Politicians ‘relish’ aggressive interviews, says Today's John Humphrys

Newsnight editor Ian Katz has said that that audiences would benefit if politicians were given 'more space' by interviewers

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The Independent Online

John Humphrys has rejected the views of BBC colleagues who think broadcast political interviews have become too aggressive, claiming that politicians are “fighters” who “relish” confrontation.

The Today programme host refuted the idea – put forward by Newsnight editor Ian Katz – that audiences would benefit if politicians were given “more space” by interviewers.

“The message I get from [listeners] is that they are distinctly unenthusiastic about the idea that we engage conversationally,” said Humphrys. “If anything I suspect people want more persistence.”

Katz, in comments marking the departure from Newsnight of Jeremy Paxman and his replacement by the less-confrontational Evan Davis, claimed the political interview was badly served by “the predominance of an aggressive style characterised by the dictum ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’”

Davis has also suggested that politician and interviewers had reached an impasse. “We are locked into the low road,” he said in a lecture on adversarial journalism this year.

But Humphrys said he believed politicians enjoyed being “pushed quite hard”  in interviews.

“I don’t know of any politician – a serious politician in a serious interview – who doesn’t want to be pressed,” he said. “Politicians are fighters, without exception, that’s what they do. You don’t get to be an MP, let alone a cabinet minister, unless you are tough and willing to fight your corner. There isn’t a single politician out there who isn’t capable of engaging in this sort of combat and relishing it, otherwise you wouldn’t stay in the job.”

Although he argued that it was “silly” for an interviewer to engage in “naked aggression for the point of showing off”, he said he never did that.

Astute politicians were not distressed by bullying questioning but saw it as an opportunity to score points, he said.

“I don’t think they mind being bullied because the clever ones will take advantage of that and point it out to the audience that that’s what you are doing.”

Humphrys, who appears at Monday’s Radio Festival in Salford,  suggested that Newsnight was adopting a different style in order to attract more high-profile guests. But he warned the BBC2 show against adopting the soft interview tactics of his one-time BBC rival Sir David Frost in the 1990s when Humphrys presented On The Record and Sir David hosted Breakfast with Frost.

“David took the view that you got the best out of people by being very gentle and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t,” he said.

“Clearly Ian is worried that they haven’t been getting the big names, the senior politicians when they have needed them. But if the price is that you then go easy on them – and that was the price when David Frost was doing his programme – then I think it’s too high a price. ”

Newsnight’s audience has risen nearly 4 per cent since the Davis arrived at the end of last month. The flagship BBC2 current-affairs show has had an average rating of 579,000, compared to 558,000 in the three-month period before he started, when it was hosted by a variety of presenters.

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