Media: How to pop the question

First they were deferential, then confrontational, but what is the future for the political interview? By David Aaronovitch
For the first eight years of my journalistic life, I patrolled that thin strip of broadcast time - the two hours between The Archers omnibus and Sunday lunch - where politicians regularly met their interrogatory fates.

As a cub researcher, and later a producer, on ITV's Weekend World, I penned briefs for the brilliant Walden and his miscast successor, the differently brilliant Matthew Parris. Twelve years ago I went to the BBC and started up On the Record, where I played the Rip Torn role to Jonathan Dimbleby's Larry Sanders. I have sat in the gallery suggesting how Neil Kinnock might now be asked X, Michael Heseltine be pressed on Y, or Ken Clarke taxed with Z.

In that time I read many articles about political interviewing on television, and this is the story they all told. Once upon a time, when television was first invented, politicians didn't appear on it at all because they thought it was vulgar and very few people had a telly anyway, so what was the point? But as the small box found its place in more and more sitting rooms, our nation's leader condescended to be filmed answering questions such as, "Mr. Eden, do you have a message for the people of Britain?" and tricky stuff like that.

But in the Sixties we had the End to Deference, the Vietnam War, That Was the Week That Was and, of course, Robin Day. These phenomena between them ushered in TV interviewing's glorious hour, with prime ministers and foreign secretaries routinely given a robust, democratic time by the likes of Day, Walden and Dimbleby (D).

Spin doctors and Margaret Thatcher put paid to this glorious period by entering the studio with their own agendas, refusing to answer questions properly and - most pernicious of all - failing to agree to be interviewed in the first place. The balance of power swung back towards the interviewee.

Today the good (ie tough and manly) interviewers can't get the bastards on their shows, the unctuous ones (ie soft and fawning) ones can, but it's not worth it. The political interview as an art form is more or less dead, and Sunday lunchtime slots would be better given over to repeats of Bonanza.

Most of those who work in TV and radio news and current affairs also see "hard or soft?" as the principal question, lamenting the preference of effete politicians for the elaborate courtesies of the David Frost show over, say, Newsnight. If they cite the example of how David Dimbleby gave Tony Blair his most testing public moment of the 1997 general election campaign, it is to illustrate how rarely such events take place. The high point came with the interview in which Jeremy Paxman killed off Michael Howard's chances of returning to high office, with the famous 14 times repeated question. The low points take place most weeks.

But I think this polarisation between tough and tender treatment of politicians misses the point, unless you believe (as one television journalist put it to me a few months ago) that all of them are "useless, lying bastards". Indeed, I think it's a bit dangerous.

In the first place, though I am an avowed admirer of Paxman (so much so that if I repeat it once more he's going to think that I'm trying to get him into bed), with less skilled presenters the confrontational interview, visually assisted by the sardonic look, can become a major irritation. Presenters forfeit the sympathy of viewers when their manner constantly suggests that the world would be a much better place if only they were running it.

I have a vested interest in this approach because I find it very hard - as an occasional interviewer myself - to really rough up my guests. Just as some journalists see themselves as completely other beings, lacking any DNA in common with MPs and ministers, I instead visualise myself doing the politician's job, and I attempt to see the world and its problems through their eyes. The peril here lies in forgetting that to understand all does not necessarily entail forgiving all.

No, the real question should be, I think, not how you conduct an interview, but why. For what reason are those two people in the studio? Over the years current affairs shows, always struggling to produce ratings, have increasingly had to justify themselves by talking about "impact". Now "impact" is what you get when your interview is widely quoted in the next day's newspapers or clips from it are used in that night's bulletins. The name of the programme and the station are in yellow highlighted cuttings that land on the channel controller's desk.

This requires that both the choice of interviewees and the content of interviews be substantially driven by the immediate news agenda. And I mean immediate. So, for instance, Sir David Frost's recent encounter with the Prime Minister - coinciding as it did with the headlines concerning Margaret Cook's book - was topped by a very long section dealing with the Cook affair, and tailed with an eccentric repetition of the first question about Cook.

The only conclusion that one could draw from this last enquiry was that the programme's producer had not been entirely convinced that the first Blair answer on Cook had quite supplied the pithy insert for the later bulletins.

You can argue whether a good duffing-up by John Humphrys later in the morning on On the Record might have produced a more lively watch. Certainly Frost's softly-softly method is unparalleled when it comes to getting the headlines. But think about it in terms of opportunity lost. The issue for Tony Blair that weekend was whether or not his "project" was endangered or weakened by recent events, and - in particular - his view of the need to realign British politics. The Cook affair was, to say the least, a diversion from this, and occupied valuable time in a rare interview.

As an editor I was not innocent of wanting to get my shows into the headlines. Once, when he was shadow chancellor, the late John Smith agreed to be interviewed on On the Record. Before we began I asked him, in weaselly fashion, whether he had come on "with something to say". In other words, was there a newsworthy announcement he wished to make which would benefit both of us? He looked at me with a certain amount of incredulity and then said, "I see. Not content with reflecting the news, you want to make it as well? Sorry, I can't help." I felt three inches tall.

There is another way to go. That is for some programme makers and interviewers (not all) to become far more intellectually proactive; to propose and discuss policies and strategies with those whose job it is to think about, and to enact such things.

Many politicians, contrary to widespread belief, do care about the way the country is run, and are capable of becoming intellectually intrigued by a question or a proposition. Some, of course, would fear the challenge. But others - the ones we really want to encourage - would not. There might be few headlines, but equally there could be more viewers.


Jonathan Dimbleby certainly put the question when he asked Prince Charles if he had been unfaithful BBC


Jeremy Paxman, pioneer of the `why is this bastard lying to me?' school of political interviewing


John Humphrys obviously relishes his five-minute agenda-setting spats with politicians on Today


David Dimbleby has inherited his father's mantle and asks the question the viewer would pose BBC