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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emine Saner

‘I have overwhelming impostor syndrome’: TV judge Rob Rinder on empathy, shame and survival

Robert Rinder, photographed in London ahead of the poublication of his first novel
‘Political points of view have moved from the logical to the emotional hemisphere of the brain’ … Robert Rinder. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Rob Rinder had fantasies about the kind of novel he would like to write. Something the literary giants, whose books lined his study, might create; something inspired by his life as a barrister, that said something big and important about justice, and who gets it. He is, he says with a laugh, someone who “disappears into their own imagination while they’re on a treadmill and has a deluded sense of their own cultural grandeur. Then I tried to sit down and write that earnest book, and it wasn’t emerging.”

For years, he says: “I’d overprojected value, even humanity, on the great writers, forgetting the greatness of the books that I’ve read and loved. It takes such talent for you to disappear into a joyous afternoon. Jilly Cooper!” He almost shouts her name in evangelical praise, when we meet at his publicist’s office. “I mean, tell me Riders isn’t a work of art.”

Rinder, 45, is great company – garrulous, a little gossipy, interested in anything and everything (he spends the first few minutes of the interview questioning me about my life until I have to move him on). There is something golden about his colouring – hair, skin, eyes – that makes him look cherubic, and gives him an added sheen of fun. But, as anyone who has watched his TV shows will know, he can also be very thoughtful. His new legal thriller, The Trial, is more Cooper than Kafka (no bad thing, in my book). A young barrister, Adam Green, is struggling through his pupillage – his apprenticeship in chambers – while investigating his client’s case to prove his innocence. Justice, let’s say, is not clear cut. Rinder is already working on the second in the series, this time partly set in the world of daytime TV.

Rinder on ITV’s Judge Rinder.
‘There’s a moment where you realise that what you’re doing has the most profound value to uphold democracy under the rule of law’ … Rinder on ITV’s Judge Rinder. Photograph: ITV

How much of Rinder is in Green? They are both Jewish, with single mothers, from working-class backgrounds, navigating an Oxbridge-dominated profession. Adam has, says Rinder, “that thing that anybody I like feels, which is this overwhelming sense of impostor syndrome, of not belonging. He has always felt somehow that he lucked out.” Does Rinder – successful barrister, TV “judge”, documentary-maker, now novelist – feel like that? “At some point every day.”

He pauses and rephrases, carefully building an argument. “The difficulty is, we’d have to define what the definition of luck is, and how much of that you make and how much work goes into creating that luck.”

Rinder, who specialised in international fraud but also took on wider cases – he represented British soldiers charged with manslaughter after the deaths of Iraqi detainees – would often be “the de facto decision-maker on an extremely important decision. Would there be moments where I’d be in that room thinking: ‘What are you asking me for?’ Of course.”

Rinder grew up in the north London suburb of Southgate, where his father was a taxi driver and his mother started her own publishing business from her bedroom. He went to grammar school, then the University of Manchester, but at the time he was called to the bar, in 2001, more than 80% of barristers had been to Oxbridge. Did he feel out of place? “There are two answers to that – yes and no, which is not very helpful,” he says. “The ‘no’ is, I think, being gay and growing up in a working-class community, you intuitively understand you’re outside, from the moment of consciousness of being gay, or even being culturally curious.” There was an idea that certain things – books, music – were for other people. “‘This is for the Hampstead Jews, not the Southgate ones.’ So there was a sense, from a young age, of wanting to reclaim my own thing. I remember, in the silliest way, feeling a different sort of impostor syndrome.”

He would go on a day trip to a stately home, for instance, “and think that it was preposterous that I didn’t live there.” He created his own identity, his own voice, with his clipped tones – “I describe myself as being mugged by a Mitford” – and I can picture Rinder as a sophisticated teenage raconteur amid bewildered school friends. “I didn’t suit the condition of childhood at all well,” he says. “I just thought the whole thing was pointless.” He used to enjoy listening to his mum’s friends complain about their difficult relationships, and although he was fairly popular, his best friend at school was the school nurse.

Rinder’s home life was loving and although his parents split up when he was about seven, his mother encouraged a close relationship with his father and family. “Growing up with my incredibly emotionally literate mum has deprived me of a good five chapters of an autobiography,” he says. When he got divorced from his husband in 2018, her “first question was: ‘How can I be mindful in this conversation?’” He looks mock-aggrieved.

Was there a feeling that he was entitled – in the best sense of the word – to more from life? That he was deserving? “There’s a Yiddish word that best describes it – davka. It can mean being contrarian, difficult, but I think it’s something else.” His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, and Rinder witnessed how he had rebuilt his life. His mother, too, personifies it. “The world had crafted a narrative for them, and they reclaimed the pen – in other words, davka. So, it’s not so much entitlement or deserving, it’s more important – that you have the right to be the creator of your own story.”

Rob Rinder in BBC’s The Holy Land and Us.
Rob Rinder in BBC’s The Holy Land and Us. Photograph: Tom Hayward/BBC/Wall to Wall

Rinder was 21 when he came out, “but I was meandering out at university. It wasn’t so much that I was worried about being gay, as much as doing something that would make my mum fearful for me. When I realised I was gay, HIV/Aids was a death sentence, a looming shadow. It was the time of section 28, where this was something dirty and furtive.” Also, he says: “There were so many complexities about disappointing my mum. We were the first divorced family [in her family], there was pressure on her as a single mum. At that time, being gay was cloaked in shame, and I was probably conscious about wanting to make sure my mum wouldn’t experience that.” He had also wanted to marry and have children. “That wasn’t part of the narrative for gay men then.” Accepting his sexuality “required a conscious loss”.

Becoming a barrister suited Rinder’s relatively late-discovered love of learning, the debating skills he nurtured at university and a genuine desire for advocacy. “There’s something enormously powerful about standing between the individual [accused of a crime] and the power of the state. There’s a moment – it happens to all young barristers – where you realise that what you’re doing has the most profound value to uphold democracy under the rule of law. It sounds sanctimonious, or about your own importance. It’s not quite like that.” It’s not about him specifically, he says, more what it means for us all.

He is dismayed about the state of the criminal justice system, which many have warned is at breaking point after years of underfunding, including the dismantling of legal aid. “Having a lawyer that can represent you, making sure that victims are served, making sure that if somebody’s liberty is going to be removed, it’s done so to the highest possible standard – what other value do we have as a democracy under the rule of law?” says Rinder. “As soon as that starts to be eroded, it’s not a small thing, it’s foundational. When justice becomes the possession exclusively of the privileged, the violence and damage that will ensue is impossible to overstate.”

Robert Rinder.
‘There’s something enormously powerful about standing between the individual and the power of the state’ … Robert Rinder. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

His work as a barrister exposed him to people from all backgrounds and life experiences. It has given him real empathy, and an understanding of complexity. At one point, he was representing members of the far-right National Front “who would express homophobic views in front of me. With people who had any kind of energy, capacity, time for hate, there would be this sort of sea of human debris around them.”

In 2010, Rinder went to the Turks and Caicos Islands as counsel to a team investigating and prosecuting allegations of fraud and corruption. Bored at the weekends, he started writing scripts. He worked with a production company and went to meet a commissioning editor at ITV. She thought his script was terrible – but she liked Rinder and asked if he would do his own Judge Judy-type reality court show.

The ITV show, Judge Rinder, started in 2014 and he was a TV natural. There were some mild accusations at the time that disadvantaged people were being used for entertainment, but although Rinder could certainly be funny and withering, his fundamental kindness was never far from the surface. “Anybody who thinks [it was exploitative] can’t have watched it. Sometimes, you might laugh at somebody because of the silliness.” He gives the example of a woman suing her dentist: “‘Where did you get your teeth done?’ ‘In my mouth.’ You’re going to laugh, it’s funny.” Many of the cases were family conflicts and relationship breakdowns, and he says he was proud that, for some: “It was the first opportunity they had to be forced to be in a space where they would hear one another.” He wasn’t, he says, “eviscerated” by his fellow barristers “because at the heart of it was the integrity of the legal decision, even if it was a silly case”.

Rinder still brings joy to TV – his facial expressions when he competed on Strictly Come Dancing are seared into my brain – but in recent times he has made serious and moving documentaries, including an exploration of Israel and Palestine and My Family, the Holocaust and Me, both for the BBC. His maternal grandfather, known as Morris, was born in Poland; his family were sent to the Treblinka camp, where they were murdered, but Morris, a fit young man, was sent to work in a factory, then to other forced-labour camps. Being the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, says Rinder, has “informed my politics, my view of the world, my instinctive reaction to people, this idea of who in the community is a bystander, a rescuer, a perpetrator”. In 1945, his grandfather was one of several hundred Jewish orphans who were flown to the Lake District to begin new lives; Morris lied, saying he was younger than he was to get here. There are parallels with today’s migrant crisis, with young people, particularly men, accused of “faking” their age to come to the UK.

It seems Rinder still can’t reconcile the struggle between his innate compassion and his respect for the rule of law. “It’s a complex dynamic, right? What I will say is language matters, how we think about who a refugee is matters.” It’s the dehumanisation of refugees that appals him. “Think about my grandfather and others. Gradually, like most refugees, they work, pay taxes, contribute, and they’re imbued with a passion as a result, and an understanding of what it means to have the gift of living in a democracy under the rule of law. I think his story is really inspirational. Once you start making that case, and you can put a face and a name to it, that changes the conversation.”

But he also has understanding for people who feel threatened by the idea of refugees. “Many are in communities lacking privilege, who already have scarce resources. It’s not necessarily about racism, though it’s easy to dismiss it as that and so fail to listen.”

It’s the same with ideas about prison, when he hears they are “too soft”. He says: “It’s not bleeding-heart liberalism, it’s the straightforward reality of what these places look like – addiction, huge swathes of people with special educational needs, that dark drainpipe from school. What are we doing?”

A few months ago, Rinder was touted as a potential Conservative London mayor. Is he going to stand? “I think it’s highly unlikely, don’t you?” he laughs. Is he a Conservative? “I’m not a member of a political party,” he says, not answering the question. He likes to remain impartial, not least because he is an occasional presenter on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, but also, I suspect, because he is so conditioned to sifting the evidence before making a decision that he can’t be a political tribalist.

Rinder still practises law to the extent that he lectures, offers advice to some organisations and mentors young barristers. But he seems more keen to use his profile to highlight issues he cares about. “The reason I make documentaries is because I’m convinced, especially with social media, that political points of view have moved from the logical to the emotional hemisphere of the brain. That’s exacerbated by echo chambers.” People with an opposing view, he says, “interfere with your sense of identity and safety. So how can you have a conversation with goodwill?” He wants more listening, “to say: ‘I hear you’, and mean it. To say: ‘Let me tell you a story.’”

The Trial by Rob Rinder is published by Century on 22 June (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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