Ask no questions, you get no lies

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The Independent Online
A bit of an scoop today - an exclusive, in-depth, revealing interview with none other than Mr John Birt! Me: Mr Birt, one of the many things that you criticised in the media was the tendency for interviewers to ask overbearing questions. To adopt an overly bullying and aggressive manner.

Birt: Well... Me: Excuse me, but I haven't asked you a question yet.

Birt: I'm sorry.

Me: Surely you must realise that the only reason that someone like Jeremy Paxman adopts the tone of a well-born Spanish inquisitor is that he knows that the subject of the interview will try to give the answer to another question?

Birt: Indeed.

Me: The technique of the politician is delightful to behold. When asked a question he does not wish to answer, he will say something like, "Well, I think the question we really have to ask ourselves is this...", or even, "Before I answer that, may I just

say this?"

Birt: On the other hand... Me: But the true response of the interviewer to this is not, as you say, to become a bully. You have got it quite wrong there. The Jeremy Paxmans of this world have adopted a totally different strategy. Knowing that their interviewee will not answer the question, they answer it for them. May I give you an example?

Birt: If... Me: Let us say that Paxman has got some Tory toad in the studio who is attempting to defend the Government's railway privatisation. Paxman has studied the whole business and has concluded that it will leave our rail system mutilated and bleeding to death. He also knows that no Tory will admit this on air. So what does he do?

Birt: He... Me: He says: "Mr MacWobbly, most experts who have studied your railway scheme have concluded that it will leave our rail network mutilated and bleeding to death. What do you have to say to this consensus among the authorities?"

Then he leans back for the rest of the encounter and makes it clear by his faint, cynical smile that the only truthful part of the interview has just taken place.

In fact, I am reminded of something that HL Mencken wrote in 1934, when encouraged by a correspondent to consider writing a biography. He wrote back: "If I ever do a biography, it will probably be one of Pontius Pilate - my favourite character in history. He is the only really honest man mentioned in the New Testament."

Birt: I really don't see what that has got to do with... Me: Then let me explain. You have complained that modern interviewers are turning politics into an adversarial soap opera long before the media came along. You ignore the fact that nobody in public

life is capable of telling the truth any more, or even of using an honest argument. May I give you an example?

Birt: Yes, but... Me: If you will just let me finish what I am saying, Mr Birt, just give me a chance to put my side of the case. Now, you regularly hear Tory ministers criticised for leaping into highly paid jobs straight from the Cabinet, often with the firms they have been dealing with.

This is often defended by fellow Tories with the argument that it is good for MPs to have outside interests and to live in the real world. But this is totally irrelevant to the accusation! Going into the City after a stretch in the Cabinet is not quite the same as an MP having an outside interest, is it?

Birt: No, but... Me: Another example. When heads of national corporations get huge pay rises and millions of pounds worth of share options, the usual defence is that to get the best man, you have to pay good money.

Birt: Yes... Me: You yourself have not been exempt from this sort of thing...

Birt: No, I... Me: But the argument simply doesn't hold water. After all, the man is already in the post. He was lured there by less money. Why is he now getting a golden pat on the back? And why don't any modern interviewers spot this dishonesty?

Birt: It may be... Me: I'll tell you why. It's because they're too busy thinking of the next question. Well, I'll tell you what's wrong with modern interviewing. Too many questions. Not too much aggression, just too many questions. In my view there should be no questions at all.

Birt: No questions in an interview?

Me: Mr Birt, thank you very much.