Let's talk it over: Reviving the broadcast interview

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The broadcast interview has become a home for bland celebrity banter. Ian Burrell reports on the BBC's attempts to revive the art of TV interrogation

It's time for interviewers to do a little self-questioning.

With Piers Morgan installed on CNN as "the new Larry King" and the BBC sheepishly parting company with its gaffe-prone chat show host Jonathan Ross, the interview discipline is struggling to retain its sense of gravitas.

Long gone are the days when vast audiences would assemble to watch or listen to the great match-ups. Sir David Frost, hurling away his clipboard in an effort to get disgraced former President Richard Nixon to confess his sins; Michael Parkinson verbally sparring with Muhammad Ali; Melvyn Bragg empathising with a terminally ill Dennis Potter, months before the playwright's death.

In an era when the publicity agents of the rich and famous have an ever-greater grip on the way their clients' stories are told, the broadcast interview is rarely what it is intended to be: an open conversation in public. Modern-day audiences have come to understand this and have learnt to try to read between the lines, unspinning and decoding the answers of interviewees for themselves.

It's hardly satisfactory, and the BBC has acknowledged that things can be improved by planning a season called The Art of the Interview, which will run throughout this year. Organised by the BBC Academy's College of Journalism, it will aim to improve the skills of the corporation's journalists by featuring masterclasses and workshops from key exponents of the interview, such as Evan Davis, Justin Webb, Libby Purves, Mark Lawson, Jane Corbin and Huw Edwards.

Some events will be open to the public, while other classes will be made available on the college's website in an effort to give audiences a greater insight into the hidden dynamics of the interview process.

According to Libby Purves, who has interviewed guests on Radio 4's Midweek for 27 years, the chat show interviews of Morgan and Ross amount to "showbiz rather than journalism". "I am not there to make them cry, I am not Piers Morgan, I will ease them off to a subject they are more comfortable talking about," she says. "Graham Norton is frightfully amusing but you don't really expect him to get anything new out of anybody – it's a comedy show and the guests are often there as straight men. Or it's a flattery – 'Aren't we all celebs together?' – Jonathan Ross thing."

Her message to those attending her workshop will be simple. "Listen to the answers, be interested, ask the things that people will want to know and remember it's not about you, it's not a vehicle for showing off."

A "triumph" on Midweek would not be reducing a guest to tears (no matter how that might generate publicity for the programme), but causing them to stop and think. David Attenborough, shortly after losing his wife, was moved to such reflection when Purves asked him if he found the study of wildlife consoling. "He talked about the flight of geese and continuity and eternity and it was a very moving moment but I hadn't planned that – it wasn't written down in front of me in my notes."

An experienced print journalist, she notes that broadcasters do not enjoy the luxuries that writers have for "the amateur psychoanalysis shtick, because the person is not there to contradict you" or commenting on the interviewee's decor, "that dreadful business of interviewing the curtains".

Purves says it is part of her job to make her interviewees feel comfortable and assure them that "there's never going to be an awful yawning silence that it's their responsibility to fill". But she says that modern listeners are more wary of deference. "There is almost nobody who cannot have the mick taken out of them just slightly."

Mark Lawson, who does hour-long interviews for BBC4 and presents Front Row for Radio 4, says that, in his experience, interviews do not end with the sense of triumph depicted in the film Frost/Nixon. "Most interviews will fail in some way. I do hundreds every year and you always come away wishing you had more time or that you had said something else."

As a consequence, he will bill his workshops as "disaster classes" – though he argues that he was pleased with his spat with Russell Crowe over his observation that the Australian actor's accent in the film Robin Hood had "hints of Irish". "Some people saw it as an interview going wrong, I saw it as an interview going right," he says.

The context to that exchange was Lawson being called back four times – over seven-and-a-half hours – to Crowe's interview junket at London's Dorchester Hotel, before finally being given an audience. "We were both in quite a bad mood and that's what led to what happened," he says.

There's a message there to publicists. Lawson often has to work in a six-minute slot with a Hollywood star as a flunkey sits in holding a stopwatch, and was recently told by a subject that he was the 72nd person to interview him that day. Preparing a lengthy interview with a pop star, he was warned off from asking personal questions, only to be told "Don't take any notice of that" by his interviewee. "I find it's increasingly common that PRs will want to put everything off-limits but the star doesn't actually want that. I think you have to be bloody-minded about that."

Lawson, who has a background in newspapers, says he insists on doing all his own research in order not to be tripped up by an interviewee. Vanessa Redgrave accused him of wrongly attributing a quote. "I was able to say, 'This is in your autobiography.' She said, 'You must have the British edition.'"

Justin Webb, a presenter on Radio 4's Today programme, says he has few secrets and doesn't prepare a list of questions, preferring a more fluid approach. "The only thing I tend to write down is their name, because I'm over 50," he says. "It sounds facile but you have to listen to what's said to you and the great interviewers pick up and move on in a direction the conversation has gone in."

Unfortunately, most interviewees are unwilling to go with the flow. "The slightly depressing side about interviewing politicians is that you come up against the need that they have to get a small and focused message across. The desire you have as an interviewer is to get them to reveal more about themselves and their wider plans but as soon as you begin to get on to wider issues they're often just not interested."

A veteran television journalist, he says that radio interviews should be superior to those in the visual medium, because both interviewer and interviewee need not worry "whether your eye is twitching or whether your hand is clasping and unclasping in a manner that makes you look like a mass murderer".

Webb, who recently conducted interviews with Tony Blair and Bill Gates in a single programme, thinks that the smarter interviewees have realised that modern audiences are unimpressed by responses that have clearly been rehearsed. "There was a time when people were incredibly well-trained for these things and it was getting very dull. In a way, we've come out the other side. There is a hunger for authenticity – possibly driven by the digital age and the ability of people to have their own say – and people have fallen out of love with corporate blandness," he says.

"The wisest, cleverest interviewees understand now that five minutes of smooth evasions isn't going to do the job – it looks a bit Eighties and I think we live in realer times."

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