Why television appearances are like a Siren's call - irresistible but potentially career-wrecking.
Why do people go on television? Actually, that’s not the question that interests me. Why do I go on television? That’s what’s been exercising my mind.
Whenever I have a new book out, my publishers do their best to get me on any programme that will have me. There’s a scene with a sheep? Maybe I can do a guest appearance on One Man and His Dog. My editor at Walker Books would push me under a train and grab five minutes on Crimewatch if she thought it would sell a few copies. BBC Breakfast News have always been kind to me and I enjoy trekking up to Salford where they are now ensconced, none too happily, I sometimes think, in the windswept, concrete “Media Village” that is the BBC’s vision of the future. Mariella Frostrup’s book programme on Sky is always lively and you get to meet interesting authors, not all of whom have sold more books than you. But in both these instances, the arrangement is a very simple one. I’m there to promote the book and there’s no need to pretend otherwise.
But only a few weeks ago, I found myself on ITV’s The Agenda and it had nothing to do with teenage spies. For some reason, I was defending the sensibilities of the many Christians who are opposed to gay marriage. This is odd because although there’s a point to be made here, I’m Jewish and I have no objections to gay marriage myself, indeed I’d be delighted to put myself forward if anyone needs a best man. Mariella was there too but she wasn’t her usual, friendly self. In fact she was distinctly chippy, if you want the truth. In the same programme I debated spanking and the private lives of MPs. These subjects, incidentally, were not connected. Anyway, I can’t have done too badly because only the next day Channel 4 News invited me to come along and repeat my arguments just as the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill was being passed. And here’s the frightening thing. I very nearly said yes.
What insanity would tempt me to give up my evening to face Jon Snow – he of the effervescent ties – on a subject that has got nothing to do with me? For that matter, why did they ask? Could it be that there’s a shortage of volunteers willing to be tagged “homophobic” and beaten up in the street? It’s an emotive subject and even my Agenda appearance generated a number of quite febrile tweets. In the end, wiser council – aka Jill Green, my wife – prevailed and I said no. But the urge, the call of the Siren, was there.
Television is horribly addictive. There are some poor souls (Jonathan Ross and Jimmy Carr spring to mind) who simply cannot get through the week, it seems, without appearing seven or eight times. Weather forecasters and news presenters have a regular slot, of course, and become national heroes simply because of their mastery of the autocue. And what of politicians? They’re like spray on the lens – you just can’t seem to get them off – and it’s not only the chat shows. They’re on quiz shows, reality shows, in the jungle. Ed Balls has even said he’d like to appear on MasterChef, for heaven’s sake.
From my experience, the hardest working, most decent MPs, the ones who actually give politics a good name, are the ones who never appear on television. I still think it was a mistake turning the cameras on in Parliament back in 1989. It transformed politicians into performers and the rowdy PMQs, with its feeble jokes and random insults, are just one result.
And there’s one group that should never go on television. Grieving families. It’s something I’ve never understood. “So, Mrs Smith,” the reporter asks, “Your entire family has just been wiped out in a combine harvester horror. Your three lovely children have been shredded. Tell us how you feel.” And the extraordinary thing is – she does!
As for me, I’ve got the big one coming up. I’ve agreed to go on BBC One’s Question Time even though everyone assures me it’s a horrible experience. The audience is aggressive, the panellists worse. I’ll spend a month reading the newspapers cover to cover and on the day I’ll be sick with nerves. Why? Because I want to be on television. I can’t resist it. That’s the sad truth. I need another fix.