The battle of the egos on radio has become a turn-off
'Humphrys and Naughtie know what a waste of time it is hauling in the powerful'
Monday 14 September 1998
I know what he means. I have that moment myself. Every day. It usually comes when one of the presenters says, "and we'll have the minister himself here to reply to those questions in a moment".
That is a moment to avoid. The exchanges between minister and presenter, interviewer and office-holder, Mr Naughtie and Mr Nasty, are always the least informative and least interesting moments on radio or TV.
John Humphrys is an excellent interviewer when stretching out, as in On The Ropes, but on Today nobody seems to land a punch. There was a wonderfully good example the other day, which was so uninformative and unproductive that I was paralysed and couldn't get to the set to turn it off, between John Humphrys and John Prescott.
Humphrys was trying to get Prescott to say whether or not the Queen's speech would contain Prescott's transport plan. Prescott refused to commit himself, and kept telling Humphrys about all the jolly good environmental things he'd already done. Humphrys wasn't interested and kept asking about the transport plan. Prescott refused to be drawn and kept repeating what he'd already said...
In other words, if the entire interview was given to an English comprehension class to summarise, it would emerge like this.
Humphrys: "Will you tell us whether your much heralded transport plan will be in the next Queen's speech?"
Prescott: "No, I won't but I'll tell you about some good environmental things we've done which you similarly doubted we'd ever do..."
End of interview. Now, on the Today programme you could avoid wasting five minutes of guff by simply getting Humphrys to say right at the outside what question he wanted to ask, and Prescott to say what he was going to say instead of answering the question.
It would take 20 seconds, save me and Pritchett switching off and give more time for the good things on the Today programme. Yes, there are some. Almost always they occur when the presenters are not involved, when Humphrys, Naughtie, MacGregor etc shut up for a moment, after saying: "Here's Alan Little reporting from Moscow" or "With more thoughts on digital TV, here's our media correspondent Torin Douglas". Recently I heard Little do an admirable little sketch on life in Moscow, and Torin Douglas casting splendid cold water on the digital revolution (were you listening, Birt?), because they were well-planned little one-man efforts, not would-be clashes with the mighty which always end up as two people hitting each other with inflated bladders.
I'm sure in their heart of hearts Humphrys and Naughtie know what a complete waste of time it is hauling the powerful in to pretend to bare their soul. But they love it too much to give it up. It gives them an entree into the power game, a toe-hold in the sparring ring. In the the Radio Times recently John Humphrys was subjected to one of those over-the-phone chats called a Questionnaire, and he said:
"The 'professional' interviewees are easier because you are, in a sense, playing the same game. People like Michael Heseltine, John Prescott and Ken Clarke are the interviewer's ideal because they will engage. One of the problems with the present lot of ministers is that many of them are well trained to stay on the message..."
Then why on earth get them in to play "the game"? That is one mistake that Broadcasting House doesn't make. This is the new Sunday morning programme on Radio 4, presented by Eddie Mair, which for an hour wanders round the world chatting about the news to people who know a lot about it but are not implicated. Yesterday they had Germaine Greer and Charles Wheeler chatting about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and they talked more sense than I have heard elsewhere on this tacky subject.
Meanwhile, back at the Today programme, I fully expect the weather forecast one day to evolve into this: Humphrys: "So, Michael Fish, what are you going to tell us that the weather has in store today?" Fish: "Well, it's going to be another unsettled day ..." Humphrys: "That's not what you told us on Wednesday." Fish: "No. That's because conditions were different then." Humphrys: "Ah! You're blaming conditions, are you?" Fish: "No. All I'm saying is that looking ahead over the next few days..." Humphrys: "That's all very well, but public perception of weather forecasters is not very positive, is it?" Fish: "Be that as it may, there will be rain today in the South..." Humphrys: "I'm going to have to ask that question again. Public perception..."
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