The Guardian, Monday April 7 2008
– Ginny Dougary

When Felix Dennis ‘confessed’ to Ginny Dougary that he had killed a man, the interviewer faced a decision: file the sensational exclusive or fast-forward the tape. She has no doubts that she made the right choice.

My phone was pretty busy in the after-math of the publication of my interview with Felix Dennis, in which he confessed to killing a man; a “confession” that he later retracted. What colleagues on other newspapers wanted to know was whether the story – the publisher claimed that 25 years ago he pushed a man off a cliff – was true and why the publisher talked about such a thing in an on-the-record interview with a journalist.

Most questions were answered in the piece and it is clear that the Times went to great lengths to ensure that it behaved responsibly and fairly with such a sensational revelation. As a champion of free speech – he is still most famous for the Oz trial, which centred on that very issue – it would presumably have gone against the grain for Dennis to attempt to suppress something he said in an interview. He did write the next day suggesting that I “forget about one particular episode”, but nothing at that stage more heavy-handed.

What is the correct way to behave when an interviewee tells a journalist something that he or she is likely to regret when it is published? I have been interviewing the great and the good for the past 16 years, and there have been a number of occasions when their revelations have become newsworthy.

Back in 1994, the former chancellor Norman Lamont let rip with an attack on the then prime minister John Major and his comments duly appeared in the Times. The fallout lasted for months. Five years later, Michael Portillo, another Tory former minister, talked about his homosexual past. In recent months he has referred to that interview, and his suspicion that it lost him the leadership of his party.

An interview with Martin Amis, conducted a year or so ago, has been picked over in recent months because of the comments he made about Muslims, and he now finds himself having to rebut charges that he is a racist in every interview he does.

Sometimes the consequences are short-lived or even amusing, as when the author Jeanette Winterson told me about a stint in her youth when she had sex with ladies from the Home Counties who showed their appreciation by presenting her with Le Creuset casserole dishes. (Rather delightfully, it was the Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, who suggested that it might be fruitful to ask Winterson about this.)

After the Lamont experience – when he made some of his more extreme comments over lunch and later claimed that they had been off the record – I decided that I would never again allow a subject to attempt to shield themselves behind the cloak of unattributable quotes. This has frustrated some people who long to offload their bitterness or secret agendas but don’t wish to expose themselves in the process. In other words, they want to use a journalist to create waves without getting wet themselves.

This was not the case with Dennis. One of the joys of interviewing him is that you can ask him anything and he will not be fazed. However, for the interviewer – as I have discovered – this is not without its pitfalls.

When I started out in this profession 30-odd years ago celebrities were less precious about the interview game. There didn’t appear to be rules then and agents did not wield the kind of power they do now. So if a journalist wanted a lengthy interview with the subject – and the subject found you good value – you could get almost unlimited access. The prevailing line now is that you can sum up a person just as easily in a one-hour encounter, which is often the maximum time that an editor can bag for his or her writer. This is absurd, of course, but most of us, increasingly, have no option but to settle for it. There are still exceptions.

When I flew to Detroit, a couple of years ago, to interview the crime writer Elmore Leonard, I spent the whole day with him and then had dinner with him and his wife, followed by a visit to a jazz bar that lasted into the early hours. I have spent a week with Imelda Marcos in the Philippines; 10 days with Cherie Blair in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is tough on the interviewee, because it’s hard to project a certain image of yourself while under constant scrutiny for such a length of time. All of this is to give some context to Dennis’s revelation (over a five-hour interview, followed by dinner).

Janet Malcolm wrote a book in 1990 called The Journalist and the Murderer in which the opening line was: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Sometimes when you are sent off to interview a famous person you do have your own agenda – usually when there is something generally known (or thought to be known) about the subject which they have up until this point not declared publicly.

In these circumstances, the interviewer is employing whatever legitimate resources are at his or her disposal to elicit information. This does not seem, to my mind, “morally indefensible”, particularly when the subjects are seasoned politicians or individuals who have been in the public eye for a long time and are absolutely aware of the rules of the game.

But I wanted to interview Felix Dennis for no other reason than that he is colourful, flamboyant, rich and powerful, and has been outspoken already about his louche past.

Some weeks before our encounter, I was asked to write a piece about the pitfalls of interviewing, in which I wrote: “Most celebrities these days are too fearful of letting their guard down to have a drink with their interviewer. If you are lucky enough to get a good scoop out of such an encounter, unsympathetic commentators may assume that the interviewer has plied their subject with alcohol to exploit the poor vulnerable creature. This is irritating but also nonsense. Revealing interviews, in my experience anyway, have come about because the interviewee finds it a relief to vent or unburden themselves.”

This could be one reading of the Dennis interview – another is that he was simply trying to shock. Although he did suggest that I might want to forget his “confession”, it is striking that he did not put this more strongly. It is entirely in keeping with his character that, having made such a shocking claim, Dennis would almost be embarrassed to deny it. However, in a subsequent telephone conversation with me, Dennis did deny the story, blaming it on the wine; five or six weeks later, in one of his notes to the editor, he remembered that he had also been on medication at the time.

There is no rule book about how to deal with such a bizarre turn of events. To my knowledge, no public figure – and certainly not one with such an extensive knowledge about the way the media operate – has ever insisted on telling a journalist that he has killed someone.

Another question I have been asked is whether I liked Dennis. That is easy to answer. I had more fun with him than in almost any other interview I can think of – and even in our subsequent dealings he has, for the most part, been the very model of grace under pressure. Indeed, one of the reasons why I tried to get him to retract his damning words during the interview was that I felt oddly protective of him – aware, however heedless he seemed to be about the implications, what their impact might be upon publication.

What I was not prepared to do – and it would be an odd sort of journalist who would not adopt the same position – was to participate in a charade of pretence, where something that was said could be conveniently unsaid afterwards. An on-the-record interview, after all, is exactly that.

In the published article, there are many compelling explanations as to why Dennis erupted in the way he did – including his own. But as for the question that may still linger, there is only one person who really knows the answer, and it certainly isn’t me.