Why soft-sofa interviews make political sense

Robert Hanks
Wednesday 07 July 2004 00:00
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In recent months, the Today programme on Radio 4 has found a new catchphrase: the morning is hardly complete without John Humphrys uttering the words: "No minister was available to talk to us." Yesterday afternoon, though, Tony Blair did find a fair-sized gap in his schedule to squeeze in an interview with Steve Wright for his afternoon show on Radio 2. Meanwhile, over on ITV's This Morning, Michael and Sandra Howard were being massaged and purred over by Fern Britton and Philip Schofield. Where once politicians queued up to put their points across on the hard news programmes, now they are increasingly likely to plump for soft furnishings and softer questions.

In recent months, the Today programme on Radio 4 has found a new catchphrase: the morning is hardly complete without John Humphrys uttering the words: "No minister was available to talk to us." Yesterday afternoon, though, Tony Blair did find a fair-sized gap in his schedule to squeeze in an interview with Steve Wright for his afternoon show on Radio 2. Meanwhile, over on ITV's This Morning, Michael and Sandra Howard were being massaged and purred over by Fern Britton and Philip Schofield. Where once politicians queued up to put their points across on the hard news programmes, now they are increasingly likely to plump for soft furnishings and softer questions.

The reasons for this aren't hard to see. At a time when the public is registering unprecedented levels of mistrust towards politicians, who wants to be seen squirming as Paxman puts the same question 14 times, when they could be seen sitting with their lovely wife, registering their credentials as a reliable family man, and being allowed to answer questions without interruption and to tell funny stories?

But the apparently soft interview has its hazards: for one thing, it tempts the unwary to let themselves go in a way they never would in front of Paxman. It was in conversation with Des O'Connor in 1996 that Tony Blair told a yarn about running away from school and smuggling himself aboard a flight to the Bahamas at Newcastle Airport - an anecdote subsequently greeted with blank amazement by Mr Blair's father and the authorities at Newcastle Airport, which has never had a direct flight to the Bahamas. And it is not always possible to control context. Mr Blair's pre-recorded interview with Steve Wright yesterday was broadcast in chunks, interspersed with golden oldies; after all those years playing on his rock'n'roll past, the Britpop parties and the knighthood for Mick Jagger, he suddenly found himself sharing airtime with Toto and Hazel O'Connor.

There were no such traps awaiting the Howards when they ventured on to This Morning for Mrs Howard's first ever broadcast interview: indeed, the main danger for them was that potential voters would suffer nausea and hypoglycaemia as a result of Britton and Schofield's sycophantic approach. "We're so unused to having a British politician with a beautiful and a very supportive and a big positive, er, person to have by your side," was Britton's opening thrust: "We're used to this in American politics, but this is quite a first for us." Well, that's Cherie put in her place, then.

In the face of this onslaught, Mrs Howard - clearly uncomfortable in front of the cameras - kept smiling, while Mr Howard uttered repeated assurances that he knew just how lucky he was to have her and that their marriage was far more important than politics. A couple of awkwardish questions were slung Mrs Howard's way - invited to criticise Cherie Booth for combining child-rearing with a career, she demurred, expressing only admiration. The whole event was revolting; but, undeniably, the spectacle of Mr Howard sitting their grinning uxoriously did a great deal to dispel the old "Something of the Night" caricature.

By comparison with this, Steve Wright's interview, though hardly Humphrysesque or even Jimmy Youngesque, was hard-hitting stuff - at one point, Wright even directly contradicted the Prime Minster when he stated that pensioners were better off under Labour. But for the most part, Mr Blair got the chance to make his case without interruption. Relieved of the customary pressures of interview, he didn't have much trouble coming across as a pretty decent kind of guy.

Is the political process well served by such a deferential approach to interviews? Perhaps not: but the politicians are. We'll be hearing a lot more of this sort of thing.

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