If there was any remaining doubt about Channel 4’s obsession with identity politics, it will surely have been dispelled by Cathy Newman’s recent interview with Rory Stewart about his candidacy for London Mayor.
Now anyone even vaguely familiar with Rory Stewart will know he’s had a privileged upbringing and, thus far, an enviable career. Educated at Eton and Balliol, he worked as a tutor to princes William and Harry while at university, before joining the Foreign Office’s Fast Track programme on graduation. After seven years at the Foreign Office he embarked on a 6,000-mile walking tour of Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, and served for some time as the deputy governor of an Iraqi province. He’s been a Conservative MP since 2009 and even stood for the leadership of the party following Theresa May’s resignation. That he didn’t win – or even reach the final two – was possibly one of the first blips he’s encountered in his meteoric rise.
Now, given he’s already had such a glittering career, it is perhaps understandable that many people would see his next move, a bid for London Mayor, as a bit self-serving and even, perhaps, greedy. Isn’t it time for him to take a back seat and let someone else have a chance at one of the few top jobs in British politics?
So Newman’s first question to Mr Stewart about his background, was fairly predictable and, frankly, easily justifiable. Pointing out that there is a great deal of poverty and homelessness in London, Newman asked him whether as “an old Etonian, son of a spy” he worries that he may be a bit posh for the average Londoner. Stewart, playing her at her own game, responded that the mayoral race is “fantastically diverse” and that he was incredibly proud when Sadiq Khan became the first Muslim mayor of London – and he clearly was about to continue, to further explain the reasons why his poshness shouldn’t discount him as a candidate, when Newman interrupted him to say, “And now you want to defeat him”.
Stewart handled the interruption well, continuing to make his point that electors have to balance opinions about diversity against questions about who is the best candidate – who will do the best job for the city of London and who will make the most of the potential that he sees in the job.
But Newman still wasn’t happy. “Do you feel any sense of guilt”, she asked him, “about the fact that you, with your background, will be putting paid to the chances of a Jamaican, comprehensive-educated son of a single mum, Shaun Bailey”
Stewart, to his credit, handled the question well, pointing out that of course if he wins the race to become Mayor of London then that will mean neither Shaun Bailey nor Sadiq Khan can also be Mayor of London, but that the whole point of the mayoral contest is for voters to have a chance to decide who will be the best person for the job.
But what he really should have done, was to pull her up on the incredible offensiveness of her question. Because it is impossible to avoid the underlying implication, that the only way she believes Shaun Bailey could win the mayoral race would be if he were to run unopposed. This despite the fact that Shaun Bailey is the official Conservative Party candidate and is therefore likely to attract a significant number of votes simply for having his party’s backing, whereas Rory Stewart is running as an independent, and many Londoners will have absolutely no idea who he is. The idea that London voters may actually prefer Shaun Bailey to Rory Stewart, clearly has never occurred to Ms Newman.
A charitable interpretation of Ms Newman’s question would be that she hadn’t intended to imply that Shaun Bailey stood no chance against Rory Stewart, and that she had just worded the question clumsily in the heat of the moment. But that interpretation would rely on her having accepted Mr Stewart’s initial response and moved on. Which, of course, she didn’t.
She chose, once again, to press him on whether he actually felt guilty about running against Shaun Bailey. And once again, his response was reasonable and well-argued – no, he said, he didn’t think that one should feel guilty about standing as a candidate in a democratic process, because in a democracy each candidate has the same chance to convince the voters to vote for them, and it is a fair system in which people get to vote for their preferred candidate.
I haven’t seen the whole interview – I have only seen the clip of the exchange that Channel 4 News, incredibly, chose to share on Twitter. The clip ends with Stewart’s explanation as to why he doesn’t feel guilty, so I have to assume that Ms Newman didn’t press the point any further, but it amazes me that, in the process of filming and editing the interview, and choosing clips to share on social media, nobody thought to question how this particular clip would reflect on Ms Newman and her bosses at Channel 4.
Martin Luther-King, in 1963, spoke of his dream of a world in which a man could be judged on the content of his character rather than the colour of his skin. With this interview, Ms Newman and Channel 4 tried to suggest not only that what is most important about the various candidates for the London Mayoral race is their background and – yes – the colour of their skin, but even that those who come from privileged backgrounds should not be allowed to apply. And it was left to Mr Stewart to remind Ms Newman, and the viewers, that the choice facing voters should be entirely about the merits of the individual candidates, what voters see as the content of their characters. I’d love to think that Ms Newman and her bosses at Channel 4 may later reflect on the interview and realise just how regressive their attitudes have become – but sadly, I suspect they are too busy congratulating themselves on how progressive they believe themselves to be.