Political Interviewing: It Shouldn't Be About Confrontation & Newslines - We're Shortchanging the Public
10 Dec 2017 at 17:34
This is an article I wrote for the Saturday edition of the ‘i’ newspaper on Saturday. It was published HERE.
‘It’s all about you, isn’t it?’ wrote the rather angry listener who texted my LBC radio show. ‘How dare you question the Prime Minister like that!’ How dare I, indeed. And there was me thinking that I was doing my job.
Back in early October, Theresa May came to my studio to take calls from our listeners. It was her first interview after THAT speech. She was doing rather well until I asked the Prime Minister if she would now vote Leave if there were another referendum. She failed to give me an answer, so I pushed her.
And then pushed her again. And again.
Each time I did it politely, with no sense of haranguing. That part of the interview was analysed on virtually every political and news show in the country over the next 48 hours. Piers Morgan reckoned it was the best question anyone had ever asked any politician this year. Stroke my ego as it might, it did leave me thinking a lot about the state of political interviewing in this country.
Back in the 1980s prime ministers only ever gave four or five set piece interviews a year. They had a sense of occasion about them, and they each lasted between 30 minutes and an hour. The advent of twenty-four hour news channels changed all that. Tony Blair and David Cameron would be interviewed on radio or television virtually every day. The provision of news on the internet changed things even more. Ninety second clips are de rigueur and news producers assume their audiences have the attention span of a flea.
All this has fed into a ‘gotcha’ narrative where news organisations feel that if they haven’t skewered a politician in an interview, the interviewer has somehow failed. If there isn’t a ‘news line’ from an interview, what was the point of it? interviewing is not a contact sport, or at least it shouldn’t be. The idea that interviews should primarily be about eliciting information to educate and inform the viewer/listener is for the birds nowadays.
Yes, of course it’s about holding politicians to account, but to go into every interview and intend to score points, as so many interviewers (or their producers) seem to want to do, is to short-change the listener.
Nick Ferrari has a reputation as a dogged interviewer, but many of his most newsworthy interviews have come when he has allowed the politician to commit hara-kari, as Diane Abbott knows only too well. LBC’s Shelagh Fogarty has a unique talent of appearing to question in a softly-softly manner, but boy oh boy, if she feels she’s being played, watch her bare her teeth. And that’s how it should be.
Compare that to one famous interviewer told me recently, when he was about to interview a senior politician: “I’m going to give them the most aggressive interview they’ve ever had”. ‘Really?’ I thought. ‘Is that really the best way to go into an interview?’
It illustrated for me the different way we approach political interviews nowadays. I suppose it reflects Jeremy Paxman’s famous approach where before he would interview anyone he’d think to himself “why is this bastard lying to me?” I don’t believe that shouting at someone is likely to elicit anything meaningful from them. They just shut up shop and repeat political mantras.
Too many interviewers think it’s all about them. Social media has encouraged a cult of media personality. It seems that some interviewers want to be heroes in their own echo chamber. The reaction to my Theresa May interview was an interesting case-study. It certainly stroked my ego but it underlined to me my theory that a conversational approach works far better than a confrontational one.
I mourn the apparent death of the long-form political interview. I know from experience that if you interview a politician for three or four minutes you won’t get anything interesting out of them. They have two points they want to make and they will make them regardless of the question you ask.
If you interview a politician for more than ten minutes, eventually they run out of their pre-prepared lines and they are then forced to say something more interesting. David Frost was a master of this. Fern Britton got more out of Tony Blair in an hour-long interview than any of the ‘star’ political interviewers had managed in fifteen years. Nick Ferrari’s hour with Ed Miliband in the 2015 election was the best interview of the campaign.
Last week ITV announced three new hour-long interview programmes, albeit online only. I detect a growing, if niche, appetite for longer form interviews. Come back Robin Day, Brian Walden or Jonathan Dimbleby. These three interviewers were brilliant exponents of the genre. In today’s world, Andrew Neil is a master of it.
If it were my decision, I would make him the new editor and chief presenter of a revamped Newsnight. That won’t happen, of course.
What I’ve Been…
I’m a huge Gogglebox addict so I’ve been reading the DIARY OF TWO NOBODIES by Giles and Mary, the slightly quirky middle-aged couple who live in a cottage in Wiltshire. They really are as charming and odd as they appear on screen. I’m also reading is Tim Shipman’s FALL OUT. It is the sequel to ALL OUT WAR and covers the Brexit talks and the general election. It’s undoubtedly one of the political books of the year. I wish I had published it.
I’ve started a new weekly podcast with Jacqui Smith called FOR THE MANY, which is 45 minutes of political banter. We were inspired by excellent and hugely gossipy FORTUNATELY podcast by Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. I’ve also started listening to podcasts in the car on journeys to Norfolk, and have become rather addicted to the CHRIS MOYLES SHOW weekly podcast. Laugh out loud funny.
I’ve turned into a massive radio geek since being on LBC and love discovering new shows and stations. My most recent discovery is HEART 80s, which does what it says on the tin. TOBY TARRANT’s early breakfast show on Radio X is a show I only get to listen to for the last half an hour, but it’s got that crucial quality in a radio show – you don’t want to switch off in case you miss something.
I rarely watch live TV nowadays. Netflix has become my new TV home and I can’t wait for the second series of THE CROWN. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR and SHOOTER have been my two most recent binges – both have an echo of ‘24’, which I still miss. I used to be a SKY NEWS addict, but increasingly find myself watching AL JAZEERA ENGLISH and CNN.