MICHAEL CRICK INTERVIEW: “If someone tries to bully me now, I’ll just bully them back.”
He’s not taking any bullshit.
Few names strike fear into the heart of British politicians like that of Michael Crick.
A founding member of Channel 4 News, as well as a veteran of BBC’s ‘Newsnight’, Crick returned to Channel 4 in July 2011 as their political correspondent. Highlights of a thoroughly remarkable career include being threatened by Jeffrey Archer after a particular tough interview, and – infamously – being hit over the head with a conference brochure by irate MEP Godfrey Bloom after the UKIP politician took exception to one of Crick’s questions. Such episodes have apparently failed to dispirit him, he’s currently investigating dubious campaign financing in the 2015 General Election, alongside his usual duties for Channel 4.
Despite this formidable reputation as a tough cookie, Crick is remarkably genial as he speaks to the Union. He explains that he when he entered journalism, he saw it mainly as a stepping-stone on the road to a political career. Certainly his background – as a PPEist at Oxford who was also President of the Union there – is reminiscent of more than one present-day politician.
Yet when Labour unexpectedly offered Crick a safe seat in 1990, he had second thoughts. After much agonising he turned it down, and says he’s felt “utterly liberated” since then. He has been able to devote himself entirely to his career as a journalist, to the delight of his audiences and the chagrin of many politicians. Though Crick was – like many – a supporter of Labour during his youth, these days he claims he’s neutral at elections.
Such neutrality means that he is able to treat politicians from all three major parties with equal tenacity and forthrightness. Crick specialises in the ‘doorstep’ – waiting for a politician to emerge from a building, and them quickly directing a question at them. He’s acknowledged as the “master of the doorstep”, and offers insights into a surprisingly meticulous technique; “You’ve also got to make sure that you ask the question so they can hear it, but before the competition do. So sometimes a way to grab their attention is to begin ‘Good morning, so-and-so!’ and then ask the rest of the question.”
But he’s also received criticism for the tactic. When I ask him about it, Crick offers a robust defence of doorstep interviews – “It’s worth showing that they don’t want to answer anything… it does add to the entertainment and the drama.” Indeed, Crick comes across as an impassioned and articulate believer in the power of a free press. After I ask him about whether he worries about his reputation amongst politicians, he says unambiguously “We are one of the checks and balances in a free society.”
Certainly Crick himself has been instrumental in several major exposés that have shaken British politics; at present he’s focussing on the issue of campaign finances during the 2015 election. Crick contends that the Tories spent at least twice as much as they were legally allowed to during campaigning for the South Thanet seat, principally to prevent UKIP leader Nigel Farage from gaining a seat. It’s clear that Crick feels strongly about this, and one can easily sympathise with his argument that “The reason for expense limits is to create some kind of a level playing field, and prevent the money-driven politics that’s prevalent in America.”
American politics is, of course, one of the most topical issues these days, with Donald Trump in particular making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. Crick isn’t particularly happy about this, “it is outrageous,’ he says, “the way in which all of us in the media are giving the American elections so much coverage.” He notes, quite rightly, that the French presidential elections are given a tiny fraction of the coverage received by the American campaign, despite France lying merely 20 miles off the south coast.
Nonetheless, Crick is clearly interested in American politics – unsurprising, considering his former work as Channel 4’s Washington correspondent. He gives Trump “about a 35% chance” at winning the presidency, explaining that Britons ‘always misunderstand the American right’ – our perception of America is based on visiting liberal bastions like New York or Boston, whilst in the American heartland people like Trump are able to tap into a huge amount of anger at the government.
Back home, politics is equally unstable, especially with the looming referendum on a British exit from the EU. Crick’s view is that even if Britain votes to remain, Cameron may well have to go as leader. “There’s been an arrogance and heavy-handedness about the Downing Street operation so far which has alienated Tory MPs.” So who will follow him as Tory leader? At present the two front-runners are George Osborne and Boris Johnson – Crick argues that “Boris Johnson has got to be the overwhelming favourite” , but hastens to add that predictions about party leaders are almost invariably wrong.
This holds true for the Labour Party too. Jeremy Corbyn was principally elected, he says, due to “a dearth of talent in the Labour ranks.” At present there’s a tension between the exceedingly left-wing rank and file of the party, and its more centrist representation in Parliament. As such it’s tough to predict who might follow Corbyn when the inevitable coup against him arrives. Crick advises the audience to keep an eye on the talented and popular ex-soldier Dan Jarvis, but again warns that “the general rule with leadership elections is that the winner is someone who nobody would have predicted 18 months before.”
Voluble and loquacious, Michael Crick is a thorough raconteur. In the course of a fifteen-minute interview it becomes clear that he is a man with a range of strong opinions; some controversial, all articulately and wittily expressed. Unafraid to cause a bit of controversy, he proudly relates how “If someone tries to bully me now, I’ll just bully them back.”
In a world increasingly dominated by spin and hype, British politics needs Michael Crick more than ever.