Last updated: September 7, 2014 1:44 pm

The death of the political interview

The editor of ‘Newsnight’ talks about what’s gone wrong – and what to do about it
Ian Katz on the set of the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’©Greg Funnell

Ian Katz on the set of the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’

Almost exactly a year ago, the Labour MP Rachel Reeves, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, came into the Newsnight studio for an interview that is perhaps better remembered for the Twitter faux-pas that followed than anything she actually said. I can still feel the bowel-loosening mortification of the moment I realised I had fired what I thought was a private, candid assessment of the encounter on to the hyperactive grapevine of Twitter; I am still genuinely sorry for the rudeness I showed a politician who had the decency to come in at 10.30pm and do a few rounds with Jeremy Paxman. But I recently rewatched the interview and there’s no getting away from it: it was boring snoring.

I don’t think the problem was the subject matter. Labour’s complex and fraught relationship with the unions would explode as one of the big political stories of the next few months. And Labour’s policy on zero-hours contracts was important and potentially interesting territory. But Reeves’s exchange with Paxman had a sterile, deadening quality that made it hard to engage with any detail. Twice in the four-and-a-half minute encounter, Reeves prefaced answers with the passion-killing formulation “what we’ve said is”. Three times she began them with “Ed is going to talk about that in his speech”. She didn’t actually read out a briefing note from Labour’s PR high command but she might as well have done.

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Looking back on it, what made my tweet so unfortunate was that it singled out Reeves for doing no more than conforming to her profession’s standards of best practice. A fairer observation might have been that a large proportion of political interviews – maybe even most – are boring snoring. The unacknowledged truth is that half a century after the bristling exchange between Robin Day and prime minister Harold Macmillan that reshaped the relationship between politics and the media, the broadcast political interview is stuck.

There are notable exceptions of course, most recently James O’Brien’s patient, forensic unravelling of Ukip leader Nigel Farage. And occasionally there are skirmishes that become so ill-tempered and toxic that they offer both the entertainment value of a slow motion car crash and the insight into a politician’s personality that fury can sometimes deliver. Labour leader Ed Miliband’s irritable pre-local election encounter with Martha Kearney comes to mind: “You don’t understand, Martha!”

But for the most part interviews with frontbenchers are an arid, ritualised affair: interviewer suggests politician’s policy or position is flawed/inconsistent/unfunded; politician denies the charge/ignores the question/suggests that real people in his or her constituency care about something different. They repeat this a few times, typically for somewhere between four and 10 minutes. The interviewee considers it a success if he or she hasn’t said something that will attract the ire of their party’s PR capos. The interviewer considers it a success if the exchange has produced “a line”, though more often than not it will be the line the politician came to deliver.

There is a safety-first ethos that conspires to make even the most interesting political figures seem dull

The result is a safety-first ethos that conspires to make even the most interesting political figures seem dull, and rewards those who prove themselves to be “a safe pair of hands” with the highest offices in the land.

William Hague is a man with a rich intellectual hinterland and a dry sense of humour. Years ago, after he was defenestrated from the (probably premature) leadership of the Conservative party, I commissioned him to write about what it was like going up against Tony Blair. The resulting piece was candid, witty, emotionally intelligent. I can remember much of it now, more than a decade on, but I honestly can’t remember anything about any broadcast interview he has given as foreign secretary, except perhaps that it involved Angelina Jolie.

In person Miliband is a thoughtful, entertaining and self-aware conversationalist but put him in front of a TV camera and something strange happens. I’ve met Rachel Reeves a couple of times: she’s clever, engaging, even funny.

Increasingly, the most senior political figures don’t simply stonewall their way through tough interviews, they avoid them altogether. While a morning toasting on the Today programme remains an unavoidable trial of ministerial life, party leaders and some senior ministers increasingly avoid potentially hazardous excursions to the studios of Channel 4 News, Andrew Neil’s Sunday Politics or Newsnight. And even if they are willing to submit to challenging interviews themselves, interesting political figures with a weakness for candour are kept well away from the cameras. Don’t hold your breath for an in-depth interview with Labour’s loose-tongued wonk-in-chief Jon Cruddas any time soon.

Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that the most viewed and talked about political interview of the last year did not feature a politician. Russell Brand’s Newsnight diatribe against politics and politicians was watched more than 10 million times on YouTube alone and it’s hard to imagine that the spavined state of the political interview has not been a major contributor to the mood of suspicion and disgust that Brand so powerfully articulated.

About as far away from Brand as it’s possible to travel in this galaxy, another interview a few weeks back offered a sharp reminder of how revealing and engrossing a great political interview can be. Talking to the historian Peter Hennessy for the Radio 4 Reflections strand, Sir John Major mused with arresting frankness about whether he had become prime minister too young (probably) and whether he should have resigned after Black Wednesday (“I was never sure whether I should have or not”).

Of course, Major is almost two decades away from the constraints and consequences of power now, and cynics will point out that Hennessy did not ask a single question about the most embarrassing corner of his record, his four-year affair with Edwina Currie. But listening to Major and Hennessy got me wondering why we can’t seem to conduct interviews with serving politicians even a fraction as illuminating and engaging. What has gone wrong with the political interview? Was there ever really a time it was a more candid and fruitful form of interaction? If there was, is there anything we can do to fix it?

In fact, people have been bemoaning the state of the political interview at least since the late 1980s. In his self-effacingly titled 1989 autobiography The Grand Inquisitor, Robin Day complained that both Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock had developed effective techniques to frustrate searching broadcasters. “Interviews have tended to become a series of statements, planned for delivery irrespective of the question which had been put. This technique has gradually brought about the decline of the major television interview. It is now rarely a dialogue which could be helpful to the viewer.”

Sir Robin cited research conducted by two York University psychologists on interviews during the 1987 election campaign. Dr Peter Bull and Kate Mayer found that both Kinnock and Thatcher avoided more than half the questions put to them. They concluded the party leaders used 31 different forms of evasion that fell into the following categories: ignoring the question, acknowledging the question without answering, questioning the question, attacking the question, attacking the interviewer, declining to answer, making a political point, giving an incomplete answer, repeating previous answer and claiming already to have answered the question.

But dip into the archive and even these supposedly corrupted encounters have a prelapsarian quality. Here’s Brian Walden locking horns with Thatcher during the same campaign, like a married couple who have been sparring, more or less good-naturedly, for decades.

Walden: “You come over, as one of your backbenchers said, as someone who is slightly off your trolley, authoritarian, domineering, refusing to listen to anyone else.”

Thatcher: “Brian, if anyone’s coming over as domineering in this interview it’s you . . . now let’s just deal with the authoritarian thing.”

Wind back a little further and we’re into another country. Here’s David Frost interviewing Enoch Powell a year after his 1968 “rivers of blood” speech. Frost’s opening to one of his toughest and most combative interviews feels about as far from the opening zinger that many modern interviewers pride themselves on as you can get. “There are one or two areas of your mind that I find a slight enigma, and I hope we stroll in the direction of one or two of them.”

By common consent, the golden age of the political interview ran from Macmillan’s 1958 encounter with Day until the late 1980s, reaching its apogee in Walden’s meticulously choreographed Weekend World jousts. Of course, there have been plenty of great interviews since, many of them conducted by Paxman, who has a unique talent for turning even the most disciplined political interview into a theatrical – occasionally career-ending – skirmish.

But over time the predominance of an aggressive style characterised by the dictum “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” – and the survival strategies that politicians have developed in response to it – have locked both sides into what economists call a “tragedy of the commons”.

Whereas interviewers like Day and Frost often spent a good 10 minutes sidling up to a tough question, the modern interview frequently dispenses with the pleasantries and goes straight for the jugular. As one leading interviewer put it: “These days every ball is a fastball down the leg side.”

A decade or so ago former Blair spinner Tim Allan decried this style of interviewing as “punk political journalism”. It was, he complained, “journalism that puts the journalist centre stage. It judges itself by how many hits it can rack up against the subject. Any communication by the politician on his or her terms is regarded as a failure.”

Certainly, since Gordon Reece set about lowering Thatcher’s voice and training her to avoid the potholes of an adversarial interview, the likes of Reece and Allan have been hard at work trying to stop their masters saying anything too interesting in front of a TV camera. One minister suggests it was no coincidence that Peter Mandelson, the man who mastered the challenge of imposing “message discipline” on an entire party, was a veteran of Walden’s Weekend World. “He understood both the potency and the perils of the form.”

It’s hardly surprising that those politicians willing to face the fast bowling of an adversarial interview come to the crease heavily padded up and armed with a series of defensive strokes. “There is just this fear that one slip effaces everything else,” one minister told me. “One line out of place.” The former cabinet minister sounded remarkably similar: “Most ministers thinking of a TV interview take the view that it’s all potential downside and no potential upside because one slip and they’re dead.”

In a lecture earlier this year on the pros and cons of adversarial journalism, my soon-to-be colleague Evan Davis suggested that journalists and politicians had arrived at an impasse: “I think the worst of you. You play it as defensively as you can. Your strategy of being defensive is justified by me being aggressive and, worst of all, me being aggressive is justified by the obfuscation and nonsense of you being defensive. We’re now locked into the low road. Your strategy justifies mine. My strategy justifies yours.” One former coalition cabinet minister summarised this Mexican stand-off like this: “The political interview is in a low trust equilibrium and it’s sort of stuck there.”

Ian Katz©Greg Funnell

What can be done to make the political interview a more illuminating and rewarding form, a source of light as well as heat? Here are a few modest ideas:

1. Both broadcasters and politicians need to acknowledge that the interview is a transaction that must yield something useful for both sides – and especially the audience. Peter Hennessy talked of the “unspoken contract” of early TV interviews: publicity in exchange for good television. These days, with the profusion of outlets and platforms, politicians can get plenty of publicity without exposing themselves to a challenging interview. We need an updated contract: the opportunity to explain their thinking and decisions in depth, in exchange for the chance to test them thoroughly; the opportunity to demonstrate themselves to the public as three dimensional human beings in exchange for a greater level of candour.

2. We need to make a genuine attempt to explore and illuminate the dilemmas politicians face, to recognise that government is not a choice between good and bad policies but most often a search for the least worst option. A while ago I asked a thoughtful Tory minister what the interview he wished he could give would look like. He replied without a moment’s hesitation: “I’d like to be able to come in and say, ‘Here’s the policy I’ve just announced. There are quite a few problems with it, I’ll tell you what they are. Now let me tell you about the other two options I had available, and why both of them were worse.’ ”

In a similar vein a former Labour minister once told me how she’d once made the mistake of answering a question in a select committee about whether a particular policy would work as honestly as she could – by quoting what she estimated to be its probability of success. The next day she got hauled up by the party’s communications chief for admitting the policy could fail. Perhaps I am hopelessly naive but wouldn’t it be great if interviews allowed politicians to talk as candidly about the messy reality of political decision-making as these two wish they could?

3. We need to try harder to understand what makes politicians tick. Former chancellor and deputy Labour leader Denis Healey famously talked of the need for every politician to have a hinterland. If modern politicians have them, we glimpse them all too rarely. A while ago I had lunch with a cabinet minister renowned for giving rather attritional and frequently ill-tempered interviews. Over a steak, he casually revealed that he had returned to his lapsed hobby of oil painting. “I could never do watercolours. One mistake and you’re screwed. But oils are great – you go wrong and you just get some more paint and brush right over it.” He paused for a moment. “It’s just like politics.” I wish I got that sort of lateral insight into a politician’s psyche more often from interviews.

4. Finally, one that follows from the first three: we broadcasters need to give interviews – at least some of them – the time to breathe, even if that means putting up with more boring, snoring bits.

There are risks for both sides in any shift from the current sullen equilibrium. For us, the danger is that we offer politicians more time and space to explain themselves and they carry on just as defensively as before. Or that audiences tell us with their remote controls that, actually, they rather preferred heat to light. For politicians the risk is that they are more honest in interviews and find themselves pilloried the next morning for making a gaffe or displaying anything other than cast iron certainty about everything. To break the stand-off both sides have to jump at once.

So here’s a challenge to politicians: if you will dare to be a little more candid, to come to the crease a little less padded up, to answer questions rather than avoid them, we will give you the space to explain your politics and yourself, to show the public that you are a well-intentioned and (in some cases) rounded human being, to earn that most precious – and scarce – of political commodities, authenticity.

That doesn’t mean we’ll give you an easy ride. As Evan argued in his lecture, sometimes it is the job of the interviewer to give voice to the frustrations and anger of the viewer, even when it is not likely to elicit a helpful or revealing answer. “One of the purposes of what we do is to be seen to be pouring a bucket of custard over powerful people.” And often seeing the lengths a politician will go to avoid answering a question tells its own story: the former home secretary Michael Howard’s 12 refusals to answer Paxman’s question are probably better remembered than anything a British politician has said in an interview in the modern era.

Back in 1989 Sir Robin worried that the decline of the political interview would damage more than the interests of broadcasters like him. “What deeply concerns me is that the very principle of the television interview – the ancient Socratic method of imparting and gathering information by the process of question and answer – has been deliberately devalued . . . This is bad for the people, bad for democracy, bad for television, and bad, in the end, for politicians.”

With politicians now outstripping even us journalists as candidates for public disdain, those words seem more than a little prophetic. There is endless talk about the crisis in politics and how it might be tackled. Reinvigorating the political interview might be a constructive and modest place to start. As one former minister put it: “It is not tenable for politicians to keep talking the way they are talking. There has to be a different way of doing it.”

A politician’s view

‘Trying to banish cynicism about politics may be difficult’

Margaret Thatcher in an interview with Robin Day in 1980©BBC

Margaret Thatcher in an interview with Robin Day in 1980

The changing tone of the political interview mirrors the changing positions of politicians and the media over the past 50 years, writes Kwasi Kwarteng.

In the past, the media were more deferential because politicians were generally regarded as being better educated and occupying a higher social position than mere journalists.

Today, the boot is on the other foot. The interviewer is likely to be a celebrity media figure, earning multiples of a minister’s salary. One could be forgiven for thinking the media are the new “lords of the earth”, while ministers and politicians are inconvenient functionaries.

I have found that interviewers are generally polite and engaging. Funnily enough, interviewers in print often try to be aggressive and cynical, while these days broadcast interviews do at least try to inform the audience. I’ve read a couple of profiles of myself and thought they could have got as much information from Wikipedia.

It’s obvious that Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys influenced much of the style of recent political interviews. But, as a listener, I remember being particularly frustrated when all you could hear was the interviewer saying, “But surely . . . ” without allowing the hapless politician any time to speak. The duty of the interviewer must surely be to inform his or her audience. It can’t simply be a showcase for the brilliance of the journalist, who, the implication often is, would be much better at running the country than any politician.

Interviewers should approach a political interview with the question, “What does the audience want to learn from this interview?” and not, “How can I trip this politician up?” Many people still gain most of their information from the television, so it is important that interviews actually inform.

I don’t think the days of Paxman’s rottweiler interrogations will return. But trying to banish a wider cynicism about politics may prove to be very difficult.

Kwasi Kwarteng is Conservative MP for Spelthorne

Photographs: Greg Funnell; BBC

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Letters in response to this article:

Focus and burst that political bubble / From Mr John Morrison

The lack of serious political reportage and analysis must be corrected / From Dr Tony Mills

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