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.Reuse content