Ten Minutes with... John Rentoul

Written by Ben Duckworth on 8 November 2012 in Culture
The Independent on Sunday columnist discusses his love of questions to which the answer is “No!”


This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics

I’m afraid it’s very childish and silly. It tickles me. That’s the joy of blogging; you’re sort of muttering to yourself in the corner and amusing yourself, and you find out what tickles other people. It all started with that mad bishop three years ago who denied the Holocaust. 

The Daily Mail ran that headline asking if it was all because of a grudge against Marks & Spencer. I just found that amusing. It turned out that other people liked that sort of thing too and started sending them in. I don’t read the Mail prodigiously but others do. Other examples that tickled our fancies came up, and off we went. 

Does the field of politics provide rich pickings?

The funniest ones are UFO, aliens, JFK conspiracies and all the rest of it. There’s also the ‘Can this man cure cancer?’ sort of stuff, too. Because of my interest, the selection is biased towards politics, some of which can be incredibly obscure, like, ‘Can Labour’s opinion poll lead really only be three points?’ That was actually a question I asked myself on the blog. 

Politics produces lots. My favourites were the time when the European Council met to appoint the first EU president, and that very morning we had, ‘Is Tony Blair about to make the most remarkable political comeback ever?’, and variations on that theme. That was most enjoyable.

As Tony Blair’s biographer, do you keep a special eye out for ones which include him? He does inspire some good QTWTAIN.

There are several in the book, including, ‘Is Tony Blair a dictator?’, ‘Does Tony Blair model himself on a dictator?’, and all the rest of it – complete with a Mail photomontage of Tony Blair and Napoleon. I’m not immune to this thing myself. 

I’ve asked QTWTAIN and written an entire book – the title was Me and Mine: The Triumph of the New Individualism? Of course, in an act of immense cowardice I realised my treatise was actually the reverse, so I put a question mark on it after the headline because, having set out to prove Thatcher had created a new individualism, I discovered the opposite. It was my first QTWTAIN.

Now that you’ve been running this series for three years, have you become addicted to reading rubbish news stories?

I’ve always enjoyed it. The Mail front page yesterday was a classic [example] of the finest of British journalism, because it had a BBC story as its main lead, headlined, ‘Sex Pig’. It had a QTWTAIN that went something like, ‘Do we need men any more?’

And it had a big picture of François Hollande’s mistress, so you had an affair as the main picture. You’ve got to admire journalism like that. The Mail has millions more readers than the Independent on Sunday, unfortunately. 

Is asking whether you’ll ever stop QTWTAIN a QTWTAIN?

I’m afraid so. There is a special sub-category of what I call ‘Smart Alec’ questions, things like, ‘Is this a QTWTAIN?’, ‘Do you think QTWTAIN is ever going to get boring?’ I’ll go on doing it as long as it tickles me. I’ve gone past 850 now in the last three years. I might stop when I go past 1,000.

For readers who might want to point out QTWTAIN, what’s the perfect formula for a political QTWTAIN? 

That would [be] something [like], ‘Did Barack Obama lose the first presidential debate on purpose?’ That is the typical, semi-serious QTWTAIN. You propose some preposterous conspiracy theory that imagines that politicians are many times cleverer at double bluffing than they are. In politics, stuff happens because of cock-ups, not because of conspiracies, yet people always read too much into things like that. Obama lost because he wasn’t concentrating and wasn’t up to speed on it. Over-analysis and conspiracy theories: those are the two things that I rather enjoy making fun of.

Questions to Which the Answer is “No!” by John Rentoul is out now (Elliott & Thompson, £11.99)

Tags: Issue 52, John Rentoul

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