Media: With respect, I was a nice Day: Sir Robin tells Lisa O'Kelly why today's TV interviewers annoy him
Wednesday 24 March 1993
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.
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