Bestselling writer brought to book during radio interview

Naomi Wolf had promised that the two pages identified as flawed would be corrected, writes Terry Prone.

Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf

YOU could call it pulp non-fiction. That’s what’s happened to a major new book on sexuality and criminality in England in the 19th century written by a household name. It’s been pulped.

Last week, the American publisher pulled it from its schedule and shelved all plans to bring it out.

This despite it having already hit the bookshelves in Britain, where its publisher doesn’t have the option to pulp.

Its author, Naomi Wolf, had promised, at recent public events, that the two pages identified as flawed would be corrected and the book brought out within weeks. Instead, Haughton Mifflin Harcourt has washed its hands of it.

It is the stuff of nightmares for any writer.

But the really odd thing about this reputational collapse was that it was brought about by a radio interview; not a TV interview with a Jeremy Paxman-type flashing his sabre, but a radio interview; and not even a high-profile BBC radio interview with a John Humphrys-type in the chair.

It was a radio interview at ten o’clock at night on BBC Radio 3, where the savaging, when it happens, or if it happens, tends to be so abstruse as to be comparable to a good nibble by an edentulous sheep. (That’s Radio 3 language for ‘gummy’.)

The disaster underlines something often missed about broadcasting: It is rarely the repetitive, righteous interviewer, armed with a bludgeon, who gets something history-making or individual-destroying out of an interviewee, although this myth is bought into by countless broadcasters, who claim, proudly, to be the ones who ‘ask the tough questions’.

In fact, any fool can ask the tough questions. It’s pulling out the answers that matters.

Three radio interviews in recent times have provoked a desire in their listeners to pull off the road and sit in a cold sweat as an interviewee self-harmed in a spectacular way.

The first two are Irish, and can be recalled without identifying the unfortunates who self-immolated on the air.

Neither interview was characterised by the presenter wielding a flaming torch on a search-and-destroy mission. Rather, the reverse.

In the first case — the interview that precipitated the CervicalCheck controversy, conducted, if I remember rightly, by Gavin Jennings — the interviewee wasn’t a politician, coming with the low credibility assigned to that tribe, but a clinician, who came with an excellent reputation.

The Morning Ireland interviewer, accordingly, advanced his questions with quiet civility, rather than machine-gun interruptions. Instead of noisy browbeating, he fed back inculpatory phrases and deployed silence to astonishing effect.

The other example was Sean O’Rourke interviewing someone who is still suffering as a result. It could be argued that the suffering, at this point, outweighs the original crime, but that’s another issue.

What happened on air was horrific, but — again — not because O’Rourke came the heavy. He didn’t come the light, either.

If anything, he came the baffled. O’Rourke has been at this lark for many a decade, but still manages to retain inquisitiveness and an uncynical approach to his guests, while never eschewing the scalpel if a little limb amputation is called for.

He tends to ask questions and then shut up, letting his guests speak, as do Shane Coleman, Pat Kenny, Brian Dobson, and Matt Cooper.

(Ivan Yates lets his guests speak only while he goes searching for something to belt them with, but doesn’t mind being called on it.)

Not only were the Morning Ireland and Sean O’Rourke interviews remarkably successful — if measured by the subsequent fallout for organisations and individuals — they were riveting (although it was entertainment that left a coppery taste in the mouth). Listening to lengthy self-destruction is infinitely painful, even if you neither know, nor care about, the person doing themselves dire harm.

Across the water, current affairs radio has been dominated for some time by Humphrys.

But Naomi Wolf, the American writer who, 30 years ago, produced the bestselling Beauty Myth, wasn’t lucky enough to get onto the combative Today show, with its high listenership among her target audience of educated book readers.

She ended up on BBC Radio 3, the home of the arty, nerdy, minority listener. Or, if you want to be pejorative about it, the elitist listener.

Not only Radio 3, but Radio 3 in the dark watches of the night, in a half-hour interview interrupted, peculiarly, by an interview on a quite different topic with someone else.

The interview was about Wolf’s new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalisation of Love, the central thesis of which seems to be that life got suddenly worse for English gay people in the middle of the 19th century, with dozens of male homosexuals executed for having had sex with each other.

Fascinating stuff, and Wolf, rich with media experience and historic data, was confident and authoritative in her expository answers to the programme’s presenter, Matthew Sweet, who fed her the kind of please-tell-me-more questions every interviewee loves.

And then, about ten minutes into an encounter that would, up to that crucial point, have motivated any book lover to head out to purchase the volume, Matthew Sweet listened to Wolf’s account of her seminal figure’s life and death and then politely stated that he didn’t think she was right in her statement that the man had been executed for sodomy.

Sweet suggested that the man hadn’t been executed at all, and that Wolf had misunderstood a legal phrase in the records.

He turned his research around so she could read it, and the sound of the paper rustling was replaced by silence, as she realised that the raison d’etre of her entire book had just disappeared.

Sweet was not triumphalist or bullying or cruel.

He gave the writer plenty of room, or, if you’d prefer the analogy, plenty of rope. He also went on, in the ten minutes that followed that heart-stopping moment, to establish that Wolf had got other aspects of the book wrong.

The act for which the man at the centre of her book had served a relatively mild, two-and-a-half-year sentence, was, in fact, a sexual assault on a six-year-old, rather than sex between two consenting adult males.

Wolf’s book died in that studio and anybody listening to the podcast of those 30 minutes cannot but sympathise with her, while admiring the attention to detail and quiet interview skills of Matthew Sweet, of whom many people have not heard, whereas millions know John Humphrys.

The latter’s new autobiography invites readers to applaud him for not bothering to read books or briefs in advance of bludgeoning interviews that never revealed much other than his own exhibitionism.

His retirement could usefully draw a line under the pointless theatricality of the genre of interviewing that he favoured and personified.

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