Ten minutes with... Jim Naughtie

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 1 April 2014 in Culture
Anoosh Chakelian asks the Today programme presenter about how politicians have changed, life behind the scenes of Radio 4's flagship news show, and his new spy novel. Photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Why haven’t you identified the political parties people belong to in your book, The Madness of July?

I didn’t want to say, ‘this man is in the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, or this government is such-and-such’ and have people say ‘ooh – is that Jim Callaghan?’ That, I think, is tedious. A book that is a crossword puzzle or a cipher is boring – well certainly to me. This is supposed to be a good plot, which tells the story of people involved in something extraordinary.

So it’s not because you think all parties are the same?

No, no, no, absolutely not. Not in the least. I’m in favour of diversity… If you want to write a book about right versus left, then you write a book about that. I’ve written a book about how individuals who are the kinds of people who end up in politics, the civil service, or indeed the secret services, respond to crises that come from nowhere. What they do, and the consequences of what they do, is what intrigues me.

Do you have any sympathy with the political disillusionment Jeremy Paxman voiced fairly recently?

I understand where he’s coming from. I don’t come from the same place. I suppose I can imagine an election in which I didn’t vote. And I can certainly imagine elections, and have known them, I mean local, European, parliamentary, whatever, where I haven’t thought the choices were particularly appetising. I think that’s life. But I do not take the Russell Brand scorched earth view of politics, I think it’s profoundly depressing and people are entitled to think what they want.

Why did you set your book in ‘70s Westminster rather than the modern day?

I wrote the rough draft, and my wife – she’s a writer – said to me ‘when’s it set?’ And I said, ‘sort of now’. I wasn’t sure whether it was historical, is it now or in the future? And she said ‘why don’t you go back to the time when you first arrived in the Commons in the ‘70s’, and I have very vivid images of that period in my mind. And I said ‘well I can’t because there are all sorts of plot things that involve texts and phones and emails’, and she said, ‘well get rid of them’. So I went back and took all that stuff out, and of course it was a liberation! A minister can walk out of his office and go missing for two hours and no one knows where he is. It’s inconceivable for this generation. So that’s wonderful!

Have you found politicians have changed since that time your book is set?

The obvious one is the rise of the professional politician. The person who runs the student union, then goes to a think tank, then becomes a special adviser, and then gets fast-tracked. Irrespective of party. And they expect to be a minister by the time they’re 31 or 32. And I’m not saying such people are bad or incompetent, but I think the [change from the] weft and weave of the House of Commons where you had all kinds of people jumbled up is something that older hands are quite right to regret. I don’t think it’s just a fuddy duddy kind of ‘wasn’t it all wonderful in the old days?’ – of course it wasn’t wonderful in all kinds of ways. But I do think the narrowing of the spectrum of experience is something that I suspect wise people right across politics [lament], that there is an Americanisation of the system in the sense that there is a recognised route for a 21-year-old who is interested in politics – you just do it and you can get there. And of course there are people who come in through different routes, but many fewer than used to be the case, and personally I think that’s a loss. I think there is a danger of a sort of monochrome political figure emerging, which I think can detract from the richness of parliament.

Does this make it more difficult to interview politicians?

With 24 hour news and so on… now you have political people [who] are very well-trained and quite adept at not answering questions. If you have enough time, you can have a go at them. But the speak-your-weight machine interview is a great irritation to listeners and viewers as much as it is to us. When I first used to work in Westminster in the late ‘70s, you’ve got to remember there were very, very few places where people did interviews… 15 years later, with wall-to-wall 24-hour news and the constant soundbite world, I think that finding a way to subvert the soundbite world is a duty for all of us and it’s quite difficult… As somebody who would never argue against more outlets, one of the consequences we have to cope with is that people are trained up earlier and more efficiently and more boringly to avoid being interesting, avoid getting to the point. And I think we have to work quite hard to stop that. The joy of interviewing a political figure who breaks the rules is profound. We need more of them, we need more oddballs I think.

What are your fellow Today programme colleagues like behind the scenes?

Are they like what they are on stage? Yes… if we all sounded the same and had the same interests and take on things, you’d quickly find that it was a very tedious programme… The point of a programme like Today is the only way it works is if the presenters are allowed, indeed encouraged, to let a bit of their own personality through. If you’re talking about a set-piece interview with a cabinet minister at 8.10, it’s obvious we’d all do it differently, and if we didn’t it would be ridiculous. There are a hundred ways to skin a cat anyway! We’re all different characters and we’re all very good friends… It’s the most surprising thing I think I could tell people – actually we all get along quite well, which in a way is odd. Of course, you want to do well and of course there’s an element of rivalry, we all understand that… [But] it’s just not like that, it’s four in the morning, you’re sitting there, you’re having a cup of tea.

Many complain of an unequal gender balance on Today. What’s your view?

There are two woman presenters for a start. I think there was a time when it probably did reflect the social balance which was very much that way, that people who ran things, who tend to be on the Today programme, were men. If you did an item on the City 10 years ago, it would’ve been very difficult to interview a woman who mattered because of the way the City was run. Now that’s not a problem on the Today programme; that’s a problem in the City. If you’re doing a sport slot for five minutes, how many football managers are women? It’s not a problem of our making, is the point I’m making. I think we do try actually quite hard to make sure that if you’re casting a discussion with commentators, you get a much closer gender balance. But we are not a sociological laboratory. We’ve got to reflect the society we’re in… I think that the general point about women representation was and is a good one, and I think that it has and is being addressed. When I start getting nervous and reaching for a stiff glass is when people start using percentages. ‘This percentage of the population is X, why don’t you have the same percentage?’ I mean, that’s just silly.

Do you think David Cameron should debate with Alex Salmond?

Well, I know the two arguments very well. I think both arguments are defensible. It’s quite defensible for the PM to say, ‘look I don’t have a vote in this’. On the other side, Alex Salmond says ‘in this case, we have the PM coming to Scotland, making speeches, so he is involved, so why won’t he talk to me?’ Politically, I think Cameron is absolutely right not to debate with him, and I think Alex Salmond is perfectly right, politically, to make a fuss about it.

The Madness of July by James Naughtie is published by Head of Zeus, and available in hardback for £12.99

This is an extended version of the article in the April 2014 issue

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