First things first, I am neither a fan of Boris Johnson, nor do I subscribe to the view that he is a bumbling buffoon. Yet, Eddie Mair’s BBC interview on the Andrew Marr Show 24th April was a disgrace to mature political discourse in Britain.
Boris got skewered alright. Gone were the carefully calculated quips designed to deflect pressing personal questions. Instead, the Mayor of London looked distinctly ill at ease, squirming in his seat and glancing off camera.
Some complain that the media all too often gives Johnson a free pass on policy issues. But my experience listening to London radio is the opposite, that Johnson openly embraces the policy challenges thrown up by our confounding Capital metropolis. Whether to attack the Mayor for his public persona, or defend his unique brand of politics, it’s the media who chooses to propagate the ‘Boris cult’ of personality at the expense of policy. That’s a problem.
If the Independent’s crowing , Guardian’s shrill over-reaction, or the Twiterati’s excitable shrieks of glee are anything to go by, Johnson’s detractors revelled in his comeuppance. We certainly need bold journalists who probe in the right places, penetrate inconsistencies and who pick apart the lock of politicians’ public armour.
Mair achieved the latter.
But, what we saw on Sunday was a series of stilted questions delivered in monotone which made for uncomfortable viewing. Mair’s attempt to piece together fragments of Johnson’s personal life into a narrative of dishonesty and distrust, culminating in “you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”, was akin to the personality politics and character assassinations of US politics, not our supposedly mature political discourse.
Eddie Mair’s interview uncovered nothing new. He did not concentrate on policy, other than a cursory question. He did not help the viewer better understand vital economic and social concerns, from either Johnson’s role, locally, as Mayor of London 43e0 , or nationally, as close to the beating heart of government.
Instead, Mair served up a warm plate of regurgitated, and much reported, trivia on Johnson’s private life. But there is a deeper question – what exactly do we want from those who publicly hold our political elite to account?
If BBC political TV interviews are meant to fulfill a public education function, we need journalists to grill politicians on the key challenges we face and how our elected representatives seek to tackle them. Why have they adopted their position? Where are the inconsistencies? What does that mean for the public?
Next time, Eddie Mair, present the facts, argue inconsistencies and make them squirm as much as necessary. Give us the answers we need in the way you see fit. But, please, leave the personality politics to one side and remember that a mature political discourse is not to be forsaken lightly.
Leave the voters to decide what they think of politicians’ personal discrepancies and leave out the tabloid-worthy insults and American-style character plots. And if we can do that in a way that maintains at least a minimum standard of respect to one another, then all the better.
Andrew Marr let that standard drop in his infamous question to Gordon Brown (1) in 2009, Eddie Mair let it drop again.
P.S. How to deal with crass questions, from the master.
1. Excuse the poor quality video and ‘torybear.com’ host.