- Category: Interviews
- Written by Graham Kirby
The clock struck thirteen as I stormed the ominous portals under the battlements of the British Broadcasting Corporation and I am wan with care. Moreover I am feeling a little bit like a rather nervous pussycat about to meet a skilled netman in the Colosseum. For if the relationship between the media and politics is rather like that of gladiator and lion, I am about to meet Maximus: one of Auntie’s top political broadcasters, the presenter of the prestigious World at One programme on Radio Four and someone who had just stylishly stilettoed shadow chancellor George Osborne on her programme over “Yatchgate”. In between the party conference season, the credit crunch and a looming election across the herring pond (eight days away at the time of meeting and which she is covering from the states for BBC Radio Four), Martha Kearney has taken some time out of her hectic schedule and I catch her fresh from combat, but am more worried that I will end up a second victim for the day.
I should have little to worry about for there is an elegance to Kearney’s style of interrogation that sets her apart from her some of her more aggressive colleagues and she quickly put me at ease. Besides I am meant to be in charge. I wonder whether there was a link between her study of Classics and then the progression into the more modern world of political reporting. Would she like to have been a witness to the dense and thrilling atmosphere of, perhaps, 5th century Athens or Imperial Rome? Would she like to have been a reporter there? “Well, it would have been extremely dangerous to report in Imperial Rome. Senators were lucky to survive sometimes, so I dread to think what would have happened to reporters. And yet it is interesting how many phrases from Roman politics and history resonate today. Capax imperii nisi imperasset, was said by Tacitus about Tiberius. Yet it makes me think of Gordon Brown.” And is there any political situation that she would particularly like to have reported on. “I would like to have been around at the time of the Peloponnesian War,” Kearney declares, after a pause at the deeply searching question. “Perhaps it would have been interesting to have been present at Pericles’ Funeral Oration. You could have seen history in the making, rather like reporting on from a party conference or American convention.” And what would have been the key interview to get? “Clearly the man himself. I would like to have interviewed Pericles after he had made the speech.” And what about famed BBC impartiality? “Well, we could have gone into the crowd and got a few vox pops.” As a classicist I am unfazed by this use of Latin and know its translation. “You could have seen whether the speech had the same reaction as history records. And perhaps to get the other side of the argument, you would have to interview a leading Spartan, such as Brasidas.”
Kearney has a reassuring habit of pausing to reflect before she answers each question. Her answers are exact and thoughtful; her manner exudes warmth. They are a dangerous combination and I am not sure that I quite believe that she would be daunted by the prospect of reporting on Roman politics under Tiberius. “I also think it would have been fun to interview Alcibiades and try to pin him down. Did he really smash up the Hermidae and, if he did, why? He was a fascinating and intriguing character. He also had huge influence on history with the invasion of Sicily which could be seen as a turning point in the Peloponnesian War. It would have been interesting as a journalist to have discovered his own motivation as a man and to be have been there when a great power met its downfall.” Does she see any messages for the modern leader in how Athens’ overreached itself with its empire? Kearney bats away the question with ease: “I don’t buy into this idea of an ‘American Empire’. It is not an empire nor is it not an empire in the same sense that Athens was. I’m not sure that there are any historical lessons which a politician can draw upon, except perhaps the lesson of hubris.”
Yet the illusions which she and her colleagues chiefly draw upon are not Classical but Shakespearean. “At the moment we tend to draw upon Shakespeare as a source for inspiration for modern politician. Look at Gordon Brown, again, its tempting to see his premiership through the prism of a Shakespearean tragedy.” Here my amateurism shows, “What about Oedipus?” I blurt out. She bats back quickly with a laugh: “Well perhaps, you know more about the next big political scandal than I do.”
Blushing, I move the topic on for Kearney has had a fascinating career, studying at St Ann’s College Oxford, where she volunteered fro hospital radio, before graduating in 1980 and going on to work for commercial local radio station LBC “answering the telephone” before landing a job at Channel Four, and from there to go on to work as a political correspondent for Newsnight, where she achieved recognition with a BAFTA nomination for her coverage of the Northern Ireland peace talks that lead to 1998’s Good Friday agreement. Her career has both been split between the radio and television, but also between the world of politics and arts. While she was at Newsnight, she also presented Radio Four’s Womens’ Hour; despite her commitments as the presenter of World at One, she also somehow finds time to present Newsnight Review, BBC Two’s Friday night arts programme. So, what was it that attracted her to Classics as a young student? “I chose the subject for its breadth and interest. In the subject there is the foundation of our own civilisation.” And why would she recommend that present day undergraduates study Classics? “The broadness of the discipline means that you can never get bored. There’s so much to it. I don’t think that Classics can directly impact on how your career progresses but it provides a firm base for any career. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that anyone study, say, Media Studies as an undergraduate but that they study at university what they really enjoy, then maybe specialise for a postgraduate course or get practical experience for a first job.”
The identification of boredom as a factor in studying Classics is one that has never occurred to me before and it would be easy to categorise this as a restless journalist’s approach to a life; yet there is an steady coolness to Kearney, backed up by a collected charm and patience: she once spent a week of her life trying to lead her life according to the dicta of the philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, discovering that so much of Stoic doctrine can apply to modern life: “While, say, Plato forms an evident basis for modern political thought, the heritage of ancient philosophy is much wider than that. Ancient philosophers provided a guide to life that can be applied to modern living: pretend you’re a harbour, and you’re being buffeted by political storms.” It sounds particularly important for a political journalist. Yet when we start talking about Catullus, the subject of her youthful fascination, she talks with nostalgic passion; “There’s an exciting sheer passion to Catullus: ‘Da mi basia mille, diende centum/ dein mille altera, dein secunda centum/ deinde usque altera mille deinde centum/ dein, cum multa milia fecerimus/ conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus/ aut ne quis malus invidere.’” Mary Beard once called Kearney a “lapsed Classicist” (a phrase that Kearney likes) but she disproves the dictum that a facility for quotation masks a lack of original thought and personal engagement with the subject. Despite moving on from her original enthusiasm, she clearly retains a fondness for and knowledge of the poet despite her more recent conversion as an admirer of Horace. “I think as a young person you are put off by the questionable motivation of Horace’s writings and his world-weariness, his seeming cynicism. But there is a mature verve to Horace. Carpe diem. What better lesson can there be than that?”
It is certainly a lesson that Kearney herself seems to have taken on board as she has climbed the greasy pole of broadcasting. Her time at Womens’ Hour allowed her an opportunity to view Classics with modern eyes; the programme covering features such as Sappho and Lysistrata. Are there any Classical women that she would like to interview? “That’s a tough question to answer as women in the Classical world are seen through male eyes. They are either saintly figures or evil, scheming ne’er-do-wells, such as Livia. Its impossible to get a handle on them. Goddesses are perhaps more interesting characters, more powerful. Look at Athena as an example, she is interesting because she is not seen in the same terms as a woman was.” And what about today? After all politics is still dominated by men. “Women in politics are still treated differently to men without a doubt. There is a greater emphasis on what they wear, on appearance,” Says a radiant-looking Kearney, who is wearing a two piece ensemble, that conveys both professionalism and a care for comfort, “The adjectives used to describe them are different but that is slowly changing.” And her career? Despite being the first female presenter of World at One, she dismisses gender as “no issue” in her elevation or its perception, citing female BBC bosses as well as other female presenters as evidence of the progress of women. “Twenty years ago it might have been an issue; in ten, twenty years there will be nothing unusual at all about it.”
This acceptance can perhaps be seen by the fact that the House award she won in House Magazine voted upon by colleagues and MPs and views it as her finest hour, rather than her BAFTA nomination. And where next? “To be absolutely honest with you, I am happy where I am. I would love to continue working for World at One. While working for Newsnight Review allows me to have a career that spans both politics and the arts. I am allowed to play to my strengths.” By this time, we are out of the BBC village and on our way to the tube station as Kearney, ever industrious, is off to a preview of the British Museum’s Babylon exhibition on which she will report. She has a mass of papers and notes to be studied in her hand to read on the tube journey. Despite the frenzied pace being so much part of the modern 24 hour news environment, there has to be room for contemplation, a need for self-awareness and reflection. Moreover the analytical tools of the interviewer are those of the Classicist, used to picking apart Aristotle or Plato at university (we would like to think), while the reviewer, observer or historian takes pieces of evidences and constructs them to create a more complete picture: “To be able to see a Greek temple in Sicily helps it all make sense.”
I leave Kearney at Tottenham Court Road tube station where she walks along to the British Museum and I to my computer to type up our interview notes. Already the lead headlines on the internet news pages is that George Osborne has been forced into an apology. Kearney has her scoop (or perhaps her scalp) and I am left wondering how Alcibiades would have fared in her arena. Would he have apologised? Would he have invaded Sicily? It’s always possible to overstate the power of the media to move the political agenda beyond the immediate, but I am sure it would have been fun to be a spectator at the fight.