Interview: Andrew Billen

Andrew Billen, staff writer, The Times (London) on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

Andrew Billen was interviewed as part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

The only occasion when codes on privacy have influenced my work was when private details were taken out of a piece at the subject’s request.

I did an interview with Peter Mandelson in 1996 and I asked him about his homosexuality. This was before he had come out and before the BBC Newsnight outing by Mathew Parris. He got very angry that I had asked him about it. I thought the question was relevant to a book he’d written in which he advocated a kind of state dowry for married couples to help them get on the property ladder. But he leaned on me very heavily to take it out.

I went to my editor, who was not as sure as I was that the question was relevant, who refused to remove the reference. However, Mandelson refused to have his photograph taken unless he got an assurance it was taken out and the editor removed the reference. This was done despite the fact that the information was in the public domain. Brian Gould, the former Labour cabinet minister, had mentioned it in one of his books and it had been occasionally mentioned in the press.

I reckon – along with Michael Parkinson – that if you can ask anything and if they don’t want to answer then you move on. But from when I started in 1980, I think media interviews have got more personal. There’s more pressure to get private life details I suppose. The subject’s response depends on the individual but you can occasionally see little trends. For example, before Diana died people were more confident to talk about their feelings and personal lives and afterwards they tended to resent ‘intrusions’ – we were all tainted by the stain of the paparazzi.

Generally, judging by the people I’ve interviewed, the nearer the apex of fame celebrities get the less likely they are to want to talk about themselves in real life. If they’re on their way up and maybe still quite naive they’re willing to help in order to get a better piece written about them and maybe they become more open. On the way down they tend to be more reflective, or perhaps they’re just desperate to get into print. By the time they are pensioners you can ask them anything!

How should we judge the news value of stories about celebrities’ personal lives? There’s the idea among celebrities that you can talk to one journalist about your private life and then not to the next and of course a celebrity is entitled to do that. The thing is though, once you’ve talked about yourself – your lovers, your children or your parents – it’s always going to be on file and it is always going to make a good piece, whether or not you supply fresh quotes for it. Of course there are loads of examples where people won’t talk to you about their private life and you’ll find a) they’ve written a book about it already or, b) they’ve just told their story to Hello magazine.

When it comes to drawing a line between private and public life as a journalist, the thing to remember is that each piece is different and has its own context. You never start out asking questions about husbands, wives, and lovers; they just emerge during an interview. You find out what the perimeters of the interview are and you work your way with what you’ve got and how big that space is. My view is if somebody’s doing one of my interviews – which is 2000 words – they’re meant to be personality interviews.

Obviously the person’s work is addressed but often in the context of the artist’s life. Once I’ve done that I expect them to say something – and if not, if they’ve got nothing to say about their life, I’ll expect them to offer opinions at least about their profession or their rival’s work and lives.

So I think there’s an assumption to be made about a person who agrees to a long interview of this sort in the first place – especially if he or she is a professional celebrity or performer – to provide copy. Sometimes an interviewer can be accused of being intrusive or aggressive but in fact he or she is just trying to elicit enough to make an interesting article.

The definition of privacy changes depending on the context. Something can be
private to a journalist and open to a cab driver. But I’ve never been convinced that there’s a particular definition of privacy, even in a dictionary let alone in law. Doing the kind of interviews I do, what is private or not is determined by the interviewee; it depends on what questions they’re willing to answer.

I find it much more difficult to say whether paparazzi have the right to take photographs of the TV newsreader Anna Ford on the beach. But I have no problems with journalists ringing up loads of friends of celebrities and amassing a kind of unofficial biography, although several celebrities I have interviewed, including Liza Minnelli and Mel Gibson, particularly hate the unauthorised biography because people have gone behind a person’s back and produced an alternative account of their lives. Before he died, the poet Ted Hughes said, ‘I hope we all own the facts of our own life’. He clearly meant we should but we don’t.

What the public is interested in often dictates what is made public or not. Privacy and publicity are a kind of transaction and if you don’t want to trade, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get any publicity for your product. For example, Kyle MacLachlan, the actor, who I interviewed, was quite open about his love life, his split with supermodel Linda Evangelista. He just said that he discovered very early on, the best way to deal with the break-up was to be completely open about it.

Yet I do wonder why Paul McCartney wasn’t a bit more open about his then new girlfriend Heather Mills when he started going out with her rather than actually lying about it and denying the relationship. That must have generated a hell of a lot of speculation in itself.

In the end you’ve got to produce a piece that is tasteful and it’s not going to offend the readers. Very occasionally I’ve had the kind of acrimonious interview with somebody who won’t open up very much, and this comes over in the copy. I’ve had readers say that I’d gone too far or that my interview was distasteful. But there are some things I find very hard to ask people, such as details of their sex lives or the death of a child. I tend to ask about people’s motivation on the whole and what the work tells us about them and what they contribute to the work and also to see what kind of narratives they’ve made of their own lives and how they see themselves.

Occasionally I get embarrassed by what other journalists have written about people’s private lives but then, that’s like being embarrassed about being a
doctor because Harold Shipman was a GP. I’ve always worked on newspapers
that have not pressured me to write about things I don’t believe in. I know I’m in a privileged position. I don’t get my copy changed so I’ve never felt ashamed with anything I’ve done.

There’s a huge difference between standards applied by the National Enquirer [the celebrity gossip magazine in the United States], for example, compared to those applied by the Financial Times in the UK. It would be silly to sort out the whole profession by evaluating both in the same way.

Saying you’re a journalist, however, is not a particularly popular thing to say if you’re are at a party. I was brought up watching Lou Grant and the film ‘All the President’s Men.’ I always think that it’s a rather glamorous profession and that journalists are on the side of the good guys but I’m aware that it’s not how most people see it now.

I have never been taken to the Press Complaints Commission. If you can develop a good relationship – even within an interview which lasts an hour with someone – there’s a kind of trust that’s formed. It’s a trust that’s also based on what you’ve written before about other people and it means you can always ask anything. That’s what you’re aiming for and you try to be fair when you write it.

There are people who have been offended or regret saying things to me sometimes and I can understand that. In very minor instances people have
rung up saying, ‘Could you please take that out because that’s going to be very difficult for me.’ Then I usually say, ‘Well if I take that out can I ask you about this or give me a bit more on that.’ The purpose of my interview is not on the whole to make people’s lives worse by being interviewed by me.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on The Times and Television Critic for the New Statesman. He is the former Chief Features Interviewer for the London Evening Standard and a former interviewer on the Observer.

Interview by Catherine Teare, Researcher, The LIRE media group

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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