Just listened to the Today programme, in which John Humphrys – the feared inquisitor, maker of politicians to tremble – tried to pin down David Irving, notorious Holocaust “revisionist”, about Irving’s recanting in an Austrian court of his crime of “denying” the Holocaust.
Note all the quotation marks, because this simply wasn’t a contest. Humphrys had been badly briefed, and handled the interview with all the aplomb of a man wearing boxing gloves trying to pull a fish covered in soap out of the bath.
It went badly right from the first question, to which Irving insisted that when he recanted his crime – or regretted it, as he said – in the Austrian court in order to be let out of jail, that was because that’s what Austrian law requires, and Austrian law requires. “You’re told what to do by your lawyer, so you do it.”
Clearly Humphrys didn’t know this, and hadn’t been briefed, and from there he was just flummoxed on and on. Irving’s style is to examine every word in every sentence in a forensic manner, and Humphrys just isn’t used to having his own interview-fu used back on him. “Are you denying that six million Jews died in the Holocaust?” he asked. Well, said Irving, that depends on the meaning of “six million”, “Jews”, “died” and “Holocaust” – though by the end of it he was using the latter word in the way it’s generally used.
Humphrys started from the wrong place. Irving admits he’ll agree that Hitler ordered the killings if someone will come up with some documentary evidence. Humphrys might have asked him where that could be found, now so long after the fact. But he didn’t, instead choosing the bang-your-head-against-the-wall technique of trying to get Irving to say something he won’t.
I’m not in agreement with Irving on anything – except maybe that one needs to be able to research and say anything. He’s prepared to accept that he could be wrong, which is a small start, and that the evidence to do it might be out there. Of course with his experience, he probably knows the evidence isn’t to be found, not because it didn’t exist, but because it’s been destroyed in the intervening years.
But the lesson of the interview was that interviewing Irving should be left to the lawyers, who know a thing or three about how to create a watertight set of questions leading from one place to a conclusion. And it’ll leave John Humphrys in a considerably better mood to have not been rope-a-doped on the big set-piece Today interview.