Mark Lawson in conversation with The Yorker

As the auditorium of the Berrick Saul starts to get busy, Tangwen Roberts talks to Mark Lawson about the BBC and British society today.

Before York Union’s main event, I managed to have my own conversation with Mark Lawson, who proved an incredibly personable source of knowledge and well-argued opinion on a variety of subjects, including internships, censorship, and feminism, to name but a few....

The Yorker: How important do you feel that events such as this go towards challenging the monopoly of ‘The Golden Triangle’ [leading universities located in the southern English cities of Oxford, Cambridge and London] as locations of important debates and discussions with pre-eminent speakers?

M.L: Oh, it’s very important. I grew up in Leeds and I’m a cultural ambassador for the County of Yorkshire (and I still support Leeds United). So I don’t have the North/South divide because my parents and grandparents came from the North-East. I’m more on the North side so would always do events in the North. Lots of people in the media world are based in The South and it is quite a long way, but I’m quite shocked that there are some people who don’t like travelling at all. I do think it’s important to attract people.

The Yorker: What effect do you think the BBC’s move North, to Salford, has had on de-centralising the BBC (and British media in general) from London?

M.L.: I think that’s problematic. Obviously it’s better than just having London. But I think you need to get out around the United Kingdom. I’d rather be in Wolverhampton one week and then Birmimgham, Aberdeen, Belfast (I try to get to Belfast because people hardly ever go there). I think the risk is you end up with two Londons, in effect. So you end up with two “Super-Served” regions. It’s a huge issue for the BBC. Where Wales, Ireland (to some degree) and Scotland are devolved, what does being the British Broadcasting Corporation mean? Scotland are even talking about having their own BBC. But I think you can go too far. The problem is that a play at the National Theatre in London is of interest to people in a large part of Britain. The risk always is that a play at the York Royal is only of interest to the local population, and actually actively irritates people in surrounding regions if you cover it. But a lot of people generally accept that places like Edinburgh, Glasgow, London are huge cultural hubs whereas if you live in Sheffield you think “well why are they covering York, why aren’t they doing us?”

The Yorker: Do you think a Scottish BBC would work?

M.L.: As I understand it Alec Salmond seems to assume that the BBC would give Scotland the rights for [flagship shows like] Strictly Come Dancing in exchange for access to this new BBC Scotland. But if you look at the white paper [for Scottish Independence] you might actually get a situation where Channel Four or ITV Scotland could buy these shows. Salmond might discover that the BBC don’t want to sell him [the rights to] EastEnders or Strictly, and if that happens then you’ll have a lot of very unhappy viewers in Scotland….unless (as you students all know), you can just watch everything the BBC produces on the iplayer, so I guess you’d end up with a lot of people in Scotland watching online!

The Yorker: In a recent article your Guardian colleague, Nick Cohen, has written about his concern that British universities are becoming ‘a production line for cowed conformists’ [following the ejection of an atheist stand at a University of London Fresher’s fair]. Do you share his concerns about freedom of speech in educational institutions?

M.L.: Yes. I find it’s more generational though. My three children are obviously lovely in every way, but I find they’re completely no-judgemental - and I see that throughout their generation, which I think is a good thing. It’s obviously fantastic that they’re not racist, or sexist, but they’re not against anything. The thing is previous generations had more things to be against. For instance, a lot of the religions have opted out of judgement completely. I think it’s good to get away from Hell, fire and damnation, but you have got to stand for something. Younger generations show a lack of willingness to have issues to be one-sided on. It’s not indifference. It’s a super-tolerance of all things. I worry slightly about the risk that people may be able to say anything now, and the response is “oh no, that’s their opinion, you can’t challenge that”. People ought to be tough enough to stand up for their own beliefs. It’s good to stand up. To me controversy is good, [that’s why] I worry about controversial speakers being banned from institutions. I don’t approve of censorship.

The Yorker: What is your stance on the government’s proposed Arts funding cuts from £472m to £451 next year?

M.L.: It’s very difficult. A lot of people in the Arts say ‘[I]t’s outrageous and it shouldn’t happen at all’. But if you look at the scale of the economic crisis and public service cuts, you have to take seriously the argument that sometimes local councils are genuinely faced with the decision: do you cut the museum or do you cut ‘Meals on Wheels’. And I think that is a very serious argument. I worry more about student-funding. I’m from a generation where they paid you to go to university, and where we have a big group of great British actors, like Sir Ian McKellan and Simon Russell Beale, who did a first degree say in English or History and then went on to Drama school. That has had incredible benefits for British theatre in terms of their literary intelligence and knowledge about historical figures, but it’s impossible now because of the scale of debt you’d have to take on to fund yourself through two degrees. I get upset about that because acting is clearly one of the most successful industries in Britain. In the Oscars next year again almost certainly half the acting category nominees will be British. I don’t understand why you would threaten that. So if you leave all artistic arguments out and simply look at it in terms of the success of that industry, you wouldn’t cut the Arts. But I also think you can’t just ignore the other sectors and say ‘don’t talk to us about kidney transplants’.

The Yorker: Do you think there are subsequent class implications for these cuts?

M.L.: Yes. Clearly if you look at the business I’m in and the intern system, without exception most people come from rich backgrounds. Money and class are very often interlocked in Britain and so you get one type of person who is getting into those industries, and I think if that happens its horrific. It worries me just the number of young people who are working for nothing in these industries. They’re clearly taken advantage of and it isn’t right. I know people who have been working for nothing for years in film, TV and newspaper industries and [their careers are] going nowhere. Internships have to be regulated and paid, with the prospect of a job at the end of it. The problems for all the creative industries, especially journalism, is the fact you have people able and willing to do it for nothing. But that shouldn’t mean everybody should be doing it for nothing. [The writer] Paul Theroux had it write when he said. ‘Nobody who has a kick-around in the park on a Saturday claims that they’re as good as David Beckham and that he therefore shouldn’t be paid’. Yet you hear that argument all the time in journalism and authorship. If you extend that to medicine, there are probably people who would operate on you for nothing because they enjoy it, but I wouldn’t recommend it! There are some advantages to expertise and professionalism.

The Yorker: Front Row always has a well-balanced representation of men and women, but how gendered do you think the arts and the media are as a whole?

M.L.: Particularly in theatre, it has been shocking. It’s only really in the last couple of years that there have been women running the big subsidised theatres, like Vicky Featherstone at The Royal Court, Josie Rourke at the Donmar. On all the programmes I’ve worked on I’ve always tried to be very conscious of [achieving a balance]. The only risk is that, on a management level, I sometimes hear people say ‘I didn’t get that job because I’m a woman’, and I think you have to be really careful before you play that card. I’ve seen jobs come up across the whole industry in which there’s a sort of feeling of ‘that has to go to a woman this time’. But you have to be careful you don’t end up discriminating against men! It’s quite clear that if The National Theatre could have had a woman artistic director they would have, and in fact the best person for the job was Marianne Elliot (but she ruled herself out for family reasons).
Having a daughter and virtually all female producers, I think the big challenge for feminism now is that you can change ideology, as we have, but it’s much harder to change biology. Fathering a child and giving birth to a child are different things in terms of the physical and emotional impact. And perhaps that shouldn’t be the case, but it still is. I’ve seen a number of very brilliant women who naturally should go onto be Director General of the BBC, but I’ve seen this crisis played out when they have children and say ‘well do I still want this?’, and that doesn’t happen with men. It is very complicated. What fascinates me is the child with appendicitis test. Which is that if a male politician had a child who had to undergo emergency surgery for appendicitis, but chose to deliver a speech, they’d be fine. If a woman politician or industry leader did that they’d be murdered online. They really shouldn’t be, and it’s horrifying. We don’t seem to have got anywhere near changing that problem.

The Yorker: Since gaining a degree in English Literature, you’ve had a very varied career in broadcast and print journalism, as well as publishing several books. Did you always know that’s what you wanted to do?

From the age of about 8 I was reading 8 papers a day, because my dad (who was a marketing director for the Civil Service and British Telecom, and had to read all the papers) would bring them all home. I had this sense of how different newspapers work and, actually, the stories would be completely different. I always wanted to be a journalist for that reason.

The Yorker: And having conducted 3, 500 interviews, did you know that you particularly wanted to be an interviewer?

M.L.: I don’t often confess this, but I used to watch Parkinson when I was growing up and, unlike people who I’ve spoken to, who always wanted to be the celebrity interviewee, I remember always wanting to be the person with the clipboard. Maybe it’s to do with temperament or ego. When I played sport I wanted to be captain, or assistant manager. I was very interested in psychology as well, so maybe that’s got something to do with it. Also, when I was at university, and had finished writing an essay, I always squared of the paper and then hit it on the desk, like the newsreaders. I haven’t admitted that until quite recently!

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