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Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Budget – and sterile interview exchanges on the Scottish media

I watched Newsnight Scotland last night, with John Swinney facing Gordon Brewer, and listened to Radio Scotland this morning, with the Finance Minister and Gary Robertson.

In both instances I was struck by how stereotyped and unproductive media interviewing techniques have become – a sterile, entirely predictable exchange, certainly not a dialogue, that is rarely illuminating and contributes little to the process of holding politicians to account and informing the nation.

Much of it originates with Jeremy Paxman’s alleged statement that he approaches a politician in interview with the mindset “Why is this bastard lying to me”? Perhaps he never said it, but he behaves as if he believes it. The rictus expression of scepticism is fixed on the face, and the body language signals suspicion, the politician braces himself and the ritual dance begins. (Gordon Brewer can slip into this mode, something to regret, because I believe he can be very effective on other occasions.)

Occasionally it works – usually with either a pompous, self-important politician or an inexperienced one. In the latter category, a recent example is the hapless Danny Alexander, only just emerging from his rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights phase.

The sterile model that is now almost universally adopted is this -

The interviewer comes with a targeted set of factual admissions that he wants to get from the politician, admissions usually structured around the most simplistic attack points of the political opposition, instead of what the electorate might want to know, and has a right to know.

The politicians comes expecting this, in the full knowledge of what points will be raised, and with the determination to avoid them. Neither party expects a dialogue or a real exchange of views – the inter-view, which literally means a sharing of views between people, gets totally lost in the process.

The interviewer asks virtually only closed questions, aggressively demanding yes/no answers, and is terrified of asking open questions, which can lead to real dialogue. The closed questions are of the “Have you stopped stealing apples– answer Yes or No!” type. If the politician answers yes, he used to steal apples but has now given up the practice – if he answers no, he is still at it. The model adopted is therefore that of adversarial questioning of a witness in a criminal trial. Its manifest weakness is that a prosecutor in court adopts the principle of never ask a question  that you don’t already know the answer to – he is seeking confirmation of something he already knows, and wants the witness to incriminate himself. The political interviewer is supposed to be seeking the truth – to illuminate, not convict

The witness, of course, if he is guilty, will attempt to avoid the question or “take the 5th” by refusing to answer on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. In a court of law, the judge may demand that he answer. In a political interview, there is no judge to compel an answer.

If the witness is innocent, he may wish to be truthful, but in the knowledge that responding to closed questions may falsely incriminate him, becomes either confused or defensive.

The politician is untroubled by either of these concerns – he comes expecting to be attacked by the interviewer with the simplistic arguments of his political opponents. He blocks by resolutely rejecting all closed questions, responding to them by either ignoring them completely and answering the question he wished he had been asked, rather than the one he was asked, or by simply re-stating his version of events. He does this by always opening his response with the words “What I am saying is …” and if challenged on not responding to the closed question, says “I am trying to answer you in my own way …” or “I am coming to that …” – but never does.

The interviewer, under constraints of time, repeats simple – and often simplistic questions – at machine gun speed – the interviewee goes into long re-statements of policy, secure in the knowledge that he has all the time in the world but the interviewer and the programme schedulers do not.

The interview becomes a point-scoring, adversarial contest, and rarely shed any light on anything of value.

Some years ago when I was with Scottish Brewers, my boss, Tony Belfield, the MD, sent me and my board colleagues off to be trained in media technique at Glasgow University – the personnel director (me), the sales director, the finance director, the operations director and the commercial director. (The marketing director fell out of the pack – I can’t remember why.)

Our tutor was the formidable Fiona Ross, STV’s chief political reporter, the daughter of the former Scottish Labour Party Chief and one-time Scottish Secretary, Willie Ross. Fiona has politics and media in her blood, and is a consummate professional. (She was awarded the OBE in 2005.) The interviews were videoed in two contexts – a studio interview, with a full studio set-up of lights, camera and camera crew and make-up, and a more intimate session, in a simulated office environment.

These simulations in themselves were invaluable, because most interviewees have no idea from their experience of viewing television interviews what the intimidating reality is like, because of the framing of shots for transmission. For men, being subjected to the attentions of a make-up artist for the studio interview is bad enough in itself: the office interview was conducted in the late afternoon, when the manager was more than a little rumpled, and sporting a five-o-clock shadow, looking like Richard Nixon in his notorious TV duel with Kennedy.

Fiona was a wonderful tutor, and in her critique of the interview performances on playback she didn’t mince her words – she described one interviewee as “coming across like a suburban undertaker”. (Other descriptions were even less flattering!)

Fiona conducted the interviews herself, in her own inimitable and effective style. She never bullied, never tried to intimidate. She had considerable gravitas, and radiated authority and competence – fully briefed and totally professional. Perhaps most importantly of all, you knew she really wanted to hear what you had to say. Fiona understood the nature of questions types and their framing, and the tactical responses open to the interviewee to evade the key questions. She used a rapier, not a bludgeon, and if she skewered you, you died happy in the knowledge that you had lost to a master of the art.

Our current crop of Scottish journalists could learn a great deal from her technique, but they probably won’t. A great pity

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