Interviewers do more than ask the punters' questions

Trevor Phillips on journos and angels

Related Topics
This one is about journalists and their audiences; me and you. It is also about democracy. So let me start with an hommage to the columnists' favourite opening sentence, as immortalised by my Private Eye rival, Glenda Slag. Is it just me, or are the journalists becoming bigger than their stories?

Most reporters would recoil at the suggestion. The defenders of John Humphrys, under fire this week for bullying Harriet Harman on Today, repeat the standard mantra that interviewers merely ask the questions that the public would ask if they had the chance. This is fatuous. The public wants journalists, especially the premier division interrogators, to ask the questions that they themselves would never ask, either because they would not dare, or because they wouldn't think of them. If not, why not just fill the presenters' chairs at the Today programme, or Newsnight, by rot- ation of anyone who phones in?

The fact is that today's journalists are a different kettle of fish; they can be ranked in the same way as footballers, because interviewing is a rare skill. You can be born with the equipment - language, force of personality, a quick wit, but you have to train to be in the premier division with the Dimblebys, Paxman, Humphrys et al.

It is not only the political journalists who have been in the news. The tabloids have been full of pictures of the newest journalistic glamourpuss, Lauren Booth, who happens to be the Prime Minister's sister-in-law. More important, she has now become the latest addition to the roster at the London Evening Standard, where she is writing on lifestyle matters. In a sense she'll step into the shoes of the late Jeffrey Bernard, charting metropolitan comings and goings. She is too young to have a serious track record in debauchery, but anyone who can best the patron saint of loucheness himself, Alan Clark, must have something going for her. She clearly has some skills required by a journalist. She recently blagged Tube fare off a Big Issue seller; to be fair, she later recompensed him handsomely, but even so she must have the best part of the world's reserves of chutzpah. However, close as she is to the centre of power, Miss Booth is unlikely ever to be an essential component of our democracy.

On the other hand, there are star journos who increasingly play a role in informing the citizen of the true meaning of the public rhetoric of the politicians. The danger, of course, is that the messenger may obscure or mistranslate the message; but that is why we have a range of media with different kinds of voices. Two of the most important have been in the news themselves this week, and they could not be more different.

John Humphrys was pilloried for his now trademark interruptions of Harriet Harman on the Today programme; Richard Littlejohn, who has now flown back to The Sun, is reputedly about to trouser nearly a million smackeroos a year for his column and TV appearances. I don't know Humphrys; I do know Littlejohn well, having introduced him to television and produced his first, successful, series on terrestrial TV. Both men are successful for one reason: they make waves in public life. They force debate to take place.

You may be dismayed by Humphrys' style, but you are grateful that it unsettles politicians of all kinds. You may be appalled by Littlejohn's no-nonsense summing up of some debates - on a proposal to raise the age at which cigarettes can be bought, he observed that it meant that you could be "buggered" at 16 yet couldn't have a fag afterwards - but his ability to test the arguments of our rulers to near destruction would be welcome in the House of Commons.

Are the journos getting too big for their boots? Probably. But it is not their fault. The arcane rules of our political game now mean that every politician has to line up with the party whips and avoid raising anything which might take MPs "off message". For example, no Tory could go very far in attacking Lord Simon over his alleged conflict of interest, or quizzing the Paymaster-General too roughly about his offshore arrangements, for fear of laying his own troops to waste, since they too have probably followed exactly the same procedures over the past 20 or so years. No new Labour MP can safely scrutinise Ministers' actions without having the withering charge of disloyalty deployed. Thus scrutiny is left to the media. This is a sad state of affairs, both for the politicians and for the reporters.

For the politicians, the fact that most of the pressure on the Government to reveal itself is coming from the scribblers, give or take the odd blast from a Select Committee, is an embarrassment; what are we paying them for, if not to scrutinise the performance of the executive? For the journalists, the public's desire for interviewers constantly to scrap with their subjects leads to an unpleasant carping tone in our business; and quarrelsomeness, valuable as it may be, is not analysis. In the end, the skilful politician can always defeat his interrogator by a mixture of bluster and bonhomie.

Had Richard bothered to read my column a couple of weeks back, appealing to the Christmas decoration manufacturers to produce black angels, I imagine it would have been meat and drink to him; but thank you to all of you who sent cards with black (and nearly-black) angels. In particular, Amnesty International produced cards which satisfied even me. And for those who recognise that this is a season of something-or-other for more than one faith, my colleague Julia came up with a card showing Santa embracing an orthodox rabbi. Maybe this diversity thing will catch hold. Whatever you're marking this week, enjoy.

React Now

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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media  

The response to my Pizza Express review has been overwhelming, and taught me a lot about journalism

Holly Aston
3 Donatella Versace and Audrey  

Errors and Omissions: We were having a blond moment – maybe two

John Rentoul
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week