Among the many consequences of the Covid-19 restrictions is a decline in the power and effectiveness of news interviews, at exactly the time when tough questioning is most needed.
As this crisis develops, that need will intensify.
The physical limits set by the government on the movement of people, while absolutely essential, are having a direct effect on the coverage of the crisis. Face to face interviews are a rare event because of the stay-at-home and self-isolation strictures. Instead we must rely on uncertain WiFi connections and badly-framed camera angles. The result is often an online interview with a figure whose looming, out-of-focus appearance is distracting at best, and at worst an obstacle to information and understanding.
Interviewers conducting a high-pressure, demanding interview with someone in the public eye will know how important the physical surroundings are. Two chairs set in a simple room allow the interviewer to observe the interviewee at close quarters. Even the moment of introduction, before the interviewee has sat down, will offer valuable information. The strength of the hand-shake (before such gestures were side-lined) may indicate nervousness or confidence. That may influence the choice of opening question. The interviewee’s sitting position – legs perhaps tightly crossed, or man-spread – will divulge important information even before the first question. And once the interview has begun, direct eye contact, without the intercession of a blurred laptop screen, can speak volumes.
There are other tell-tale signs. An eye-line flicking away, shoulders hunched, shifting from buttock to buttock – they all transmit vital data to the interviewer, indicating whether to repeat a question, push further, or switch to a different line of questioning. All this is much more difficult while conversing with a grainy, out of sync image on a laptop.
The daily briefings from Number 10 offer only unchallenged information. The questions – from faraway computers – add little to our understanding. This is no substitute for a live, informed conversation. An interview without the opportunity of a follow-up question is not an interview.
There are clearly occasions when sub-standard footage, particularly in the case of a fast-moving crisis, is better than nothing and can even add to the drama of the unfolding event. But for the moment we have to wait until the crisis is over and we can once again see interviewees clearly…including the whites of their eyes.