James Naughtie: Tricks of the radio interview

From the Gresham Docklands lecture by the 'Today' programme presenter
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Twenty five years ago there were a small number of programmes on which a politician would expect to face sustained interrogation, there were the giants of current affairs - on Panorama and Weekend World - and when Robin Day came to The World at One at the end of the Seventies he restored the bite and verve of the William Hardcastle era. But the Today programme until the Eighties was a gentle affair, in which Monty Modlin tootling around Billingsgate with fish prices seemed as important as the appearance of a Cabinet minister. All that changed in the Eighties. The vigour of the politics of Thatcherism played its part; and of course there was a proliferation of broadcasting outlets and programmes, all trying to get the big interview, the first revelation, the blunder that would spell the end of a career.

And naturally, politicians learned the tricks of the trade, I hope we did too. If someone tries deliberately not to answer a question, by simply regurgitating a prepared answer to something else, the best way to deal with it is simply to repeat the question. We have to operate on the basis that most of our listeners are sentient beings who like the radio because they know it can expose a fake: it's one of the things it does best.

Our job is to leave any politics we may have outside the studio door and feelings we have should never play a part; the far more difficult thing - and I know my fellow presenters agree with this - is when you have a natural sympathy for the predicament somebody is in, either because they've messed up an interview, or they're on their last political legs. That's much more difficult than confronting someone whom you may (privately) believe to be right. If they are right they should be able to take the toughest questions you can throw at them.

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