Ginny Dougary is an award-winning journalist and writer. She is the author of The Executive Tart and Other Myths – an exploration of women in the media, and a contributor to several anthologies : Ok,You Mugs, writers on movie actors, edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson (pub. Pantheon in the USA; Granta in the UK) and Amazonians, new travel writing by women (Penguin) edited by Sara Wheeler and Dea Birkett.
Ginny Dougary has written for most of the national newspapers in the United Kingdom and her articles are syndicated worldwide.
After leaving Bristol University in 1978, with an honours degree in English, she worked for The Sunday Telegraph, the Radio Times and Tatler under the editorship of Tina Brown.
In 1981, Ginny Dougary moved to New York and then to Sydney where she was Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and senior writer on the SMH colour supplement, Good Weekend, where she still a regular contributor.
Ginny Dougary has been contracted to The Times, where she writes major interviews for the magazine and T2 , since 1992. News-breaking interviews include Michael Portillo, the Duchess of York, Norman Lamont and Jeanettte Winterson. Journalistic highlights (but not always enjoyable encounters): Madonna, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Taylor, Donald Trump, Salman Rushdie, Bob Geldof.
In 1997, Dougary went to Resolute Bay, the Innuit community in Canada’s Arctic Far North, to report on the first British women’s expedition to the North Pole. There she met the British explorer Pen Hadow; the two remained in touch and she returned to the Arctic regions to cover his historic expedition to the North Pole in 2003. The following year, Dougary camped in Antarctica and flew to the South Pole to write about Simon Murray (the oldest man to walk to the Pole) and Pen Hadow’s joint endeavour.
In 2005, she wrote the lyrics for a collection of songs about David Blunkett’s life and recent times. These were showcased at the Soho Theatre under the working title of David Blunkett The Musical; a collaboration with the composer MJ Paranzino and producer Martin Witts who was behind the award-winning one-man-play, Hurricane. The actors were Mark Perry, Robert Bathurst, Lynne Davies and Zigi Ellison. There was a positive response from the invited audience which included: Sir Terence Conran, John Sergeant, Ann Leslie, Suzanne Moore, Deborah Moggach, Julie Myerson, Theodore Zeldin and Alvin Stardust.
As a result of this collaboration, Dougary and Paranzino were commissioned to write a 20-minute choral piece by Sir Terence Conran and Bluestorm to celebrate the restoration of Brighton’s celebrated Thirties modernist masterpiece, designed by Wells Coates. The piece Vive Moderne was performed in September of 2005 in a concert by the Brighton City Singers, the Djembe Divas and twenty members of the Brighton and Hove City Brass ensemble.
THE GUARDIAN – Saturday February 26, 2000
Scoop of the Year: News of the World, for Rob Kellaway’s exclusive on Lord Archer which revealed he had made a false alibi on the night he was accused of sleeping with a call girl and which led to him quitting the election race for London’s mayor.
Newspaper/Editor of the year: The Times, Peter Stothard.
Interview of the year: Ginny Dougary, The Times, for her Michael Portillo interview in which he admitted homosexual experiences.
Columnist of the year: Deborah Orr, The Independent.
Foreign correspondent of the year: Robert Fisk, The Independent.
Critic of the year: A.A. Gill, The Sunday Times.
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THE GUARDIAN – Monday September 13, 1999
Ginny Dougary is used to creating controversy with her interviews. First there was Norman Lamont. Then Jeanette Winterson. And now Michael Portillo.
When Ginny Dougary was planning her strategy for wooing Michael Portillo, she alighted on a clever idea – send him a copy of her interview with Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Not because Portillo would be particularly interested in the thoughts of Kennedy, but because she knew that the former defence secretary was a particularly careful reader.
Dougary, a freelance feature writer for the Times, had wanted to interview Portillo for some time and was “fascinated by his loathsomeness” when in government. The Times features desk assistant put in the request for an interview and attached the Kennedy article in which Dougary had very directly asked Kennedy about persistent rumours that he had a drinking problem.
Portillo, a man of unexpected subtlety, seemed to take the hint. “He said, ‘I don’t want to do an interview like that, in that I don’t want Ginny to be talking to all my friends and relations.'” But does Dougary really think that Portillo knew she was going to raise the subject of his sexuality? “I think that if he read that interview carefully, he would expect me to ask the obvious question, yeah.”
Dougary wants to get one thing straight about her interview with Portillo, in which he admitted that he had “gay experiences” while at university. There was, she says adamantly, no stitch-up between the Times and Portillo’s camp, despite the subsequent involvement of the Times editor Peter Stothard (who is said to share Portillo’s political views) and Michael Gove (the politician’s biographer and comment editor of the newspaper).
“Far from it being a Portillo camp idea – that the camp huddled and he said, I’m going to come up with this, they didn’t know what he’d said,” Dougary says, adding that he struggled to find the right words. “I had to press quite hard. I think he felt it very difficult to articulate. And it was a very brave thing for him to do.”
As for the timing, when they first met in July, Portillo casually asked when the piece would be running. Equally casually, she replied: “In the autumn sometime.” It threw him. Her recollection is that he said: “Oh. Oh well, I think we’re going to have to cancel this right now.” Having done weeks of homework on her subject, Dougary was less than thrilled by this attack of cold feet. But it turned out he was worried that it would run just before the Tory party conference in October. When she said she believed it would be early September – to coincide with her new contract moving from the Times magazine to its feature pages – he said he thought that in that case it wasn’t a problem at all.
The piece was delivered last Friday. Alan Clark didn’t die until Sunday, so an even murkier conspiracy over the Kensington and Chelsea seat is surely a plot too far, even for the most suspicious observer. “It’s convenient, isn’t it? We all love a conspiracy,” Dougary says.
Such speculation is something of a slight to the interviewer who might like to feel that she has elicited a revelation through an artful combination of thorough research and the courage to ask the right question at the right time. “I do feel somewhat aggrieved. It rather takes away from the fact that you’ve got any skill as a journalist – and I think I’m rather a good interviewer – if it’s seen as this thing that was sewn up in a decision between senior executives and his camp. It was quite tough going. I captured him at a time of candour, a unique time. You rather want people to read the whole piece.”
You can see her point. After hours of preparation, she did a one-and-a-half-hour interview that ended up nearer two and was followed up by a telephone conversation. And then it is all distilled into: “Portillo arranges sympathetic leak of sexual history in newspaper edited by a friend and staffed by his official biographer”.
This is not the first time Dougary has found herself and her art part of the story, and she is sensitive to certain accusations. Back in 1994, a couple of years into a prominent role interviewing the well-known for the Times, she met former chancellor Norman Lamont. The now-celebrated article made her notorious – “people don’t tend to know journalists unless they do something controversial, do they?” – because, according to Lamont, some comments he made over lunch about John Major, specifically a description of him as “weak and hopeless”, were off the record.
The full wrath of commentators, including David Mellor and Stephen Glover, descended on Dougary. She had to endure being described variously as an “ambitious girl reporter” (she was 38) and “a flame-haired temptress” who Stothard had somehow selected to seduce Lamont into some careless talk and then stitch him up good and proper.
Around the time of the furore, she was writing a book about senior female figures in the media, called Executive Tarts and Other Myths. It, too, caused something of a stir, but its conclusion owes much to the hammering its author took during the Lamont affair. If she hadn’t received so much misplaced venom and misogynistic criticism, she may not have come to some of the conclusions she did about the injustices done to female journalists. It was a book which increased her interest in the subject and led her to become a leading figure in the launch of Women in Journalism.
Although the Lamont affair earned her a “massive pay rise” and some fame, her reputation was consolidated three years later with an interview with Jeanette Winterson, in which the author cheerfully related a tale of her experiences, in her 20s, as a prostitute for married home counties women. The delightful detail was that Winterson maintained she was paid by these bastions of respectability in Le Creuset saucepans from Peter Jones of Sloane Square. Winterson, naturally, did not deny the story when it appeared on the front pages. On that occasion, Dougary herself cast doubt on the story – musing on the ability of writers to merge fiction and fact.
Despite the subsequent triumphs, there is no doubt that the Lamont interview has left its mark. “Those comments that Norman Lamont made to me were not off the record. In his mind, he might like to believe that they were, but he made it very clear that there were some other things that were off the record that were not sinister or slanderous, but he did make it quite clear that they were off.”
She was burned by the criticism, by the sense that she had “broken some code” and now prefers not to give her subjects the chance to venture into unattributable insinuation. She cites an interview with Jeffrey Archer – again over lunch, this time in New York – during which he asked if he could say something off the record about one of his competitors for the position of London Mayor. “I said no. They can’t stand it. They’re so used to somehow being able to say something that they don’t want to be attributed to them.” She thinks that, when she challenged him, he felt rather shabby for asking.
This is relevant to the Portillo interview. Their first discussion topic was the age-of-consent question, and, while trying to phrase his response, he asked if he could speak off the record. “No,” she said. “So we’d had that conversation and then when we got to the direct question, he knew he couldn’t go off the record.”
Most importantly, she says, she was given confidence by the fact that he had already raised the subject himself in a column for the Scotsman. “I took that to mean that he was throwing down the gauntlet to open it up to discussion. That was the lever. He had written something himself which was bound to put it on the agenda.” Still, many would have bottled it – especially the follow-up question about the rumoured affair with Peter Lilley.
“The point about that is that that rumour has gone on for years. I’ve been told it by taxi drivers, an electrician, a nanny. Therefore it is out in the public domain and I think I wouldn’t have been doing my job if I hadn’t asked. I think our job is to ask the questions that your readers would like to know the answers to. You’ve got to put the questions across.”
She is a great subscriber to the belief that the most important quality in a journalist is curiosity; in an interviewer, downright nosiness. Not a formally trained journalist, she learned how to take the prominent to task in Sydney, during a spell at the Morning Herald. There, she recalls, all the celebrities who passed through the city would pause for publicity; she returned to England in the late 80s with a portfolio including George Harrison and Gérard Depardieu. She recalls that her first experience of the front pages was in Sydney, when an interview with an entrepreneur revealed a strong news angle. “So I’ve always worked this way. Always asked these questions.”
It’s like a military campaign, she says unexpectedly, describing her preparation for an interview. To be fearless about asking the questions, she psychs herself up: deep breaths, make-up, smart clothes, make sure the tapes are working. “Arming yourself,” she laughs. She doesn’t seem to regard her interviewees as the enemy though. With one exception, she has emerged from her interviews with a more positive view of her subject. This holds even for those she previously disliked, such as Portillo.
Well, do you think he’s done himself harm? “I really hope not. I think that if the Tories punish him for this, then they deserve not to get back into power.” And having been so integral yourself to recent Tory history, what are your politics? “Um . . . I’m not a Tory, but I have got some Tory friends.” So there you have it: Ginny Dougary. Some of her best friends are Tories.
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Published: September 21 1994, Times Magazine
Exposed: The current government. Lamont says its moral crusade is “nauseating”, and that you would never catch him banging on about “family values”. He describes the prime minister as “weak and hopeless”.
His interview with Dougary reads:
Lamont tells me that Major cut out every single mention of Margaret Thatcher in a post-ERM speech, and his face twists into an expression of scorn. “Pathetic.”
Lamont accepts “that the king is entitled to execute others in order to protect himself . . . Since I left office, the government’s standing and that of the prime minister have fallen further.”
Fallout: Lamont dismisses the interview as “a mixture of invented quotations and muddled misrepresentation of things said off the record” which did not “reflect accurately either my views or my general attitude.” Dougary stands by her article.
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Interview: Jeanette Winterson
Published: January 4 1997, Times Magazine
Exposed: Past escapades as a lesbian “prostitute” for home counties housewives in Knightsbridge hotel rooms.
Winterson told Dougary:
“There were women who used to come up from their nice homes for little weekends – y’know – and they didn’t have access to too much cash, so you could get a Le Creuset, ‘cos hubby, of course, wouldn’t know one pan from another . . . They’d tell you to go to this or that hotel – usually somewhere nice, behind the back of Harvey Nicks, and you’d just go.”
Fallout: It was simply, Winterson says, a “sexual adventure” that took place 16 or so years ago, when sexual attitudes were different. “In those days I was a bit wild – I would go to bed with anything.”
* * *
Published: September 9 1999, the Times
Exposed: His sexual past.
Did you have homosexual flings at Cambridge? I ask, purely on a hunch. “Arrgh – well – I supp- I – um.” A slightly high-pitched laugh. Come on, Michael, just say it. We’re living in a more tolerant age now. “Are we?” he replies, then: “I will say what I want to say. I had some homosexual experiences as a young person.”
Fallout: Portillo says he is pleased that it is out in the open: “When I was in public life I was dogged by rumours.”
PHOTOGRAPH – MICHAEL CRABTREE
The Story is out…Portillo talking to journalists outside his house last Thursday, the day Ginny Dougary’s Times interview revealed his gay past.
26 Nov 2005 Administrator