Watching Eddy Mair’s brilliant unravelling of Boris Johnson is a hugely enjoyable experience, for those of us who believe that beneath his cheeky chappie veneer, lurks a hollow Tory flim flam man on the make. In a few deft minutes of questioning, Mair delivered a series of killer blows to the tousled-haired one’s reputation from which he may not recover from some time.
It wasn’t just that Johnson looked completely flummoxed and inept as he squirmed beneath Mair’s implacable gaze – he came over as downright disreputable, the kind of guy you would never consider buying a used car from, let alone send to Downing Street (although with the British electorate in its current mood, you never know).
By the time Mair calmly observed ‘You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’ Johnson was no longer waving but drowning, and virtually pleading with his interrogator to talk about something else – anything else but him presumably.
Mair’s interview was also a reminder of how easy it is to achieve these effects, and also how rare such moments are. Too often journalists – especially BBC journalists – only go through the motions of being challenging and confrontational when talking to powerful politicians. Compare, for example, Mair’s interrogation with the gentle game of paddle tennis that Kirsty Walk played with Tony Blair a fortnight ago.
Blair is a far nastier piece of work than Johnson, whose dishonesty has had far more serious consequences. So he deserved at least as intense a grilling, especially on the anniversary of the Iraq war.
But he didn’t get one from Madame Walk, who treated him mostly with reverential respect and accepted his answers at face value. Mair essentially called Johnson a liar. It is impossible to imagine any journalist calling out Blair, or Donald Rumsfeld, or George Bush in the same way.
One reason may be that all these men are – or have been- more powerful than the Mayor of London. In addition, the line of Mair’s questioning was generally focused on Johnson’s personal integrity and character, rather than his political dishonesty.
On issues of war and national security, by contrast, journalists tend to become more timid and reverential towards the politicians involved in such matters, and more like rabbits staring into headlights, even though – or perhaps because – there is more at stake.
Which is a great pity, because Mair’s interview really showed how easy it is to take dishonest politicians down.
All you have to do is ask the right questions, and keep on asking them.