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The political interview – point-scoring or a pursuit of the truth?

2017 May 19
by Paul Vallely

A headline from the Sun was read out on the BBC last week. CRASH, it said, over a report that Jeremy Corbyn’s car had run over the foot of a BBC cameraman. BANG depicted Corbyn-supporter Len McCluskey, falling down stairs. And WALLIES was its verdict on what it called Labour’s “manifesto launch shambles”. The Labour MP Barry Gardiner, interviewed on the Today programme immediately afterwards, complained that the BBC should exercise better judgement and not read out headlines which trivialise the election.

The BBC has a statutory duty to be impartial especially during election campaigns. There is more to impartiality than balancing air time. Yet when the vast majority of the press is pro-Tory a public broadcaster needs to exercise some sense of proportion. But Mr Gardiner’s complaint went further; he accused his interviewer, Nick Robinson, of wanting not only to ask the questions but also answer them. The MP insisted on shifting the ground from Jeremy Corbyn’s track record as a rebel MP onto “the really important stuff” about the need for conflict prevention, resolution and diplomacy.

Mr Gardiner studied moral philosophy at St Andrews, Cambridge and Harvard, under John Rawls. His training is evident in his approach to the media. As well as questioning Nick Robinson’s interview technique, he recently upbraided Sky’s political editor, Adam Boulton, for failing to hold his previous interviewee properly to account. And on Newsnight he took Emily Maitlis to task for rigidly adhering to an interview formula about “the size of the state” designed to trick him into saying something he did not want to say.

The philosophical underpinning of the public interview normally goes unquestioned. Too many journalists today begin by silently asking of the politician before, to quote Jeremy Paxman, “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Many see the political interview as a battle they must win. One radio journalist recently informed the public that Jeremy Corbyn was “probably against the military intervention in Sierra Leone too”. Probably! Point-scoring has become more important than truth telling it seems.

Many interviewers now place themselves centre-stage. Like members of a sixth-form debating society, they seem more interested in winning the argument than illuminating the subject and leaving it to the listener to decide. They should be asking: “What does the audience want to learn from this interview?” Instead their starting point is: “How can I trip this politician up?”

Another BBC journalist, Evan Davies, has put his finger on the impasse at which journalists and politicians have arrived: “I think the worst of you. You play it as defensively as you can. Your strategy of being defensive is justified by me being aggressive… We’re now locked into the low road. Your strategy justifies mine. My strategy justifies yours.”

There are BBC guidelines on how to conduct an interview. They include “be sceptical not cynical” and “avoid grandstanding or showing-off.” As the election heats up it might be a good idea for journalists to go back and read them. By the way, the man who drove the car over the foot of the BBC cameraman was not Mr Corbyn but a police officer from the diplomatic protection unit.

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