Tony Benn: when Labour’s canny MP out-foxed me


These days, as any political or news reporter will tell you, some politicians love to claim they were “quoted out of context”. This usually means they were quoted entirely accurately by the reporter, just that the other 59 minutes of the politician droning on about something irrelevant and utterly boring hit the cutting room floor and wasn’t needed in the story.

Occasionally, “quoted out of context” can be a polite euphemism for simply “misquoted”, with the politician hedging their bets and not wanting to burn their bridges with the correspondent in question, who may be someone they want to keep in contact with in the future.

Alleged downright fabrication by the journalist is something else, and politicians sometimes also claim this. But there are ways a journalist can safeguard against this unwelcome danger.

One is to clearly show the interviewee that you are taking immaculate shorthand notes throughout, another is to produce a tape recorder as well, just to demonstrate that the chat is being recorded (in evidence).

At the height of some political controversy or other, I was once sent to interview Tony Benn. “Just be careful and make sure you take an accurate shorthand note of whatever he tells you,” the Press Association newsdesk warned me as I set off. “He’s an absolute stickler about being misquoted and we don’t want any trouble.”

I reassured my boss: “Don’t worry,” I replied, “I’ll also use my new mini tape recorder.” (Around this time, in the late Eighties, mini tape recorders were something of a novelty and some journalists were only just starting to use them. I recall these machines were both expensive and also rubbish.)

I meet Mr Benn. I think it was in a small cafe somewhere in east London, filled with formica-topped tables. “Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed. I hope you don’t mind if I use this as well,” says I, opening my notebook and also provocatively placing my tape recorder on the table in between us (feeling certain this would surely discourage him from trying to claim later that I had misquoted him in any way).

“No problem at all, dear chap,” replies the fearsome Labour MP with a gleam in his eye. Whereupon he dives into his jacket pocket and pulls out an IDENTICAL mini tape recorder to my own. Clicking it on, he places it neatly parallel right next to mine on the table. “Now what did you want to ask me?”