A head for hard drinking and a nose for a story

WHEN
we arrange this interview it comes down to a straight choice between
meeting before John Sweeney goes to an Oldie magazine lunch or
afterwards when he is, as he freely admits, very likely to be drunk.

Sweeney
says he would rather meet before he sets off to the Star Cafe in Soho
for what promises to be a boozy session with staff of the magazine he
writes a column for.

I push for afterwards, however – as much due
to the fact that meeting him beforehand leaves me less than an hour to
get across London as his concern that if he’s interviewed in an
inebriated state he might say some rude things about his boss, the
director general Mark Thompson.

His giggle when I suggest that the later meeting would probably make the most interesting interview is pure mischief.

But
I find myself wondering whether to add a new category to the age-old
wisdom of ‘never work with children or animals’ – namely ‘journalists
who have lunched’ – when I arrive at the restaurant at the time we
agreed to find that the Oldie team has already left and Sweeney has
apparently gone with them.

When I get through to him on his
mobile and ask where he is I’m greeted with that giggle again. “I’m not
telling you,” he says. It’s not looking promising.

Fortunately he
agrees to meet me back at the restaurant and, having ordered a glass of
white wine, begins to talk about how pleased he is with the success of
the three part series, Sweeney Investigates .

Well, for the next
quarter of an hour he does, anyway. Before he’s even drawn breath he
gets a phone call from BBC Ireland and announces that in 15 minutes he
will have to go to find a telephone so he can be interviewed about the
series.

A short amount of the time we have left is taken up with
Sweeney making growling noises into my tape recorder, but I manage to
retrieve it and he becomes immediately focused, delivering a rapid
monologue about the BBC series he has been working on for the past nine
months.

He tells me how he had been bowled over after the first
programme in the series, which looked at the Kabbalah Centre, the sect
whose followers include Madonna and Demi Moore, went on air.

A
friend of his son approached him in the street and told him that he’d
really rated the programme and was really looking forward to the next
one.

Sweeney then makes a series of inarticulate noises by way of
illustrating that his son and his friends are “that particular breed of
south-west London teenager who only ever grunts”.

“I was pretty
taken aback, I’d never even heard him say a full sentence before,” adds
Sweeney. “It means we’re appealing to one young person, at least.”

The
second in the series would probably have similar appeal for his
16-year-old son’s mates as it was on the subject of Chelsea owner Roman
Abramovich and his relationship with the Kremlin.

In this
programme we saw Sweeney set about investigating where Abramovich’s
money comes from in a similarly jaunty manner as he did the alleged
Kabbalah con – and wearing the same shirt, jacket and hack’s raincoat
combo that attracted comment from the critics after the first
programme, but this time he has a hat.

There are a series of puns that run through the programme, in which he describes one Russian town as “a sub-polar Peckham”.

When
it transpires that Abramovich owned a Swiss company, it’s an
opportunity for a bout of yodelling and a shot of Sweeney eating fondue.

Sweeney remarks that he and his team were “rather proud” that critics like AA Gill referred to the programme as “thuggery”.

With
10 minutes to go he tells me how the three programmes in the
investigative series were an attempt to approach “Panorama heavy
subjects” in a way that would appeal to people who would not otherwise
be interested.

The third and final programme examining the death
of six Red Caps in Iraq obviously did not warrant the same treatment as
the Kabbalah and Chelsea programmes, but the idea with the first two
was to “make them a good watch, make them a laugh and to make them
entertaining with heavy doses of irony”.

“What I enjoyed
enormously with the first two was the chance to inject a bit of wit and
poke a bit of fun,” he adds. “Everybody has been brought up on Have I
got News for You . Therefore it’s entirely sweet and right to tell
stories, accepting the proposition that in Britain we do have a sense
of irony and can read between the lines and we do that beautifully.

“I
hate it when I go to America because with a few exceptions you lose
irony. But here everybody does it. You can get irony off a taxi driver
in Rotherham.

Everywhere in this country there’s a love of it.”

He next switches to the subject of his boss, the BBC head of current affairs, Peter Horrocks.

“It’s
fair to say that I’m traditionally extremely rude to his face,” says
Sweeney, who describes how when he saw Horrocks on his way to the
management meeting in which Thompson announced his cost-cutting plans
for the BBC in December he said: “‘One bomb, Peter and it would solve
all the financial problems’.

“Because you just take out senior
management and all that money would go. I still think as cost-cutting
it’s quite a good solution. I said that with a smile on my face because
obviously it’s a joke.

“The next day there was a big meeting I
cracked the joke again and Horrocks looked at me ashenfaced and I
thought I shouldn’t have said that, should I?” That giggle makes a
comeback.

But it seems that despite the wine, Sweeney’s in no
mood to criticise any of his bosses at the BBC. He hardly mentions
Thompson again and Horrocks, “despite everything is a good thing”, he
says.

“I want to say that I’m extremely critical of the BBC, at
all times. But it is wonderful that they’ve given us the opportunity to
do our stuff.”

Massive guns

He describes one meeting with Horrocks in which his boss told him
that he was concerned that in each of the programmes he had taken on
“big” targets.

“I’m aware that you can do the celebrity investigative reporting
stuff and it can be a bit sick-making, especially if you turn all these
massive guns on a dodgy gas fitter from Warrington or a minor criminal
who happens to be black. So we overdid it the other way and went for
Britain’s richest rock star, [Madonna,] Britain’s richest man and the
minister of defence. We could have done with a couple of gas fitters,
actually.”

Sweeney has moved on to the subject of his investigations into cot deaths (see box overleaf) when the BBC calls again.

In
fact he’s moved further on to what he describes as “the eroticism of
detail” and just before he heads off to the Private Eye offices to use
their telephone I scribble down: “I love document evidence. Evidence,
evidence, evidence. That’s what got me going with the cot death stuff.
It’s the same when somebody in the City gives you a fat wodge of
documents which are interesting, you go waa-hey. It’s that sad. I think
“I always wanted a kidney-shaped swimming pool – I’ve got swimming pool
shaped kidneys now.”

I get personally excited when someone gives me secret documents.”

With
some reservation, I agree to wait for him in a nearby pub while he goes
to the Private Eye office to use their phone for the interview.

It’ll
only take 10 minutes or so, he says as he pulls on his woolly hat and
sets off, commenting that it will be quite a challenge doing a radio
interview while slightly the worse for wear.

Forty five minutes
later he’s back, but tells me he’s arranged to meet some journalists
who are doing a piece on the back of his Abramovich investigation.

That leaves us with just 20 minutes. “We’ll do it beautifully,” he says.

With a glass of house white in hand, Sweeney launches into the subject of the “hugely talented”

team who have worked with him on this series.

There’s Sam Bagnell – an Arsenal fan, confides Sweeney, adding that that has got “absolutely nothing”

to do with the fact that he produced the Abramovich programme.

“I’m a Tranmere Rovers fan, so there’s no question of there being a conflict of interest,” he says.

Callum
Macrae was producer on the Kabbalah Centre programme and Gary Horne,
Carl Eve and Rosie Garthwaite worked on the Red Cap programmes.

There was also an undercover journalist who, “like Mazher Mahmood is keeping her identity a secret”.

Sweeney grimaces and says he is uncomfortable being the “celebrity” fronting the series.

“It feels like it’s slightly cheating that I am the public face of these people, “he explains. “It’s bizarre.

You have to remember that I look like a fucking potato.”

Sweeney
then tells me that he’s a “huge believer in General Sir Bill Slim”, A
British Army general who commanded troops in Burma during the Second
World War. For a moment I find myself wondering where exactly he is
heading as he explains how the general “went 1,000 miles backward in
his Japanese attack, stopped them, then went a 1,000 miles forward”.

But
I am beginning to realise that however many parentheses and sub-clauses
Sweeney introduces he does know where he’s going. You just have to give
it time and he will arrive at his destination with an insistent “and
here’s my point”.

Taking the piss

What Sweeney’s getting at with the story about General Sir Bill
Slim’s escapades is that “his constant philosophy was that the lowliest
person was able to essentially take the piss. The lowliest weather
lieutenant could say ‘It’s a great plan general but it’s going to rain,
ie it’s a crap plan.”

The point is, Sweeney says, that “from day one” he and his team operated in an environment where “anybody could take the piss”.

After
this afternoon I have some sympathy for Sweeney’s colleagues who had
their work cut out keeping him on track when he was working on the
programme. He recounts how, while they were filming in Miami, the
hurricanes struck and his colleagues had to rescue him from the
Atlantic, ”lest I should die.”

He never does get round to explaining why he was swimming at 5am except to say,”some drink was taken.”

They
designated Puppet on a String as his theme tune because, Sweeney says,
“a lot of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. Whenever I turned up,
I’d be dazed, hungover, not knowing where I was, was it Canada, was I
in Siberia, Israel, Cyprus? And they’d start singing Puppet on a String
because I don’t know if am I interviewing a Russian gangster who’s been
arrested for the murder of a man who’s still alive, or interviewing a
rabbi on the Kabbalah Centre story.

“They’d point me in the right
direction and say ‘this man’ and I’d say ‘who is he, is he a
gangster?’, and they’d say ‘No, no. No he’s a rabbi’.”

But in the
middle of all the anecdotes about his antics with the team, Sweeney
does drop in something very revealing. One of the reasons he enjoys
working for the BBC, he says, is that he doesn’t have to work alone as
he did during the 12 years he worked at the Observer .

He “loved”
those years, he says, and is still so fond of the newspaper that he
“doesn’t kiss women unless they read the Observer – with apologies to
all those readers of the Sunday Times “.

But leaving the
newspaper provided him with an opportunity to get away from war
reporting, something he was finding it harder and harder to keep on
doing. “I ran out of juice in terms of horror and seeing things,” he
says. “I was in Sierra Leone when Kurt Schork was killed and after he
was killed I found it very difficult to leave Sierra Leone because I
was crying and I was in bits. And I was alone.”

Since he joined
the BBC in 2001, initially to work for Radio Five Live , Sweeney says
that although he’s done some difficult investigations, such as mothers
wrongly accused of murdering their children, and “been to some nasty
places” such as Zimbabwe and Iraq, he has found they have been less of
a trial because he works with other people.

“The good thing about the BBC is that it’s a team game,” he says.

We
talk briefly about the recent programme on war reporting by Jeremy
Bowen, now a colleague at the BBC who Sweeney also knew on the road.

I
ask if he thinks his experiences covering war had a long-term effect on
him. “What can I say? You see someone with their eyes blown out and it
doesn’t affect you? It does and you don’t get over it,” says Sweeney,
who is entirely serious now.

Emotional trigger

Just at that moment one of the journalists arrives.

Sweeney says he is allowed some mystery in his life and doesn’t tell
me who he is. Instead he picks up immediately from where he left off.

He
was, he admits, “in bits” after working in Dubrovnik in 1991. He
recounts how after all the horrors he witnessed, it was the sight of a
young boy with a groin injury, who looked like his own son, that
triggered his emotions.

“There was a kid who had salt and pepper
hair like my own son. He was lightly injured but he was going to be
fine. I just burst into tears.

“I’d seen people with their eyes
blown out, I’d seen people shot in the head, I’ve seen 20 dead soldiers
in a morgue with their ribs opened up, but this got to me. The odd
thing was that this was nothing but this got to me and touched some
personal space.

“I think people like Jeremy Bowen and myself have
seen terrible things and will probably never recover. Does it mean
those stories aren’t worth telling? Does it mean that those people are
nobodies?

No. Is it worth telling the story? Yes. Square that, I don’t know. But would I rather have been a property correspondent? No.”

Few journalists are so candid about the impact that covering conflicts and atrocities around the world has had on them.

Sweeney
clearly doesn’t align himself with the camp that dismisses the
suggestion that anything more than a few drinks in the bar afterwards
is all that’s needed to get over it. But he is also quite philosophical
about the price he paid doing his job.

“I know that messed me up
as a human being,” he says. “Much as I would like to have most of my
liver and kidneys back, I also know that I am enormously proud that I
did that story and that when civilised Europe looked the other way, we
didn’t.

“I always wanted to have a kidney-shaped swimming pool – it turns out I’ve got swimming pool shaped kidneys now.”

Two
more journalists arrive to talk to him about Sweeney’s investigation,
so we agree to speak on the phone the next day to tie up any loose ends.

When
we do so, he’s pretty furious that the Guardian carried a story he
helped it with about Abramovich facing legal action in a Swiss court
which could, potentially, lead to the freezing of his assets in Chelsea
FC – but failed to credit him or the BBC.

“Their explanation was that they left any reference to me out for legal reasons. I am waiting with bated breath for the cheque.

“I might be critical of the BBC, but at least they don’t do that kind of thing,” he says.

Again he goes pretty easy on the BBC and it is obvious that the insults about Thompson won’t come today either.

“The
job cuts, who could possibly welcome people going apart from the job
centre? But at the same time it’s his job to preserve and protect the
future of the BBC. He has to balance those things and I do a different
job. I couldn’t possibly do his job and could he do mine?”

He views the BBC rather like a wayward family member, he says.

“The
thing is it’s exactly like your family, they drive you nuts. It’s like
the head of something something in news is your Aunty Rhoda and you
think for fuck sake what’s Aunty Rhoda done this time?

“But at the same time the moment someone is rude about Aunty Rhoda they are going to get a kicking from me.”

In
the past he’s accused the BBC of weakness in the wake of the Hutton
Report this time last year and he says he stands by that analysis.

“I think there is a bit of a cultural cringe,” he says.

“I agree with Thompson this much that it’s the greatest force for good on the planet. Possibly.

“I
do think we should be robust. I don’t think Andrew Gilligan got a huge
amount wrong and until we find weapons of mass destruction it looks as
though we were more right than wrong and the government was a lot more
wrong than right.”

I mention that the subject of drink made up a
large part of the previous day’s conversation. He points out that
yesterday’s lunch was exceptional and that usually he makes do with a
“sandwich in White City.”

“To be fair having worked my ass off for about three weeks that was a slightly party day,” he says.

“In telly I work preposterously hard, we all do, so you almost have to schedule in a drinking day.

“So the headline will be tired dipso at the BBC,”

he
quips. “Good one.The subject of me drinking has become a bit of a
running joke. But I’m much more sober than people think I am.”

Sweeney,
with what seems characteristic honesty, then adds: “But I went along to
one of these things about journalists and post-traumatic stress
disorder and alcohol abuse, terrible relationships, and I ticked every
box.

“The question is, is it the job, or had I been a librarian, would I have been a noisy librarian?

Who knows?”

The final Sweeney Investigates airs on 27 January on BBC One.

 

Cot deaths

BURNING CONVICTION

“I started to do the cot death stuff in 2001 when I joined Radio
Five Live . Then I took it to Panorama but they said, no it’s not a
story. So I took it to File on Four and we did a programme in 2002 and
on the day it was aired, the criminal cases review commission said they
were going to take the Sally Clark case back to the court appeal.

“I
was so convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice in the
case of Sally Clark that I would have put it on traffic for Radio
Norwich had they let me. I was convinced.

I had a gut conviction that there had been a miscarriage of justice. There was no evidence and I believe in evidence.

“To
be honest I had a couple of pints of Guinness and everyone else did the
work. But I did have the burning conviction that if there was no
evidence of abuse, then there wasn’t any abuse.

“When a mother is
accused of murdering her baby and there are no cigarette burns and no
broken bones, no bruises and no history of abuse, then you have to ask
was there a crime?

“It’s the work I’m most proud of. As a result
of the Angela Canning decision there are now 117 child killings that
the Attorney General himself believes may not be safe.

“I feel
very strongly about the suggestion that because I in some way
championed these mothers I am soft on child abuse. I’m not. I’m not
soft on abuse of any kind and that includes the state. The charge
against the state is that in the case of Sally Clark and Angela Canning
they took a child away from its mother and put the mother in prison and
that mother had done nothing wrong.

“My best moment in journalism
was when I went into Angela Canning’s office and I needed to sleep
because I’d had too much to drink at lunchtime. Before I fell asleep I
said I’m not going until you’ve found Angela’s family tree because if
Angela was telling the truth and if it was genetic then other members
of her family had died.

“It turned out that her granny had lost her kids and great granny lost one and there were five deaths in her extended family.”

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