More than two decades on, I think I owe John Sweeney an apology. You may know John from his occasional pieces in the New European, a long career on newspapers and with the BBC, and more recently his films and reports from Ukraine, trademark orange woolly hat atop his head. At 65, he is only a year younger than I am, and there is no way in the world I would up sticks as a pensioner to devote my life to covering a war, especially one in which western journalists are viewed as the enemy by the war’s creator, Vladimir Putin.
My apology, however, has nothing to do with Sweeney’s courage, everything to do with Putin’s belligerence.
In the spring of 2000, the early days of his presidency, Putin visited London, where he was warmly welcomed by Tony Blair. We had met him prior to his ascendancy to the top, and his calm, mild-mannered style, and western-leaning analysis of the geopolitical landscape had persuaded TB that Putin, to quote Margaret Thatcher on Mikhail Gorbachev, was a man we could do business with.
Sweeney had already decided otherwise. Putin’s visit coincided with a period when, trying to dispel some of the media mythology developing around our so-called “spin machine”, I had invited in the documentary-maker Michael Cockerell to make a film, News From Number 10.
I was reminded of this when, on the day Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane fell from the sky, I tweeted that we should stand by for Putin’s “thoughts and prayers with the family” comment, despite almost certainly having ordered the downing of the plane himself.
Among the responses, one of my detractors posted clips from Cockerell’s documentary in which I had defended our diplomatic embrace of the new Russian president. In one I was pressed at a briefing about the massacre of Grozny and was insisting we would not let one issue define the entire relationship.
The film had interesting behind-the-scenes footage ahead of a joint press conference at the Foreign Office. Putin and Blair both looked nervous. There was a clip of John Sweeney saying he expected to be prevented from asking a question because I knew that it would be hostile to Putin for his actions in Chechnya, and hostile to Blair for his refusal to condemn the Russian actions more vigorously.
And he was right. Right that I made sure he wasn’t called. Sorry John. And right that Putin was not the leader we hoped he would turn out to be.
That being said, the calm, mild-mannered, “saying the right things about the west” Putin remained the Putin we mainly saw for some years. It was around the time of the war in Iraq, at a bilateral meeting at one of his private dachas, complete with a stable full of stallions and an Olympic-sized pool only he could use, that we saw a very different Putin close up. Swaggering. Sneery lips curling. Dismissive of the arguments of others. Insulting of TB. He didn’t call him “Bush’s poodle”, as anti-war posters back home did. But he got close.
Even then, however, did we seriously think he might become the Putin of the murder machine we see now, blowing friends turned enemies out of the sky, waging war not just in Ukraine but across different parts of Africa and the Middle East, and against liberal democracy wherever he can undermine it? I am not sure we did.
John Sweeney would argue we should have seen it coming. Maybe he has a point.
On our podcast recently, Rory Stewart said that Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote – “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care” – was a cliche. I disagreed. The definition of a cliche is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”.
Is it overused? Well, I use it a lot, but that’s because I don’t think it is as embedded in the global consciousness as it should be. As for original thought, if someone has already expressed the thought better than you can, roll with it. So I found the Roosevelt non-cliche popping into my head after tweeting a video of me and my dog, Skye, swimming in the cold waters of the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, reporting that not a single unpleasant object floated by.
Within minutes rock star turned environmental crusader Feargal Sharkey had replied with a blizzard of data that suggested I should have been more careful in my choice of swimming location. Starting with: “River Wharfe 10,798 hours worth of sewage dumped on 1,687 occasions in 2022. Only one designated bathing spot, in Ilkley, one of just two stretches of river in England designated. Currently has ‘do not swim’ advisory due to elevated E. coli level.”
Then came a blizzard of graphs and maps and before long I was diving into research about water quality all over the country. Perhaps I had been lulled after lots of open-water swimming in France where testing is constant and the dipping below high standards leads to immediate swim restrictions.
The state of our waterways alone should see the back of the government that has presided over its decline. That we know just how bad things are is in no small measure down to Feargal Sharkey. He knows his stuff for sure. Facts pour from his fingertips. But he cares. He really cares. And, as Roosevelt said…
It’s been a while since I shamelessly plugged my daughter Grace’s comedy. So, after another sold-out stint at the Edinburgh fringe, here goes…
First, she took to announcing at the start of her shows – which can be somewhat graphic on the sexual front – that if anyone was there expecting a younger version of me on The Rest Is Politics, they should leave. And one couple did!!
But it was another premature exit that made me very proud of her. Hecklers are an occupational hazard for both of us, me when public speaking, Grace when doing a show. I never worry for myself, but I do worry for her. So I loved the way she handled a guy who seemed to think the show was a private conversation between the two of them.
She joshed with him for the first half dozen or so interjections, but eventually said, to loud applause, “You do know that nobody here tonight paid to come and hear you, don’t you? They paid to hear me!” At which point he stormed out. Cue even louder applause and back to some story about having sex in the grounds of the Vatican, which I half-heard through fingers plugged deep into my ears!
It’s not easy being her dad sometimes. But, as she often tells the audience, it’s not always been easy being my daughter.
Given its reputation for l’amour, nobody should begrudge the French that they have been bestowed with the best kissing description. What’s not to love about French kissing? Glasgow is less deserving of the Glasgow kiss label – headbutt – because though it is not immune to violence, it is one of the friendliest places on the planet.
Now poor Spain gets landed with the Spanish kiss. They win the women’s World Cup and all anyone is talking about is their male Football Association supremo double-handedly grabbing his crotch to celebrate, planting his lips on the mouth of a player who didn’t want them there, and clutching a thigh or two in chucking players over his shoulder.
The tragedy is, however, that in this age of impunity, and having had leaders like pussy-grabbing Trump, Johnson and Berlusconi so high profile, those who want to say it is a fuss about nothing will feel empowered to do so. The populists have debased our world well beyond politics.