Susie Rushton: Why I feel let down by interviewers who let the powerful get off so lightly

Notebook: Media-trained by advisers and protected by publicists, public figures and politicians are rarely caught out

Share

When was the last time you saw or heard a broadcast interview that really drew revealing answers from a politician? Mike Wallace, the CBS broadcaster who died at the weekend aged 93, was one of the first in America to perfect the "hard-hitting" interview, in the 1950s – often with a smoking Parliament cigarette in his hand (the brand sponsored his show) that would irritate subjects almost as much as his forensic questioning.

Over a long career – most famously on 60 Minutes – Wallace grilled everybody from Yasser Arafat and the Ayatollah Khomeini to Ronald Reagan and Aldous Huxley. Previously, TV interviews had been decorous affairs that rarely asked challenging questions. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s Wallace and his counterpart in Britain, the former politician John Freeman, used extreme close-ups and a relentless, aggressive style that elicited startlingly honest answers. They were granted interviews that sometimes lasted as long as 30 minutes. In Britain for the past 50 years we have watched and heard our own hard-hitters like Sir Robin Day, Brian Walden and Jeremy Paxman. The aggressive, almost insulting, style remains the default mode for political interviewers of either gender. But somewhere along the way the forthright approach first perfected by Wallace has stopped working.

Media-trained by advisers and protected by publicists, public figures and politicians are rarely caught out. They are able to choose "friendly" broadcasters; pathetically, these days we're more likely to see a major political leader on The One Show sofa than risking a Wallace-style face-to-face encounter.

If they do appear on Today or Newsnight, the interview slots are now so brief that the interrogative approach is made even more unbearable: a five-minute slot with questions asked by Jim Naughtie often reveals little more than his own views.

As a listener and viewer, I feel let down. Even in a new-media age where we have more "direct" communication from public figures via Twitter I think we still want to witness revealing question-and-answer encounters that put a subject under pressure; a season of classic interviews this spring on BBC Four was an enjoyable reminder of the great encounters of the last sixty years. Are we now stuck in a stalemate?

It was Naughtie's Today programme colleague Evan Davis who last week suggested in this newspaper that his more "conversational" style of interview might be more palatable than the Paxman approach. Davis's voice always sounds gentle but you can be sure he is as thoroughly briefed as Mike Wallace ever was. Also wearing velvet gloves on his iron fist is PM presenter Eddie Mair, whose fans enjoy his charming, yet persistent, line of questioning.

Mike Wallace helped shape the modern television interview sixty years ago. But the power struggle between questioner and subject has changed beyond recognition. Programme editors, give us longer interviews. And interviewers, try going softly-softly – but with a secret strength.

No heroes with my pizza, please

Over the years I've learnt how to extract information from a press release without having to read every word of jargonspeak. But certain linguistic trends can't easily be ignored. Most grating of late has been the "hero product", meaning the product in a range that best represents it.

Now the usage has escaped my inbox and is rampaging in the outside world. Worse, it has mutated into a verb. Waiting in Pizza Express, I browsed the menu. The pizzas, "have a crispy base, which heroes the delicious toppings," it burbled. Please, in the words of The Stranglers, no more heroes.

s.rushton@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own