Gove ventures into Trump's Man Cave
Wednesday 18 January
It's been good news week for the Brexit Press with promises of a hard, clear Brexit from Chairman May and a quick trade deal with incoming President Trump's United States.
So spare a thought for Remainer John Witherow. A scoop interview with the new leader of the free world might be most editors' dream, dominating the news agenda and bringing welcome publicity. Except that the interview was conducted by a leading Leave campaigner, seemingly incapable of asking a searching question, who then proceeded to tout his wares around the broadcast studios promoting not the newspaper but his Brexit agenda.
We are told that Michael Gove was "invited" to interview Trump and that his fellow interviewer Kai Diekmann "arranged" the encounter independently as a "farewell gift" for Bild, the German newspaper he will shortly be leaving after an association spanning three decades. Beyond that, we know only that Trump fancied talking to the European Press. Neither editor seems to have played any part in a process that would inevitably eat up acres of their newsprint.
So how the invitation came to fall in Gove's doormat? After years of frosty relations, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch have become quite chummy over the past nine months, to the point that Trump has reportedly asked Murdoch to suggest names for a new head for the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees media ownership in the US.
It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to think that Trump might also approach his new best friend for advice on which Brit might own a sympathetic pair of ears to hear his thoughts about the disintegration of Europe and the UK's great future as a customer for American goods.
Well, someone from The Times of London, obviously. Which happens to employ Gove. Murdoch is on record as being a great fan of Gove - "top man who puts principles above friendship" - and was seen as being the motivating force behind his botched bid for the Tory leadership. Who could be more suitable?
Well Witherow could probably think of a few people among his staff he'd have preferred to see in Trump Towers; people with sufficient journalistic integrity not to pose for a thumbs up picture with their subject - let alone against a backdrop of a Playboy magazine (Diekmann didn't fall into that trip: his souvenir photograph with the Don as him with hands firmly in pockets). Rachel Sylvester, for one. The woman whose questioning did for Andrea Leadsom's leadership ambitions. But she was probably too busy writing about
But still, the encounter produced a story that had to be followed up by everyone (pity they all referred to Gove the MP, Gove the former Justice Minister, Gove the man sacked by May, rather than Gove the journalist). And it had some good lines in it: punitive taxes for BMW if it wanted to sell its cars in America, Merkel's catastrophic mistake on refugees (pity they were elicited by questions from Diekmann).
So you work with what you've got and let others make of it what they will - and Gove made a lot more of it away from The Times than he did in the paper. Trump clearly approves of Brexit and is pleased to claim that he predicted the vote here. Asked early in the interview about prospects of a trade deal between the UK and US, he says: "we're gonna work very hard to get it done quickly and done properly - good for both sides". But asked later if Britain would now go to the front of the queue, he said only "I think you're doing great. I think it's going great."
By the time Gove reached the studios, that had turned into a "commitment" to a deal with Theresa May that Trump wanted ready for signing the moment Britain left the EU. But in the meantime, experts (oh dear) in trade negotiations were pointing out that such deals were complex and took years to sort out. Time and again we've been told that outside countries cannot and will not negotiate with us while we are still in the EU, and while Gove was boasting about the "Trump card", Washington officials were saying that they would have to know the terms of Britain's deal with the EU before they could start talking.
The Times meanwhile made a smart move. It released the full transcript of the interview. May's trip to the US? "I'll be meeting with [Theresa May]. In fact you can see the letter, wherever the letter is. She just sent it. She's requested a meeting and we'll be having a meeting right after I get into the White House..."
May and the UK are clearly uppermost in his thoughts:
When are you coming to the UK?
"I look forward to doing it...My mother loved the Queen."
Are you looking forward to meeting our Prime Minister?
"Well, I’ll be there — we’ll be there soon — I would say we’ll be here for a little while but and it looks like she’ll be here first — how is she doing over there, by the way, what do you think...how are they doing with the break-up? How's the break-up going? How is our Nigel doing?"
Even for Remainers, the interview and accompanying pictures of the "Man Cave" had entertainment value. But - for the British half of the interview at least - this wasn't a piece of journalism, it was politics. Other journalists may have been exasperated by a squandered opportunity, but this was never a journalistic opportunity; it was more Trump grandstanding and Gove was flattered to be asked to play along.
Ribbed for being soft on the President Elect, Gove told the BBC: "If people think it was shoddy journalism then I can only apologise. I am still a relative newcomer to the trade. I will hope to do better with my next story."
A relative newcomer? Before Gove entered Parliament, he worked on The Times as Oped editor, news editor, assistant editor and Saturday editor.
He should also know about interviewing big political beasts. Twenty years ago he published a biography of Michael Portillo, who was widely seen as a future Prime Minister. Indeed, the book's title was "The Future of the Right". It included passages about Portillo's university persona.
Of course Portillo famously lost his seat in one of the most memorable moments of the 1997 general election.
Two years later, as he prepared for his political comeback, Portillo was interviewed by Ginny Dougary for The Times and used the occasion to "out" himself and his past "homosexual encounters". The interview took place in July, but editor Peter Stothard held on to it until the start of the party conference season in September, when it would have more impact. (Hard to imagine today, maybe, but that sort of thing was big news at the time.)
Stothard was right. The story caused a stir. Not least in The Times offices, where people couldn't help but ask: "But Michael, you had months of access for your book. How come....?"
And so, two decades on, he's still a novice learning his trade? At £150,000 a year?
You really do have to weep for Witherow.
* A version of this article appeared in The New European on January 20.
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