Gove scoop: Who pulled the strings?

Ian Kirby

The Times was understandably cock-a-hoop when it landed the first wide-ranging print interview with President Trump ahead of his Inauguration. The Donald’s trenchant comments about the state of the EU, the obsolescent nature of NATO and his desire to do a rapid trade deal with the UK set off a chain reaction across politics and financial markets.

It was a Grade One scoop – albeit shared with Kai Diekmann from the German paper Bild – which of course meant lots of other newspapers immediately rubbished it. Grumbling editors, columnists and star interviewers dismissed the interview as a shallow fireside chat. Where were the tough questions? Why didn’t Gove put Mr Trump on the rack? What’s the point in getting that type of access if you’re just going to let him rant?

Years and years ago I secured the first joint interview with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown after 20 months of negotiating with Alastair Campbell. I was the political editor of the News of the World and everyone had wanted this. The stakes were high. Books by James Naughtie and Andrew Rawnsley had lifted the lid on the dysfunctional relationship at the heart of New Labour. Could I actually get them to talk about it?

I tried.

However, as soon as the first “Don’t you really hate each other?” question tripped off the tongue I saw I was going nowhere. Tony Blair stared at me with those ice-filled eyes, Gordon Brown started shuffling his papers and both slipped out prepared answers. The interview ground to a halt.

I quickly realised I was on the verge of wasting a golden opportunity. Forty minutes of this and I would end up with nothing. Glancing at my questions in desperation I flipped the interview on its head. “What unites you? What can you agree on? What’s your vision for the future?” Patsy questions maybe, but I got enough material and saved my own bacon.

The point is this – these politicians are not shrinking violets. They’re not going to roll over and say “Know what, you’re right. I do hate him and here’s why…”

If you get the right interview at the right time, listening to them expound is frequently all you need to do. The smart interviewer steers the conversation. There is a time and a place to put someone on the rack, but it wasn’t in Donald Trump’s Manhattan office. The waves the interview caused proved that.

The story behind the interview is almost as interesting as the material it produced. For months at the end of 2015, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Donald Trump had been conducting a bitter and public feud which culminated in January 2016, when he refused to appear in Fox’s Presidential debate. After that the relationship stabilised, with Fox News predictably cheerleading for the Republican candidate.

In their meeting at Trump Tower in the wake of his stunning victory a couple of weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch told Donald Trump he needed a strategy to reach out to the international media. President Trump’s staff were sceptical – what’s the point when the BBC and most of the European media described him as a joke?

But Mr Murdoch had an ace up his sleeve – The Times’ global reputation and an interviewer who was one of the few people President Trump would see as more than a mere journalist – a politician who helped orchestrate the Brexit victory.

That’s why Mr Murdoch secured one of the biggest scoops of recent times. That’s why he brought Michael Gove back to The Times.

And that’s why Rupert Murdoch, who has always been a reporter in his core, has a strong case for scoop of the year.