meaning there was barely a sentence left out. I also pointed out a few of the positive comments we had published and said the reason we didn’t print more is there simply weren’t more.

I think I did a good job, but I was speaking from a position of honesty and still felt besieged. I can well imagine how off-putting Mair’s style must be to someone who has something to feel ashamed about even, as in Johnson’s case, when the story is public anyway.

The main thing that came out of the Sunday morning humiliation was not the effect it will have on Johnson’s career, but what it might do to Mair’s. Instead of standing in for the big names when they are away, as he is doing for Andrew Marr on Sundays and has done for Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, he deserves a regular crack on one of the BBC’s punchiest programmes. It would become required viewing.

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