Columbo: A REAL investigative journalist
Sad news indeed that Peter Falk, who played the dirty mac ‘tec Columbo, has died. For some reason the fact that he had Alzheimer’s doesn’t seem particularly tragic, but peculiarly apt, given the character he played so well and so memorably. This is not to downplay the awfulness of Alzheimer’s, only to comment that, as Joe Orton memorably said, with madness, as with vomit, it’s the passer-by who receives the inconvenience.
“Oh, and another thing which just slipped my mind Mr Mandleson, I’d've asked you before but y’know you showed me that photo of your lovely dog and it kinda slipped my mind…” etc. You know the programme, you know the drill.
One thing that always struck me about the Columbo formula – and it was a formula – was his approach to weeding out the truth: always indirect, never directly confrontational. So unlike our own dear, dreary, Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrey. Now I realise Columbo is (was) fiction, but it always struck me that his approach worked better at getting at the truth than the in-yer-face-let’s-be-’aving-yer approach of the three-minute soundbite oneupmanship, or the tell-us-how fabulous-you-are hour-long smarmathon press release which too often passes for journalism on TV, radio and indeed the rest of the media today.
Indeed, I think if those two approaches were reversed, it would make much of what passes as “news” much more interesting and informative. John Humphrey: “Prime Minister, is there anything you want to say to the many fans who have supported you through this difficult cabinet reshuffle?” Davina McCall: “Peter Andre, the latest polls suggest you’re jealous ‘cos your ex-wife has bigger boobs than you have – whaddya say to that?”
But I digress. What I am saying is that in more than 30 years of journalism, I think the Columbo method works best, and that I’ve always got better stuff – whether hard news, featurish stuff, good quotes or just leads to other folk – out of just talking to people, even in an absent-minded, indirect but friendly way.
Imagine how much grief might have been prevented if one reporter had said to Tony Blair: “Now, Mr Prime Minister, my wife – she’s a great fan of yours, by the way, has your photos all round the house – but she keeps askin’ me about these Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq or Iran – she don’t know which, y’know, and truth to tell, I don’t neither – and she’s askin’ me if I can get a photo of ‘em from you. An’ I dunno, if you can spare one – and maybe sign it for ‘er – she’d love that. Is that too much trouble, sir?”
Probably could not have happened. He’d have been chucked out of No. 10 for smoking a cigar. And Alastair Campbell would have stomped on it…and him.