Media: With respect, I was a nice Day: Sir Robin tells Lisa O'Kelly why today's TV interviewers annoy him

SIR Robin Day would like to make one thing clear. He never intended to be sensational. Nor did he ever, throughout his long career as a television interviewer, aim to get up anyone's nose.

Coming from the man whose abrasive line in questioning has infuriated politicians for more than three decades - leading one cabinet minister, John Nott, to storm out in a rage and provoking Margaret Thatcher to refer ostentatiously to him as Mr Day soon after she knighted him - this is a little hard to believe, but he insists it is true: 'I've always sought to be quiet, restrained and self-effacing.'

. . . But With Respect, a new collection of transcripts of his interviews with statesmen and parliamentarians spanning 35 years, demonstrates that Sir Robin is not merely being ironic.

'The book shows that I was positively unctuous compared to the way some chaps do it these days, and especially compared to the way MPs address each other in televised sessions of Parliament,' he says with a guffaw.

Indeed it does. Reading his famous early interviews with President Nasser, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-

Home, it is hard to see now what anyone - even the subject - could possibly have found to object to.

Perhaps, Sir Robin suggests, it was the fact that he was asking questions at all in those deferential times when - until he came on the scene at the fledgling ITN - TV interviewers merely played pat-ball with prime ministers and it was thought impertinent for a mere broadcaster to demand answers from a head of state.

'Newspaper cuttings from the time of my interview with Douglas-Home refer to it as a bitter, corrosive haranguing of the sort we could not allow our politicians to be subjected to, but when you read it, it is nothing of the kind,' says Sir Robin. 'It is simply quite an efficient interview, with 40 questions in 20 minutes.'

He is speaking over lunch at Orso, his favourite Italian restaurant in Covent Garden (Sir Robin only ever does interviews over lunch, his book publicist explained), where he gladhands fellow broadcasters such as Channel 4's Jon Snow and appears to relish playing the role of the elder statesman of TV.

'The interesting thing is, you would never have got in 40 questions with Thatcher and Kinnock,' he muses. He blames both the former Conservative and Labour leaders for devaluing the currency of the political interview during the Eighties by developing a steamroller technique that diluted the interviewer's power.

'They were determined to turn it into a platform of their own, and treated the interviewers' questions as tiresome interruptions to their monologues.'

Today even the humblest backbencher uses this approach and interviewers in the Day mould, such as Jeremy Paxman and Jon Snow, make no bones about the fact that they find their subjects' evasiveness hard to staunch.

While he sympathises, Sir Robin 'shudders to see younger interviewers being rude and offensive, using the 'come off it' approach. I actually heard an interviewer telling a politician to come clean the other day. If the interviewer thinks a politician is telling a lie he should ask questions which show as much and let the viewer judge. It doesn't advance his case by resorting to 'Come clean'.'

He has only been tempted to do so once himself, on The World at One, when he told a 'particularly impossible' Roy Hattersley to 'chuck it'.

This does not mean Sir Robin advocates going to the opposite extreme because, while his interviews may not have been quite as hectoring as they are remembered, they were certainly far from the emollient, be-nice-to-them technique favoured by David Frost and sundry presenters on every morning show apart from Channel 4's anarchic The Big Breakfast.

Questions should be concise and to the point, Sir Robin feels. He is no fan of the long, hypothetical posers favoured by, say, Brian Walden. 'His questions do go on a bit. Not only that, but his style is to make a proposition, put it to the person and make them go round and round. So you end up with something like a seminar, intellectually quite satisfying and sometimes brilliant, but often not.'

Anyway, he says, the purpose of a political interview is not to have two people holding a brilliant talk, but 'to give the public answers to the questions they would not normally have the opportunity to ask'.

That was also the aim of Question Time, the temporary filler which turned into a BBC 1 current affairs flagship. Sir Robin stamped his inimitable style on the show during his 10 years as host and now admits that he regrets having stepped down when he did in 1989.

He feels the BBC has 'handled Question Time badly' since his replacement by Peter Sissons. 'I couldn't have made it work either with some of the people they have on - they are pretty dreary. It only works with skilful gladiators, and the pressure was always to bring in new people. I was against new people for the sake of it. I wanted people who were good at their jobs and could deal well with an argument about nuclear weapons.'

He refuses to pin the blame on the much-criticised Sissons, saying he is 'an able fellow - people say he is humourless, but you're too young to remember how they used to say the same about me'.

The way for the BBC to revitalise Question Time, Sir Robin says, is to make it a properly political programme, with heavyweight guests from the political mainstream - no 'new people'.

As for the set-piece interview, he does not believe it has to become a thing of the past. If interviewers follow the 10-point code in the introduction to . . . But With Respect, the value of televised political interviews as an instrument of democratic scrutiny will be enhanced, he believes: 'I first wrote the code for myself in 1961 and make no apology for reprinting it.'

Perhaps the most important of his commandments, he feels, is the tenth: '(The interviewer) should remember that (he) is not employed as a debater, prosecutor, inquisitor, psychiatrist or third-degree expert, but as a journalist seeking information on behalf of the viewer.'

Has he stuck to this, and the other nine? 'That's for the viewer to judge,' he chuckles.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Database Executive - Leading Events Marketing Company - London

£23000 - £25000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Databas...

Recruitment Genius: Publishing Assistant

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

Guru Careers: Print Project Manager

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A Print Project Manager is needed to join one...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk