We need more than Rotters and Softies

Political TV shows would benefit from a more varied style of interviewing in the run-up to the election, says Andrew Neil
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The Independent Online

Political interviewing styles in Britain have narrowed over the years to just two discernible techniques: "The Rottweiler" (as purveyed by John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman) and "The Softy" (think Jeremy Vine and David Frost).

Political interviewing styles in Britain have narrowed over the years to just two discernible techniques: "The Rottweiler" (as purveyed by John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman) and "The Softy" (think Jeremy Vine and David Frost).

British political interviews are tougher than most in the democratic world (an essential feature of our disputatious democracy of which we should be proud), but we could do with a little bit more light and shade, change of pace - in a word, more variety.

The Americans are short of Rottweilers and sometimes show their politicians too much deference, which is strange in the land of the self-made and undeferential. When US broadcasters interview a senator or (rarely) the President, they don't give them nearly as hard a time as we would. Perhaps it's because they have so much reverence for their politicians. The US President is not only the country's top politician, he is also the head of state. There are only 100 senators in a vast country and they are regarded as very important to the lifeblood of American democracy.

Look at The West Wing. The NBC show holds up the American political process, warts and all, as being the greatest democratic experiment the world has ever known. If anybody broadcast a programme like that about British politics, we would snigger at it. Our nearest equivalent, Yes, Minister, was much more an accurate satire on the political process. Perhaps we're too robust and argumentative, and the Americans too deferential. But at least the Americans have variety.

Turn on the television in the US and you will find a greater diversity of political programming, whether it's Jim Lehrer nightly on PBS, Diane Sawyer or Charles Gibson on ABC News, or Jay Leno and David Letterman (yes, they do politics, too).

In Britain we've become a bit hidebound. We don't do enough interviews where the main intention is not to have an argument - or a clash of egos - but to glean information for the viewer or listener, who are sometimes seen as irrelevant to the process.

We could learn something from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They don't do either Rottweiler or Softy. He and his team simply ask questions designed to elicit hard information. "What exactly do you mean by that?"; "Could you explain in more detail what you are saying?"; "How do you reconcile that with that?". Lehrer and Co don't argue much with the answers. They leave the public to decide on their veracity. They are trying to draw out information rather than score points or clash in debate. We could do with more of this on British television.

On my programme, BBC2's The Daily Politics, the Rottweiler is often let off the leash. Sometimes it holds a politician to account; sometimes it generates more heat than light. The Softy is also wheeled out for retrospective interviews with veterans like Denis Healey or Geoffrey Howe, who come along to reminisce about what happened "On This Day" many years ago. But mostly we try to elicit information - and our viewers seem to like that, if the e-mails and text messages we receive are anything to go by.

I know from my own experience that the viewer is often put off by too much argy-bargy. On The Daily Politics we get immediate e-mails from our viewers (something which doesn't happen with other mainstream political shows), and we know when we've got it wrong or set the wrong tone. Sometimes, when the Rottweiler is roaming the studio savaging whichever politician he can find, the e-mails are pretty united. "You interrupted too much"; "You didn't give them a chance to speak"; "We wanted to find out more rather than watching an argument".

Of course there are times when the Rottweiler is regarded as a guardian of democracy, as when I recently interrogated the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, on why Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were not going to be subject to an anti-terrorist house arrest control order. The viewers loved watching him squirm. But other times you just get it wrong.

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed the Labour MP Dr Howard Stoate about the Mental Health Act. Around 40 people a year are killed by mental health patients who are let out when they shouldn't be. But Dr Stoate's Commons committee had concluded that we should pay still more attention to the civil liberties of such patients. So I went for him. But Dr Stoate played an admirably straight and reasonable bat, and my approach was neither illuminating nor particularly edifying, as the viewers let me know (though I suspect the mental health lobby was e-mailing us like fury!).

Perhaps we'd have more variety in interviewing if we had more formats for political shows. There have been almost no new ideas in British political programming for 20 years, until The Daily Politics, BBC1's This Week (which I present with regular guests Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo) and Channel 4's Morgan and Platell came along, although none is a really radical departure and the two I do are on the periphery of the schedules.

The more established programmes - BBC TV's Breakfast with Frost; Question Time; The Politics Show; Radio 4's Any Questions; A Week at Westminster; Sky's Sunday With Adam Boulton - are all formats that are as old as the hills. This lack of new ideas explains why political programmes struggle to find new audiences.

Yet it is worth the effort. We've made a real attempt to be different with This Week, getting away from the usual party-line confrontations, and it's paid dividends. We regularly get over 1 million viewers, an 18 per cent audience share that is not bad for a very late-night show in the multi-channel age.

Part of the problem is that political interviewing in Britain pretends that there are, at best, only three parties. So programmes largely missed the Green revolution of the Eighties, the regional revolution of the Nineties and the UKIP advances of the Noughties. In all there will be more than 290 parties contesting the elections in a few weeks time. Admittedly, 40 per cent of these are single-issue; but you wouldn't have a clue at this rich variety of options even if you watched all the main channels all the time.

The Daily Politics (with its "Just a Minute" slot on 20 of the other parties in the election) will try in a small way to address this by devoting air time to the BNP on the right, to anti-war candidates on the left and to some of the single-issue campaigners who are striking a chord in their communities.

It is difficult to be too radical, though, during an election campaign, when strict broadcasting rules that were originally designed to ensure fair play often reduce discussion to mere tribal positioning from the parties. To conform with our obligations, producers stand with stopwatches to ensure that the same amount of time is allocated to Labour and the Tories, with a smaller proportion going to the Lib Dems. Broadcasters take this seriously because we know the parties are doing the same, and are not slow to complain if they believe they have been short-changed by even a few seconds.

This is all very fair and democratic, but it hardly makes for ground-breaking TV. The rules say that we must represent all sides in the election when actually we should be representing only one: the viewer. If that means exploring a polemic or one position more thoroughly than another, so be it. If it means upsetting the parties from time to time because we haven't included their increasingly meaningless sound-bite in our coverage, so be it. The huge number of TV channels now available in Britain means we should have moved beyond rules designed in the Fifties. It is time for a change.

Andrew Neil presents of 'The Daily Politics', five days a week from today. It is on BBC 2 at 12 noon every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and at 11am every Wednesday. He also hosts 'This Week', which during the election campaign will broadcast on BBC 1 on Mondays and Thursdays at 11.35pm

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