Interview: John Sergeant

During a career spanning nearly five decades, John Sergeant has been at the forefront of mainstream media-reporting, writing, and even dancing.

Calibre: Based on your recent output, have you always had a yearning for travel and adventure?

“That was certainly one of the reasons why I didn’t become an actor or a comedian, which was how I started in broadcasting with Alan Bennett. I can’t say I would have made a brilliant comedian but we got a good start when we won the comedy of the year award! I thought that being a journalist would give me more adventure.”

Calibre: Does television satire need to make a comeback?

“Yes, it usually flourishes when things are going wrong, but when satire’s the only way people can get back at ‘them’, it doesn’t always succeed and there are lots of times when satire helps keep the government in power. But, it’s a safety valve, and you feel that in the recent past it’s been a bit too serious for satire. You feel that people aren’t relaxed enough to say, ‘it’s all a bit of a laugh, it’s all going to be okay’.”

Calibre: What do you feel about the Donald Trump presidency and the future direction of America?

“Well, it’s extremely risky. I think the worry is that he sets the tone for so much of what we think and respect about America. And if he goes on behaving like this ‘shooting from the hip’ kind of guy, you think the office of president is then undermined. I think the worry is that the Americans might turn on him because he won’t deliver on what he’s promised. But, it’s very dependent on America being a success too. And he will then, of course, get the reflected glory – which is the unfairness of politics, isn’t it? Politics is largely about luck and that’s why it’s like showbiz, people endlessly want you to repeat success – that’s what they’re really after.”

Calibre: Do you think Obama had that ‘showbiz success’ appeal?

“Well Obama’s a wonderful man, fantastically talented and intelligent and a terrific speaker, but he had difficulties with Congress, he couldn’t get what he wanted through. So his presidency doesn’t seem like the glorious success it could have been. But, it was a very difficult time for America with the worse financial situation for a long time, and there were lots of people in Congress who were quite determined that he was not going to be a success.”

“Thatcher was very used to being an outsider”

Calibre: Would you say politicians can be unlucky in inheriting the world left for them by their counterparts?

“Yes, Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was very fortunate. She looked as if she was going to lose the election of 1983, but she won it in a large part because of the Falklands War. But all this spin about how she took on Galtieri… no. It just happened and people responded to it and it went well for her. All sorts of things could have gone wrong but they didn’t and part of the big picture was that the people wanted to test her in a war situation. So it was perfect. Even though the economy was actually in a downturn.”

Calibre: Are there parallels between Theresa May and Thatcher?

“Yes, but there is an important political point here that they as leaders, and Thatcher was very used to being an outsider, that they aren’t mucking in with the lads and often stand apart from the crowd. It’s what gets referred to as ‘the loneliness of power’.

“From the point of view of being a woman in a man’s world they’ve got to be able to keep their own counsel, which can be strengthening.”

Credit: Photo by ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Calibre: So, how do Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher compare?

“Margaret was much stronger, much more inventive and, curiously enough, I think much more ready to take a gamble. So, from that point of view, she liked taking risks. But the big difference was that she loved arguing, that’s the biggest difference.

“Blair and Cameron, most Prime Ministers oddly enough, don’t really like arguing, but she loved it. She would cross the road for an argument and that made her much more exciting and she liked being exciting, she obviously liked putting on a show. But then Theresa May obviously likes putting on a show with her leather trousers and all that kind of thing – she’s obviously a greater exhibitionist than we thought.”

Calibre: Would you say Thatcher was more of an exhibitionist with her political manoeuvres?

“I think that she was more of an actress. I mean they’re all actors; they’ve got to be because they’re acting on the public stage. I remember standing behind Margaret Thatcher when she arrived in America one year and it was just as if we were in the wings of a theatre, all dressed up and about to go on. She was quite determined to put on a show.

“From a journalist’s point of view, she was always more fun; you could see she was choosing her gear to really wham people! That’s fun to watch, particularly when you’ve got all these men around. That’s why she was my favourite Prime Minister, strictly from a reporter’s point of view of course. Nothing to do with her policies, I’m certainly not a Thatcherite.”

Calibre: Well stage-managed.

“She was quite determined to put on a show. I just thought from a journalist’s point of view it was always more fun; she was ready to argue and you could see she was choosing her gear to wham people! That’s fun to watch, particularly when you’ve got all these men around, and that’s why she was easily my favourite prime minister, and that has nothing to do with policies, I’m not a Thatcherite, I’m a reporter, and you know, she was terrific.”

Calibre: Were there other leaders with similar qualities?

“Cameron was clearly one of the chaps. He had groups of chummy people around him, but being a good chum is not useful when you’re the head of anything.”

Calibre: Do you think his ‘Bullingdon set’ background and persona was detrimental?

“It didn’t help him. It meant there were all sorts of people who were put off by it. He seemed to need just a bit more strategic advice, that’s what he could have done with. He was terrific at being Prime Minister but he found it much harder to control events or give the impression he was controlling events. What you can’t do is just see what somebody else thinks – no, it’s what you think. And you know what? From that point of view Trump’s a leader isn’t he! People like that. There’s a sense of direction. In the same vein, what Margaret Thatcher was brilliant at doing was she gave the impression she was making the tough decisions. She sent the Falklands taskforce. It would certainly have rebounded on her had she cowered.”

Calibre: Do you think journalists at the time were more for, or against, her?

“I think people may misunderstand that, journalists have got to tell the stories. And it’s a very demanding trade. So, when people turn round and say, ‘oh, people like you supported Thatcher’, you say, wait a moment, I don’t remember that. I don’t remember that bit where I was destroying jobs or wrecking the north of England!”

Calibre: Do you think there’s a problem with objectivity in journalism these days?

“Despite of what I’ve just said, it’s not as hard as people imagine. Your job is descriptive, your job is to be there at the story. Your job is to point out what’s important.”

Calibre: Do you think the Brexit issue could potentially be Theresa May’s equivalent of the Poll Tax?

“No, not quite like that but it could go terribly wrong. She has now taken the responsibility of the referendum result onto herself, which is quite unlike normal politics. She’s had to accept this is where we stand on the greatest issue that’s faced the country for 50 years, and she has got to move from being a remainer to being a leaver. But people won’t give her the credit for that, she’ll have to take full responsibility for this. She’s said ‘Brexit means Brexit’, so it’s up to her.

“Now, if we get into a serious trade war, if we can’t reach an agreement in two years and people are suffering and unemployment starts to rise they will just direct it straight at her. There’ll be no question of, ‘well you were drafted in, it wasn’t your fault’. But, that’s the discipline of politics and the unfairness of it all.”

Calibre: Where do you stand on Brexit? Do you think the EU has been made a political scapegoat by the government before or has it been partly to blame for the sort of public’s reaction to it?

“No, I was upset, I was certainly upset by the result because I remember having a strange conversation with Diane James, who was UKIP leader for eighteen days, and she said to me, ‘why is it that you are a remainer?’ And I said, ‘if the country votes your way there will be a political crisis, David Cameron will resign, there’ll be a run on the pound and if things go wrong who do we blame?’ And she looked at me in complete astonishment. So, I was waiting for her to react and she then said, ‘oh well, Cameron should have thought of that’. I just thought, ‘absolutely incredible!’”

Calibre: Do you think anyone on either side of the campaign actually expected Brexit to happen?

“I don’t think they did. All the indications were that people were taken by surprise and the polls got it wrong. I think a real surprise was that there were people who were going to be hurt by it that voted for it. I spoke to various groups or had dinners with farmers and was amazed at why they were confident. I thought, ‘bloody hell, if half your money comes from subsidy and it comes from the European Union, doesn’t take a genius to work out that maybe this is going to be a bit tricky!’”

Calibre: Other member countries are currently experiencing similar calls from the public to exit the EU, in regards to that do you think the EU has a future?

“I think it’s very difficult to see a long term future for the European Union as it is presently constituted. I think the question of if you’re going to have a single currency and if you’re going to have an economic and monetary union, you’ve got to move fairly quickly to some kind of United States of Europe, and I don’t see how you avoid that.

“However, if you spend your time thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if the European Union cracked now that we’re leaving?’ Now that is foolishness. We want them to be as successful as they can be. So the idea that it’s a load of rubbish, they’ll give it up after a bit, no, they fought very hard for it. I don’t forecast the imminent collapse of it, but I would be pessimistic about it in the long term.”

Calibre: What do you think about Jeremy Corbyn and his plans to tackle inequality, do you think he will find traction among voters?

“No, at the moment you start talking about what about showbiz people and what about footballers, you then say we’ve got to have some exemptions. But then what happens if someone invents the next iPhone or its equivalent that’s going to change the world, do you then say, ‘oh, you can’t have more than £150,000 a year’?”

Calibre: What’s the first thing you would do if you were Prime Minister?

“I think I would really take some firm action about sugar. I think people could really be warned more about sugar, children especially. But everybody knows the problem, they know that kids should take more exercise. I would be much firmer on telling people, particularly parents. These are things that you could improve and people can get used, very quickly, to not having sugar in their tea, for example.”

Calibre: You were present at Martin Luther King Jnr’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, do you think his sacrifice has been honoured in the proceeding years?

“I think things have improved in all sorts of ways. When I was in America in the early 1960s there was apartheid, which was horrendous. There was a domestic in the house that I was in and sometimes I had to drive her home, but she always had to sit in the back and couldn’t sit next to me. And if you were in a bus in New Orleans you couldn’t sit at the back. It was real apartheid. So, if you consider that particular period in America, the idea that you’ve now had a two-term black president, well that’s the most wonderful thing, it’s a clear advance for a once apartheid nation.”

Calibre: You could say Obama’s almost a realisation of the ‘dream’?

“Well, it was a terrifically exciting moment and if you asked people now, ‘well, what about Michelle Obama running for president?’ They wouldn’t think that was a daft thing. Just imagine if you’d had a photograph of her back in 1960s America and asked people, ‘do you think this woman could ever be president of the United States?’ Just imagine!”

Calibre: When you were present at that speech, did it feel like it would be as big a part of history as it’s ended up being?

“At the Martin Luther King thing I remember thinking, ‘well, this guy’s obviously brilliant and I’m amazingly impressed by how well he’s handling the crowds’ but I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of ‘this is the best speech you’ll ever hear and it’s opening a new era for American’, no, no. I just thought how strange it all seemed.

“It was extremely friendly and everyone there was on a kind of picnic and it was an extremely well behaved crowd of people. You’ve got to remember that Martin Luther King, he’s a Baptist preacher, so it was like a kind of church outing more than a political, intense rally. The atmosphere was very much, ‘we’re here with our strength and our beliefs and our goodness.”

Calibre: Is there anyone who could step into King’s shoes today, do you think?

“I mean Obama was going to do that. I heard somebody say the other day, ‘one of Obama’s problems was that he had to be such a cool character, because he couldn’t play the ‘angry black man’. I thought that was a clever description because Trump does the white equivalent of the ‘angry black man’.

“I can see that for a black man he had to have a very cool character, because acting any other way could have been used against him. That’s how he survived his eight years because he’s very sophisticated, a gentleman and had no scandal attached to him.”

Calibre: Do you think America still has some maturation to do, politically?

“In terms of their leaders? Yes, perhaps. They do seem to be behind the rest of the world in terms of demographic spread. And also their gun thing, as a society, is just… America at their weirdest. And that’s obviously something we’ll never understand. The idea that you give every person, and every drunk, the chance to kill lots of people, and then be surprised when they do kill lots of people, just seems astonishing. It’s like their obsession with religion. I know America pretty well, but there are some things that are eternal mysteries, and that’s one of them. But the idea you’re safer, because at any point you can pull out a gun and kill someone if you feel threatened, that’s pretty thin thinking.”

Calibre: Do you think you could enjoy the same prospects and the same kind of political scoops if were starting out in journalism today?

“I think you can. I mean it’s very tempting to say, ‘oh, you’ll never go back to those days of swashbuckling and drinking until four in the afternoon’ but a lot of it was extremely inefficient and incompetent compared with nowadays. Our communications, for example, were appalling. We used to take telephones apart and put crocodile clips on them to try and boost the signal to be able to broadcast!

“To have the fabulous communications and research facilities we have now at our fingertips, I mean it’s a great time for journalism, and it’s a great time to think about the amount of information that’s coming at you, so journalistic analysis is more important than ever.

“A lot of my time was spent news gathering, literally writing down the number of tanks there were or how many bullets had been fired or whatever, all that kind of stuff which we had to put across the whole time, so there’s much more opportunity now for someone to be funny, to be serious, to write well. A good journalist is just as vital as ever and is just as important.”

Calibre: As a famous journalist who’s been on both sides of the celebrity and journalism fence, what do you think about society’s preoccupation with celebrity and can it be corrupting?

“No, I think there’s probably no going back because one of the problems is that political and business problems are often very technical. People are naturally driven to subjects which they find much more enjoyable, ‘is so-and-so having an affair, aren’t they incredibly good-looking’ etc. But, there’s nothing wrong in it particularly, but the people involved are caught in this strange business where they can’t say ‘it’s awful being famous’.

“I feel for the people who then don’t have a profession, whereas at least I always had a job, I didn’t take crazy risks with my career until I had retired and had a pension and things. But, there are an awful lot of people in the public eye now whose shelf-life is very short.”

Calibre: As a seasoned journalist, are you fearful for the continued freedom of the press and its ability to scrutinise the government?

“No, but I think there’s always a problem about how well you do it. We’ve got information overload at the moment and journalists have got to be cleverer with the information available to them. I would have loved the Internet as a young journalist and in those terms it’s a fabulous time to be a journalist. Scrutinising governments is so easy now. It’s easy for things to be leaked and shared.”

Calibre: So what do you think to whistleblowing organisations such as WikiLeaks and the like?

“They usually occur when things are going genuinely wrong. Like Snowden did, he was thinking that millions of people don’t realise that they’re under surveillance. He did it because the intelligence agencies had in fact gone too far. And in a way, the good thing about it was that they’re now called to account, but legislation is then prepared which allows them to do many of these things, if not all of them, anyway.

“But as far as the citizen is concerned these leaks tend to occur in governments and bureaucracies when things are going wrong, where people think something unfair is happening. Someone has just died on a trolley in hospital, well don’t be surprised if a nurse goes online and posts something.

“The joy, if you can call it that, is that we are in a society where government can’t keep secrets like it used to. And that’s good and generally speaking I am in favour of that, of people knowing as much as possible about why things are going wrong and there’s as much transparency as possible.”

Calibre: In respect of that do you think there’s anything that could be done to threats to reporting such as Section 40?

“Yeah, I think that’s appalling. The idea that whether you win or lose a libel case you pay costs for both, it just means that everyone would get far too frightened of uncovering malfeasance, ‘we’ve got to print this because it’s true and we feel it’s a matter of public importance’. It could put an end to all that, which perhaps is the aim.”

Calibre: So what did you make of the aftermath of the Leveson enquiry?

“I think unfortunately it got off on the wrong track and it’s a pity because obviously it would be better if you could had some kind of toughening up of the right to reply, because some newspapers are very irresponsible sometimes.”

Calibre: Do you think it was a force for good, or was it more of a PR exercise?

“No, I think things came out. The trouble was that you got into a position where people thought action must be taken, but the idea that you can somehow suddenly solve this particular problem, well I think that’s asking a lot, isn’t it?”

Calibre: So did you think it left the British public in a worse position?

“No, I don’t think it did in the end.”

Calibre: Do you think there’s anything to be done to address the problem of the decline in newspaper sales?

“Well, I hope, you see, that in the end because of the distribution and ability the internet has for making things extremely cheap and extremely accessible, I can envisage a position in the end where you get lots of local papers online. I would have thought that, theoretically, if you can get the journalists and the people and the advertising together, and establish a model of how people pay for it – I think people are getting more used to paying for subscription services such as film and television content – then you could have a local paper which would function well online and tell you the kind of things you’re interested in.”

Calibre: If you hadn’t left, would you have won Strictly?

“Well, this is the joy of being a political correspondent for many years, you just can work out what the possibilities are; do you gain more or do you lose more. We’d clearly won, in the same way that Ed Balls clearly won this year, but my choice as a political correspondent was a by-election manoeuvre, any fool would see that was By far the better option. I knew a fair bit about voting and I just hope people would understand what I was there for, what I was doing. If they thought a man of 64 was desperate to become a professional ballroom dancer, well, that’s a bit odd!”

Calibre: Was it a tactical move then?

“Well, you find out what the rules are and then play to those. So I found all that very puzzling, genuinely puzzling because for me it was perfectly obvious that the more the judges attacked us the more we would win the public vote.”

Calibre: Would you give Strictly another go, if invited?

“No, that would be crazy, and also the temptation of the public to then slam you would be irresistible – but this is politics, isn’t it? This is politics in action!

Calibre: Did the experience of Strictly motivate you to take up dancing lessons or anything similar?

“Oh dear no! I very much treated it as another broadcasting assignment. And also at 64, the whole idea that you can become a professional dancer in a space of weeks! I sometimes tell people, ‘well I WAS a professional dancer once, I made a lot of money out of it don’t you know!’ But, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being cynical, but I was fortunate to have a lot of experience in broadcasting, a lot of experience of how to operate which made it a lot easier than someone who’s just been in a soap opera and become famous that way.”

Calibre: So you used your background to your advantage?

“All the time, it was much easier for me, much, much easier. If I’d had to do that when I was 30 I would have found it extremely difficult.”

Calibre: That’s an interesting perspective.

“I recently celebrated 50 years of broadcasting, well, that’s an awful lot of knowledge in lots of different areas. So, the idea that, ‘oh, Sergeant doesn’t know what he’s doing’, well, no. You’re putting on a performance you know people will like. And that’s the dynamism, this sort of idea that, ‘oh, Sergeant was lazy, he didn’t rehearse’, well, I rehearsed a hell of a lot. Why? In order to look as if I hadn’t rehearsed! And that’s how you do it. Otherwise you wouldn’t complete any of these routines because they’re too complicated.

“I don’t know, it’s so funny how people watch television all the time but they have no idea how it’s constructed or they have no idea that you’re doing something ten times in order to get the one shot.”

Calibre: People often prefer to believe the illusion.

“They want to believe that you are suddenly there by magic and that you are, as with my canal journeys, genuinely on holiday. Well, of course you’re bloody not. You’re bloody working!”

Calibre: It takes a lot of effort to make things look effortless.

“Yes. When I flew a Spitfire, there was actually quite a lot of unpleasantness. The last celebrity taken in this particular Spitfire had thrown up all over the place, so the idea that, ‘oh, what an amazing thing to do’, is fine, as long as you’ve got a pretty strong stomach! But, then you’re on television, and you’ve then got to say things that aren’t just ‘wow’ the whole time, you can’t just say ‘wow’.”

Calibre: Your career has spanned television presenting, comedy and journalism amongst others. For which do you feel you have had the most love and for which have you had the most talent?

“Oh gosh, jolly difficult. I tend to be excited, I must admit, by the thing I’m either working on or the thing that I’ve just worked on. So at the moment I’d probably say I have the most love for writing travel pieces in Norway!

“It’s a strange thing though, at the time I was jolly excited to go to Vietnam to report, I had a tremendous sense of being chosen by the BBC. I also had a tremendous sense of Alan Bennett plucking me alone out of the Edinburgh Fringe. So, I suppose my talent is that which I’m chosen for – and I then my love is working on it!

“I was the Paris correspondent for a couple of months, didn’t know any French, that makes you concentrate. I wasn’t particularly brave as a war correspondent, but I went to quite a few wars. So, to ask me what I was talented at, I think I have a talent for concentration. I suppose what I was best at and I was most proud of was having no script, standing outside Number 10 and being asked whether the government had got something wrong or right. I think my best was speaking without a script to a camera with just the cameraman and me knowing that half the Cabinet or more might be watching. And millions of people will be watching it. And doing it and giving the impression that I was not nervous and simply hitting the right note.”

Calibre: You had a good internal editor.

“That’s it, you sort of rapidly mentally edit and then ‘bam’. You’d hopefully said things which were thoughtful and I suppose the joy of it would be that the next day you might be, say, in a bus queue or something and you’d hear someone using your argument. Or, if you had correctly read between the lines, someone high up in the civil service for instance, might watch you outside Number 10 and then call you up and say, ‘how on earth did you know about that?’”