We need interviewers to be rude to politicians

Podium: Menzies Campbell: From a lecture by the Liberal Democrat MP to the BBC Visegrad Forum and the British Embassy in Budapest
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The Independent Culture
DEMOCRACY IS a frail plant. It will not flourish unless it is sustained and nourished. But, like most plants, it flourishes best in daylight, and robust independent political broadcasting is the daylight in which democracy can best be established and sustained.

Whenever political broadcasting becomes deferential or subject to external control, its contribution and its independence are reduced. The broadcaster's responsibility is to ask all of the questions that the viewer or listener would ask if he or she was in the same room. The broadcasting system must be self-confident enough to make mistakes, mature enough to admit them when it does, and brave enough to take the same risk again.

This is not to say that political broadcasting should be routinely rude or motivated by malice. Individuals are entitled to respect, but this should be related, not to position or access to power, but to frankness and honesty. The interviewer needs to be brave, bold and persistent. And the interviewee should in turn be honest, frank and informative. Sometimes rudeness will be justified where there is deliberate evasion or deception. The viewer and listener expects, and is entitled to, no less.

Are these the values of a mature democracy with a long-established tradition of independent political broadcasting? Of course they are, but to those who have emerged blinking into the daylight - like the prisoners in Fidelio - they should be as much part of the new democracies as they are of the old.

For state-controlled broadcasting has invariably been part of the apparatus of totalitarianism and an instrument of repression designed to hide and shield, and not to illuminate and inform. Control broadcasting and you control the political agenda. Where do revolutionaries go first after they've captured or killed the head of state? Sometimes they go to the airport, but mostly to the radio and television stations. Control the flow of information and you control the population.

These principles are equally applicable where the revolution is peaceful and the outcome benign. In the United Kingdom it is arguable that the institution that has had most influence over the nation in the 20th century is the British Broadcasting Corporation. It no longer enjoys the monopoly it once did, and technological advance has opened it to competition from all directions, from inside and outside the borders of Great Britain. But it is by the standards of the BBC that all others are judged. And these standards have been characterised by a determination to maintain unremitting scrutiny of the executive and of elected parliamentary representatives.

Governments do not like it - the relationship is abrasive, sometimes to the point of breakdown. Governments want to manage news, not be obliged to explain themselves. Legislators want to be flattered by coverage, not embarrassed by exposure. The broadcasters must not become the defenders of the venal, the corrupt or the inefficient.

When political broadcasters become part of the management of government, or the burnishing of its image, they have failed. There is no substitute for courage in broadcasting.

The best political broadcasters are those who fear no one in the quest for truth. Nor should governments or legislators allow themselves to be seduced into believing that control of broadcasting necessarily brings credibility. They too need courage - to encourage and sustain an environment in which independence flourishes and the powerful are obliged to answer for their actions before the widest audience that broadcasting will allow.

Independence in broadcasting does not merely keep executives and legislators under scrutiny, it underpins the very democratic system itself. The checks and balances of a democratic system are often finely tuned, but I have no doubt that independent broadcasting provides the glue which binds such a system together.

Democracy requires the confidence of the people. Independent and vigorous political broadcasting provides the information upon which that confidence can be firmly based.