Have you wondered why broadcast interviews, like a Chinese meal, often leave you unsatisfied and wanting more?
One reason is that the most interesting interviewees are rarely seen these days. Leading figures in business, industry and the arts are increasingly reluctant to step forward because the format and nature of broadcast interviews is more and more weighted against an informative exchange. That applies even more to the growing use of social media and soundbites to convey an argument or open a debate. The only people now regularly featuring in broadcast interviews are politicians, and that tells its own story.
To discover how we have reached this state of affairs we have to go back, I believe, many years.
The changing face of the broadcast interview
Lying on my desk is a battered, spiral-bound document entitled “BBC News Guide 1975”. Forty-two years ago, the same booklet was dropped – more accurately, slammed – on to my desk by an irascible news editor who clearly felt that, as producer of the nightly regional news programme in Bristol, I had not adequately absorbed the principles of BBC news coverage.
He was probably right, and the Guide is a belated reminder of the rules and advice that I frequently forgot or failed to follow. But a closer look at the document demonstrates vividly how much has changed in the way news is reported. The technology for a start. Sixteen millimetre film has been replaced in turn by videotape and digital memory cards, typewriters have given way to laptops, and phones are no longer just devices for a long-distance conversation.
Helped by the technology, the nature of news coverage has changed too, driven by tighter and tighter deadlines. Inevitably, quality and care is often sacrificed in the effort to be first. And the ever-present “send” button allows all and sundry to add their voice and comment to the mix.
But most significantly of all, the nature of the broadcast interview has changed. This directly affects anyone who is heading a business, representing an organisation or playing an important personal role who may be invited to air their knowledge on any outlet, from national TV news to an online agency or local radio.
How much the conduct and content of interviews has changed is evident in just two passages from my dog-eared 1975 document…
“The traditional picture of a reporter shows a scruffy figure, foot in door, notebook in hand, demanding ‘What have you got to hide? The British public has a right to know’. If such reporters exist, there is no place from them in BBC News.”
Try telling that to Watchdog reporters. Try persuading ambitious young political correspondents to go easy on party leaders. Try reining back business reporters who spot corrupt or inept governance and smell blood.
On to page 15 of the 1975 News Guide…
“It is not for the news reporter to argue with the interviewee or grill him. That can be left to the professional personality in the set-piece programme”.
Ignore the casually sexist reference to “him”. Instead, imagine how constrained today’s young news-hounds would feel if such strictures were still in force.
The example offered by political interviews
So how have we travelled from that deferential 1975 approach to the daily confrontations of 24-hour news? The factors at play now are many and varied. For instance, many more hours of broadcasting mean much more space to fill, and the easiest and most cost-effective way of filling the space is a live interview, with the added possible attraction of some entertaining verbal fisticuffs.
However, I am convinced that the change in the tone of broadcast interviews has been driven by one major factor – the example offered by political interviews. They have always been tough and challenging, and that more aggressive approach has gradually spilled over into general news coverage. Many of today’s reporters, interviewers and presenters grew up watching Robin Day, Ludovic Kennedy and David Frost or, more recently, Jeremy Paxman and Andrew Neil strutting their stuff in the big, set-piece political interviews. They are the stars, and the message is not lost on young aspiring interviewers. Clearly the way to stardom lies in tough questioning, putting interviewees under pressure, and not letting them off the hook.
In years gone past, many politicians, weaned on rumbustious exchanges in the Commons, relished the exchanges. It was often quite a spectacle. The more the confrontation had the flavour of a no-holds-barred wrestling match, the better for both parties. No Queensbury rules here.
There was respect on both sides, with a well-prepared questioner pitted against a well-briefed minister. Both sides appreciated the importance of the occasion and gave it their all, even if that meant deliberately stoking the fire to add a little extra heat. I witnessed one such occasion at first hand.
Early in my career, at the BBC in Southampton, I was detailed to look after Lord Carrington as he prepared for a down-the-line interview with Robin Day in London for the Tonight programme. How privileged it felt to be sitting in the front row as these two great Westminster beasts prepared to lock horns, breathing fire, pawing the ground. A highly respected member of Edward Heath’s cabinet versus the Grand Inquisitor. There would be fireworks.
As the two waited for camera shots to be lined up and microphones adjusted, I expected a tense silence before the opening salvo. Instead…
“Afternoon Peter. How are you?”
“Pretty fit, Robin. And you?”
“Fine. What are you doing in Southampton?”
“Actually we’re staying for a few days on the Isle of Wight, at Bembridge.”
“Not the Seaview Hotel?”
“The very same.”
“I recall we all had a very enjoyable dinner there a couple of years ago…”
And so the reminiscences went on until the cameras were ready. Then the countdown began – three, two, one…and in an instant the avuncular turned into attack.
“Lord Carrington, Defence Secretary, how can you and your Cabinet colleagues possibly justify…?”
For four minutes they traded accusation and rebuttal while I was left with the queasy feeling that this was all an act. A charade in which both men had agreed an honourable draw even before the interview began.
To the ordinary viewer it was a rigorous debate. To the young eavesdropping reporter it was a revelation. If the great politicians of the age were willing to be harangued in this way, and if that was the way to national acclaim and fame for an interviewer, then every interview would surely be an opportunity to challenge, be impertinent, show off.
The political interview showed us the way. Quick-fire delivery, interruptions, challenges, quotes dredged up from past speeches. Two, perhaps three basic questions, re-phrased, then repeated to make them sound fresh. Like the three-chord guitarist, we could be the next big star.
The political interview becomes the norm
In my career, progressing from regional broadcasting to 24-hour news presenting, I have watched and listened as interviewers have got tougher, deliberately deploying tactics to unsettle the interviewee. I have used the same methods myself, uncomfortably aware at the same time that my job was to keep the audience’s attention by being provocative, rather than elicit the information that the audience needed to understand better the matter under discussion.
Many politicians are now so familiar with the double-talk and evasion of parliamentary debate that they come to the broadcast studio well-practised and highly trained. That is why so many political interviews end in stalemate, with the interviewer mentally declaring victory because he or she has posed the difficult questions, while the politician retires, if not victorious, at least unhurt, protected by the repetition of the party line. What is important for them is to avoid embarrassment. They are desperate to avoid the ridicule of fellow MPs or, worse, an urgent invitation to the whips’ office. For example, on returning to the House of Commons after an appearance on the Today programme, the verdict of their colleagues that “you got away with that, old boy” may be all they want to hear.
Over the years the type of interview that was once conducted and contained within the Westminster village has now become the norm. So what can non-political interviewees learn from politicians? To be honest, very little. They cannot fall back on the weasel responses – “we’ll be conducting a full and rigorous review…we believe this is the right course of action…we’ve said before and we say again…” and so on. Viewers are wise to that type of question-dodging. But simply being aware of it does not make it less insidious. Robin Day identified the danger eloquently in his 1989 autobiography: “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…”.
Unfortunately the phoney success of the politician’s strategy has permeated the thinking of many major figures outside politics. “Why can’t I just sidestep the question?” is a common query I meet on media training courses. “Politicians do it, the audience may not like it, but they get away with it”.
The easy answer is that, yes, politicians do it, but do you want to be bracketed with them at the bottom of the trustworthy league table?
The way forward
Leaders of organisations, from NHS chiefs to company bosses and football managers, do not have the same daily exposure to debate and rhetoric. The danger is that they will try to imitate the stonewalling tactics of the politician…with even worse results. Stalemate and a lack of useful information for the viewer. They need to learn the appropriate strategies for broadcast interviews because this is their chance to talk to a large audience, to open that audience’s eyes to their work, and to their ideas.
At present, nothing short of a crisis will force such leaders out of their bunker and into the spotlight, but with political interviews at their lowest point in public approval ratings, this is the time for them to show the way. Every interview is an opportunity to draw the audience in, tell them something new, and leave them with the feeling that they have learned something of value.
But how many men and women with great ideas to exchange, great achievements to describe are put off from taking part in broadcast interviews because the quick hit of a three-minute interview conducted by a presenter armed with minimal research and a couple of facile questions simply will not do justice to their subject? Running media training courses, I regularly come across impressive industry and business figures who are reluctant to accept invitations from broadcasters because of the fear of being “bloody kebabbed” by an interviewer, as Neil Kinnock once memorably put it. The task of instilling confidence and suggesting simple tactics then becomes a vital part of their media training.
The tactics are very straightforward. Work out your key messages beforehand. Insist on delivering them. Remember, however hectoring the interviewer, you have a right to be heard. Refuse to accept constant interruptions, inaccuracies, hypothetical questions.
It is not easy. Most interviewees are not exposed daily to challenging examination in the same way as the politician who is constantly under pressure in the chamber or in the constituency. But they must not ape the evasive, obfuscating antics of the politician. Too often broadcast interviews end with the viewer struggling to identify anything of significance that has been said. If that is allowed to continue and the broadcast interview slowly slides into banality or predictability, thanks to the aggressive tactics of interviewers, we will all be the poorer.