The set-piece political interview is a great spectacle, argues Beth Moore.
When Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question twelve times in succession in 1997 he was by his own admission ‘on to something’. Despite the fact that the next feature had collapsed and Paxman later claimed he ‘couldn’t think of anything else to ask’, the blueprint for a particular form of political journalism was defined in that moment. The Home Secretary with his three key messages loaded and ready to fire was destroyed by Paxman’s tactics. Head of BBC Newsroom, and former Newsnight Editor, Peter Horrocks, nominated the Paxman / Howard interview as “one of the toughest political interviews ever conducted,” claiming it “is still seen as riveting political theatre.”
Yet, in an era when voting figures in Britain are the lowest they have been for a century (that was before women got the vote!), and the public have a sceptical and cynical view of politicians, is it appropriate that political journalism should be defined as a form of theatre?
Perhaps it is not a matter of being appropriate so much as it is about competition. As consumer choice in media outlets increases, channels have to work harder to retain their audience stake. The media academic David Buckingham believes that this has led to the tabloidisation of news programmes, where tabloid methodologies of spectacle and celebrity culture are adopted to secure audience figures. This is an understandable response by the media. And whilst it is questionable how much Paxman’s political standoffs contribute to the political debate, it is certain that he is one of the few political journalists with celebrity status.
Such is his fame that he was invited to address the Edinburgh Television Festival – the most prestigious industry event in the annual calendar – in August last year. Love or loathe the man, Paxman is respected by his peers and has become synonymous with Newsnight’s success.
‘Entertainment’ is not an oft-cited justification for the aggressive political interviewing style represented by Paxman and John Humphrys. Perhaps the gladiator and lion comparisons make people uncomfortable. It is more fashionable to define this interview style as a journalistic reaction to spin; as a weapon enforced by interviewers to break through the key message barrier. However, it is rare for a well-trained politician to drift from the key messages prepared and rehearsed by their PR team. Surely, it would be political suicide to do so?! The equivalent of throwing off your armour, chucking down your spear and screaming “come eat me”. Or would it?
Take for example the interview between Jon Sopel and the Chancellor Alistair Darling in October 2007 in the wake of Gordon Brown calling off the expected election. Sopel, aspiring to a Paxman-esque interrogation style, repeatedly prodded the Chancellor as to whether the week had been damaging for Gordon Brown. The Chancellor’s line was that in six months time people would recall the policy issues addressed by the Government during that time and not the ghost election. Unsatisfied, Sopel repeated the question and Darling recalled his rehearsed answer. And a frustrating tennis game unfolded; both men batting-off the other’s comments in pursuit of their own agenda, until Sopel said: “I’m trying to ask you some very direct questions and I’m struggling to get a direct answer;” to which Mr Darling interjected: “I disagree with the premise…” Unfortunately, it took a few more minutes of play before the topic moved on, but this was the first and only point in the interview that the interviewer and interviewee acknowledged each other’s position.
In pragmatic linguistics theory a political media interview is an unusual form of argument. It can be called an argument rather than a discussion because the media in their role as the fourth estate have a responsibility to hold politicians to account. In an argument each participant operates according to a set of rules. It is understood for example, that the interviewer asks questions and the interviewee answers them. In a conventional argument both participants try to validate their position and establish their stance as the most dominant. What makes a media interview more complex is the audience. This third party introduces a performance element that is missing from a private argument, it also shifts the focus of the interviewer and interviewee from each other towards the audience they are trying to impress.
This can lead to an exchange such as that between Sopel and Darling, in which neither party engages with the other and attempts to impress the audience directly as opposed through a joint communicative effort. What this leaves the audience with is a gap. A gap between what is being asked and what is being answered. In linguistic theory this gap is called an enthymeme and it is believed that when there is a gap in communication between the interviewer and interviewee the audience inserts their own meaning. In the case of Sopel and Darling, or Paxman and Howard, the audience is left with a feeling of confusion. The meaning that fills the gap is an impression of an overpowering journalist and a shady politician. This does neither profession any favours and adds nothing to the political debate in question.
Whilst the Paxman school of journalism continues to exist with its interjections, machine-gun questioning and celebrity interviewers, political advisers need to counsel on more than key message scripting. Every time the viewer experiences a gap in communication between the interviewer and interviewee they insert their own meaning. The risk here is that the audience’s opinion is in conflict with one or both of the participant’s agendas, once the audience loses interest the purpose of the interview is over. This is particularly damaging in a generation where more and more citizens are becoming disengaged with politics. The journalist / key message showdown is turning people off politics. What is missing in this forum is content.
Politicians need to be trained to engage with questions. If Alistair Darling had expressed his discomfort with the premise of Jon Sopel’s question in the opening of the interview it may have concluded that line of questioning. It certainly would have produced a more engaged and engaging interview with less scope for the audience to speculate on both men’s agendas. The evasion of a question is what irritates journalists and audiences.
In a 2005 Guardian interview Paxman refuted claims that he was responsible for the general public’s cynicism towards politics by stating: “It seems to me that the way to remove peoples’ cynicism is when asked a straight question, to give a straight answer.” The secret to a successful political interview is to deliver your key messages in a way that engages with the question. If the prepared key messages are unsuitable for a particular question then the interviewee should not attempt to answer the question with those messages. There must be room for creativity and there shouldn’t be such a fear of venturing off the script.
In a generation where citizens are increasingly disengaged with politics it is essential that political interviews shift their focus from a Punch and Judy show to a discourse that engages with and doesn’t automatically attack political content. It is difficult to say what came first: key messages or aggressive interviewers. Both seem to be in part a reaction to the other and both have developed independent performance styles in an attempt to master the stage they share. I can’t help but feel there is something of a macro-journalism / PR showdown being played out on the Newsnight and Today Programme stage.
What is certain is that citizens are more disengaged with politics than they have been for a hundred years. Without citizen participation there can be no valid democracy. The tabloidisation of political interviews may win viewers but it is not engaging their political consciences. This could be the result of the increasing gap in communication between interviewer and interviewee in which the audience inserts their own meaning, sustaining their scepticism in the political process. Key messages should be a communication aid; something which enables politicians to simplify complex issues into points of prioritisation. They should not be a shield to bat-off awkward journalists. It’s important that a degree of fluidity is introduced in political interviews to foster a dialogue that is useful to the audience and the political process.
Buckingham, D. 2000 The Making of Citizens. Young People, News and Politics London and New York: Routledge
The Guardian (2005) Paxman answers the questions [Online] Monday 31 January, 2005 Available at: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/media/story/0,12123,1402324,00.html Accessed 25.01.2008
The Politics Show, 7 October 2007, interview transcript: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/politics_show/7020890.stm