Times Online – February 22, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

A few weeks ago, this paper was offered an interview with the actress Uma Thurman, which, in turn, was offered to me. Actors do not generally feature high on my wish list of prospective subjects but Thurman is one of the exceptions.

I’ve liked her performances from her early role as an ingénue in Dangerous Liaisons to the druggy socialite in Pulp Fiction and the kick-ass heroine of Kill Bill. On the relatively rare occasions that she has appeared on TV chat shows, she comes across as smart and engaged. Her background is intriguing: daughter of the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (Uma is named after a Hindu deity), and Nena, an actress-turned-psychotherapist whose father, Baron Karl Von Schlebrugge, was jailed by the Nazis for refusing to betray his Jewish business partners.

Uma’s brothers also have unusual names – Ganden, Dechen and Mipam. I was wondering what they do and what it was like for her growing up with three brothers: did they gang up on her or make her feel like a princess? If she had older brothers, did she date their friends – and if so, did her siblings ever have to protect her reputa-tion? Did she feel beautiful as she was growing up or were those sort of superficial values frowned upon in her home? Did her mother try to warn her against becoming an actress or support her? Does she have anything to do with the notorious semen-and-spit-fixated New York vagabond artist Dash Snow, who is her step-nephew? Is she polit-ical? Is she spiritual? Does she read? How does she see her career unfolding once she hits 40?

It is quite possible, of course, that Uma Thurman may not have wanted to discuss some or, indeed, any of these questions. But I am confident, having been at this game for some time, that after we had discussed the particular project she was being asked to promote (something to do with Pirelli), given a reasonable slot of an hour or so – we would have moved on to more interesting territory. As it happened, the Uma interview fell in the week that I was to embark on a term of teaching postgraduate journalism students at City University – the fast track to a career on one of the national newspapers – about the craft, graft and pitfalls of the celebrity interview.

Part of my job, I felt, was to warn them about how restrictive and compromised this part of the industry had become. How would they feel about such issues as copy control (when the subject’s “people” demand to see the article prepublication as a condition of giving the go-ahead); how they would handle the situation if their subjects unburdened themselves and then announced that this was “off the record”; their willingness to go on a press junket (where the travel and accommodation – often enticingly luxurious – is paid by the promoter not the newspaper and the journalists lob their questions en masse, sometimes to an image of the subject projected on a screen, a “virtual” interview, which appears on the page as an intimate one-to-one encounter)?

Proper journalists, I wanted to tell them, refuse to go along with any of the above. But something fundamental has changed in the time since I started interviewing famous people 20-odd years ago, when it was relatively straighforward compared with the hoop-jumping rigmarole that is increasingly the norm now.

One of the problems with teaching young people about interviewing celebrities is that it is difficult to advise them what approach they should take to get on. Should I tell them what a joy it is to interview the divas of Hollywood – Shirley, say, or Liz – who will talk madly, deeply, and sometimes eloquently about their extraordinary lives, when it is Scarlett or Penelope who will make the cover regardless of how little they have to say?

I remember laughing (albeit ruefully) some years back when Graydon Carter, Editor of Vanity Fair, criticised for catering to the mad demands of Hollywood agents, retorted that he would no more think of running a warts-and-all celebrity encounter than he would consider clubbing a baby seal.

At the time, against what was then the prevailing conservative climate of America, Carter was devoting a great number of pages – between the celebrity puffs – to unglamorous in-depth pieces investigating the build-up to the war.

It is easy to think that it’s far more important to take on the Bush Administration than battle with the control freaks who rule Hollywood.

But this is not right. The quality of truth should not be strained. Any journalism worth reading, regardless of the perceived weight of the subject, should be concerned with conveying as honest an account as it is possible to tell. It may sound rather solemn but I believe, regardless of how entertaining or anodyne you wish to make your article, that an essential bond of trust exists between the writer and the reader. Any journalist who allows the public relations machine to mould and dictate what he or she writes has crossed over to the other side and thereby betrays not only the reader but also their colleagues.

Big Brother or do you actually care?

The question is whether the readers care or are supremely indifferent. Do you think you can you tell when an interview has been doctored? Is it worth us celebrity freedom fighters persisting with the good fight, or would you prefer to watch Celebrity Big Brother for your dose of reality?

Please e-mail me your views so that I can pass them on to the students who will almost certainly be doing what I do in the near future. . . if it’s worth their while.

In case you were wondering, the Uma interview did not happen. Pirelli had agreed to fly me business class (Yes!) and put me up in the proverbial five-star hotel for three nights. Videos were ordered and watched. Cuttings were compiled and read. Then the PR became increasingly elusive and the last we heard was that all the Italian journos were being flown to New York, where they would enjoy a full five-minute audience with La Uma. (“Tell us please what you have discovered about tyres?”) The Times no longer had the promised hour, but we could still bask in our exclusive bonanza of ten whole minutes. We declined.

Toxic interviews

News of the Uma debacle soon travelled around City University and my views were sought by a student working on a piece about the environmental cost of the journalist. She was particularly interested in PRs who were willing to send hacks long distances for extremely short interviews. Could the threat to the environment end production-line journalism and would this ultimately benefit the reader? Discuss.

gdougary@thetimes.co.uk