The former editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, credits me with giving him some unsolicited sage advice.
Back in the 1990s I was working on a BBC programme called The World Tonight (or as my husband, who found it to be aural Mogadon, termed it, The World To Sleep) .
I told A.R. that, in my bitter experience, there were always rentagobs — we know who they are and so do all assistant producers — whom you could rely on to fill airtime and how, in the end, you stopped listening to them and groaned at the mere mention of their names.
‘So never go on radio or TV,’ I told Alan, ‘unless you really have something to say.’
Needless to admit, I break my own rule most days and am now doing a debate show on Sky News called The Pledge where the execs take the precaution of sitting a lawyer in the gallery throughout the recording in case one of the panellists drops a clanger. So far so good anyway, but it’s only a matter of time until I’m in hot water… again.
The problem is, I’m a hack. I’ve been a reporter and interviewer myself, so I understand the game. The reporter wants a usable clip, ideally a repeatable soundbite.
If you’ve been on both sides of the mic, you know it’s bad form to agree to give an interview and fail to come up with a top line — or at the very least provide some crumbs that other outlets can pick up from the long liquid lunch table.
So I am aware of the perils of punditry. In fact, I sometimes start a sentence live on air when I have no idea how it will end, and I think I once said on the Today programme: ‘I’m sorry, what was the question again?’
However, if pressed I would pick the following broadcast howlers as my worst. The first came on the night in May 2008 of my brother’s first mayoral election triumph. We were all at a party at Millbank Tower, the hour was late, much drink had been taken, and the triumphant new mayor had swept in, trailing a pink-faced and pleased David Cameron, when my phone buzzed as pre-planned at five to midnight with a call from BBC radio. A friendly voice said the presenter was interviewing Ken Livingstone and would come to me at the top of the hour.
So for five whole minutes I shot the breeze with the producer. ‘Tell us about the party while we wait,’ he said. ‘What’s it like?’
So on I warbled on about the ‘massive ice sculpture’, the rivers of champagne, the oyster bar, and as I went on and on, I suddenly saw young Dylan Sharpe, a junior from the Vote Boris campaign, hurtling through the throng towards me.
‘Stop!’ he panted, grabbing my phone.
Later he said he’d had a call from the press team with the awful tidings: ‘Rachel Johnson is broadcasting live from the party on 5 Live’ and of course, the next day, the Mirror had the Rivers Of Champagne ‘victory rally’ as its Page 9 lead. ‘New Mayor, Same Old Tories’ was the headline, and then a huge pull quote from me: ‘We’ve had Champagne, caviar and oysters — London belongs to Boris!’ I am withholding my ghastlier comments.
The next worst moment was when I was doing Newsnight on the Panama Papers. I’d decided I felt really sorry for DC because his late dad’s name had been dragged through the mud.
Evan Davis goggled at me, unable to believe his luck. He said I would be on the side of the capitalist pigs wouldn’t I, being an entitled blonde from a landed family.
Now this hurt. We’re immigrants and have never had any money! I wish!
So I fluted in protest: ‘The Johnsons are neither posh nor rich’ and was mercilessly mocked on Twitter for days.
The one time I really came a cropper, though, was when I genuinely did have something to say. It was at the Cambridge Union, in a debate against Katie Price on the subject of female ambition. I argued for the motion that only the lack of it held women back.
Katie stumbled through her script. She swore. Above all, she misunderstood the motion and actually made her ‘speech’ on the wrong (i.e., my) side. (‘There’s no such fing as can’t,’ she mumbled, to loud cheers.)
She still won the debate with a landslide victory of 497 votes to 39, as the Mail and Mirror crowed for days.
Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday and panellist on The Pledge.