What happened when Eddie Mair and Robert Peston grilled each other?

The BBC newsmen are used to asking tough questions – but this time they're having to answer them

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EDDIE ASKS ROBERT 

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I’m going to start by asking the question that Twitter users want answered…“It’s all about the hair, really,” says one. “Is the ageing soul boy look cultivated, or just pure chance?”

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Er… it’s not very cultivated, is it?

What irritates me about your hair is you’ve got the choice, and this is what you’ve chosen?!

I think I must be going through a mid-life crisis. I just sort of woke up one day and thought, “I’ll grow my hair.” So I have.

Do you like being famous?

It’s neither yes nor no. When I moved from print journalism to the BBC, it was a bit of a shock that people started being interested in things other than the journalism, and actually my late wife, Siân, warned me that would happen. She said there was a price to moving across. She said, “Be aware that you do lose some of your privacy, people think they own you,” and that started to happen. 

Do you remember the first time you were aware of that?

I was aware of it very quickly, because lots of people immediately started complaining that they hated the way I sounded!

How did that feel?

A bit weird. But I’ve got a pretty rhinoceros-like hide…

You had it, or it has developed since then?

I think you toughen up a bit when you get into the spotlight. I was quite shocked initially that people started to comment on things like the way I sounded and looked. 

Why was that shocking?

Because I hadn’t thought it through. Remember, when I joined the BBC, I had been a print journalist for not far off 25 years. And even when you are a reasonably successful print journalist, people may complain about the columns you write, but it’s not quite the same – it’s nowhere near as personal as what happens as soon as you get on the TV or radio.

People feel somehow that they can say all sorts of things to you, some of them nice, some of them unbelievably rude. And if you work for the BBC they think they employ you – and they do employ us, because they pay the licence fee – so they can say what they like.

I know the BBC found it quite uncomfortable because it wasn’t just people writing to me, it was people moaning in newspapers, and there was quite a lot written about how crap I was. 

What did the BBC do?

They sent me off for training to iron out my eccentricities. They failed completely. 

What’s that training course like?

They hired various presentation specialists, all of whom have gone on to seek other careers, I’m sure, because it was a total failure. And then, I had been moaning away about how the economic world as we knew it was about to come to an end because of all these banks taking these stupid risks – and lo and behold it happened.

I got one or two decent stories, and suddenly people stopped obsessing about the way I said things and started to take an interest in what I was saying. And at that point, funnily enough, my eccentricities became quite a useful thing, because people knew who I was and they worked out that what I was saying mattered to their lives, and they began to take notice.

You were saved by the economic crash.

I was the only person in Britain who was. I owe everything to the crash.

Has criticism hurt you?

Whenever anybody makes a sensible criticism, I think about it. And if I think it’s something useful and practical, then I’ll take it on board. I do think that there were some elements of my broadcasting style that militated against comprehension, so I tried to get rid of those.

Having a style where people know it’s you is a good thing, but if they struggle to understand what you’re saying, that’s a bad thing.

You were very candid and gave interviews about Siân’s lung cancer and her death almost three years ago. How much did being a public person, and talking about what you were going through, help you?

Siân was ill for five years before she died, and there were some very difficult times, but I didn’t ever expect her to die. So when she died it was the most terrible, terrible, terrible shock.

I think I am now in much better shape than I was a year ago, two years ago, and that’s mainly because I have been asking myself questions about the whole disaster of her dying, thinking about it, talking to people about it.

I’ve done counselling – I still see a counsellor – and that’s been incredibly helpful, and I always say to people who suffer a tragedy of this sort that counselling is incredibly helpful. I don’t think it’s necessarily for everybody, but I found it incredibly useful. And the reason I spoke about it in public was very deliberate.

I didn’t mean there was anything wrong with being so open about it.

I know you didn’t, but just let me explain why I spoke about it. I was, and remain, scandalised by how little money is spent on researching cures for lung cancer. Siân never smoked in her life. But because there is this perception that you bring lung cancer on yourself because you’re a smoker, it doesn’t get the funding that other cancers get, and I wanted to highlight quite how many non-smokers get it.

Lung cancer causes the most deaths of all cancers, and 15 per cent of those diagnosed with it have no link with smoking. But even if it was all to do with smoking, the fact that we somehow think that you deserve to die if you smoke is terrible. 

And then I discovered something else, when I first talked about it – it was Radio Times, funnily enough, that published the first piece on all this that I’d done: the preface to Siân’s last book, and a bit of it was about grief.

After that piece appeared in RT lots of people got in touch, people who had lost a partner or child, and said, “Thank you for talking about grief. Nobody ever, in public, talks about grief, and it was incredibly helpful to know that the things I’m feeling are normal, and that there are other people feeling this,” and it helped me to know that in a sense they weren’t alone.

When I had that positive response I thought, “F*** it – if somebody wants to talk to me about myself, I’ll talk a bit more about it.” We’re very bad at talking about death, but people suffer terrible tragedies all the time, and they shouldn’t feel isolated; that’s why I talked about it. 

A lot of the women I know, a surprising number of them, want to know if you are… OK.

[Laughs] What does that mean?

Well… Just that. Are you OK?

Yes, I’m OK. I definitely wasn’t OK. The thing about being in shock is you don’t know you’re in shock, and I was in shock for quite a long time after Siân died. Of course there are times when I get blue. But I’m periodically quite happy, which is amazing. If I’m honest with you, I didn’t think I’d ever feel happy ever again.

Are you ready to love again?

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Er… I think that’s a reasonable expectation. It’s a hope, yes. It’s wonderful for me that I can feel again, and I can take pleasure in the wonderful things that life throws out. I don’t want to sound too sentimental, but the one thing that kept me going is my two amazing boys [Max, 14, and Siân’s son from her first marriage, Simon, 25], and they have consistently given me pleasure and pride – and I don’t think I would have coped without them. Something – touch wood – will come along and hit me in the face any second.