Sarcasm, charm and flirtation are all valuable – and equal – weapons for the media interviewer

They’re all flirts: trying to get closer with an ulterior motive in mind

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Jeremy Paxman sat back in his chair, the better to show off his manly torso, and crossed his legs, revealing a teasing hint  of ankle and Paul Smith sock. The studio lights bounced off his silver mane, giving him the air of something not quite mortal. Then, with a laconic jerk of an eyebrow, a sultry curl of his lip, he purred, “You all right, Ed?”

That might not be how you remember the leadership interviews on The Battle for Number 10 playing out. You may not have taken note of Paxman’s charming smile at the end of his superb grilling of David Cameron, but it was there. You almost certainly won’t have noticed what he was wearing – given that it was a dark suit all but indistinguishable from the dark suits worn by the two men he was interviewing. I doubt you paid much attention to his legs. The focus was on his questions and the answers given by Miliband and Cameron.

That is how it should be, but it is not how another pre-election interview played out. Susanna Reid’s encounter with Cameron on Good Morning Britain was largely reported as a flirt-fest, with much attention paid to her pen-nibbling and lower legs. There were too many questions, perhaps, on child care (his own arrangements, not benefits) and Shaun the Sheep, and the set-up – at home with the PM – was cosy rather than confrontational. But Reid asked questions and got answers. The usual transaction – only she made the mistake of wearing a nice dress and having a pretty face and legs. These can be fatal distractions for some.

This week, Reid expressed her exasperation at being branded a flirt at work. “Wearing a dress and chewing a pen is interpreted as something else. It’s frustrating – I’m a professional interviewer. My job is to get the absolute best out of people. To have it described in a different way feels a bit like, ‘Come on, really?’”

She does not choose which dress to wear, she added, which seems a bit strange for a grown-up, but breakfast television is a bit strange. When Good Morning Britain launched last year, there was a minor furore over the fact that Reid was behind a desk, legs hidden. The producers reverted to the traditional sofa, with its knee-displaying properties and potential for knicker flashing.

Reid has a very particular role that requires a certain level of perkiness and presentation. The job involves her interviewing a world leader one minute and a reality-television star the next, then coming off air to a social-media feed filled with lewd comments and news on her latest ranking in FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women poll. That doesn’t happen to Paxman.

It is a bit daft to compare the two: they are delivering different products, for different audiences. But while Paxman’s gimlet-eyed grilling looks the opposite of Reid’s doe-eyed soft-soaping, they are doing the same thing, like every other interviewer worth the title.

They are all trying to trip their subjects up, winkle something out that they would prefer to keep hidden. They are all flirting, if flirting means pretending to be interested in the person they are talking to, trying to get closer with an ulterior motive in mind. Setting someone on edge or putting them at their ease are equally valid techniques, though you would never know it. Reid using “womanly wiles” to seduce Cameron into a rogue soundbite is frowned upon, but Paxman going in, macho guns blazing, is praised. “Manly wiles” isn’t even a phrase.

Interviewing is a dark art. We print journalists are fortunate that the tricks we use – the breaking-the-ice chat, the interested mmms, the laughter, the deathly silence after a tricky question, the faux ignorance – are heard only by us, as we listen back to the Dictaphone.

It is a two-way game, of course, and PR is arguably an even darker art. Subjects want to promote something or themselves, interviewers want them to talk about the things they shouldn’t. It’s a dance and every interviewer has his or her distinctive steps. Where David Dimbleby employs the sage twinkle, Kay Burley prefers the hammer. Where James Landale goes schoolboy chumminess, Graham Norton has the campy tease, Jonathan Ross overwhelming flattery and so on. It’s the questions that really matter; the delivery merely helps them along. Nibble a pen or ask the same thing 12 times – all’s fair in Q&As.

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