On Television

Manners maketh answers

Rudeness does not make for good television

The BBC is such a barn-door of a target, it’s hard not to take aim. There are the absurd sums it pays its star presenters, the bloated layer of middle management whose salaries could fund a legion of actual reporters, and its woke Remainer agenda. But there’s still one thing Auntie does very well: speak truth to power. Emma Barnett’s slow kebabbing of evasive politicians and Andrew Neil’s forensic dissections are public service journalism of the first order.

Neil’s evisceration of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2019 election campaign highlighted how the Labour leader has no grasp of how economics, finance, or fiscal policy actually work. It also showed how simple, straightforward questions, calmly repeated, are the most effective means of questioning:

AN: Well, let’s look for some [evidence of antisemitism]. Let me ask you this. Is it antisemitic to say Rothschild’s Zionists run Israel and world governments?

JC: In the Chakrabarti Report we asked that people did not use comparisons about conspiracies, not use —

AN: Is that antisemitic?

JC: — because in the belief of Shami, and I support her on this in that report, that can be constructed as being an antisemitic statement and therefore — and therefore should not be —

Neil keeps asking, Corbyn blusters on, until finally, he unambiguously admits that the Rothschilds slur actually is antisemitic. At least Corbyn entered the ring and took the blows. Boris Johnson, despite Neil’s on-air plea, refused.

Calm persistence gets better results than self-righteous confrontation

I teach interviewing at several media organisations. There are four key points to ensure a successful interview. The first is preparation: know your interviewee, their history, strengths, weaknesses and motivation. The second is mental agility: anticipate different potential answers to key questions and have multiple responses prepared, adjusting each reply according to new information gleaned and be tenacious. Rule three is keep the questions simple: don’t overload them.

The fourth, more often neglected, is good manners. Don’t be obsequious, but remember that rudeness does not make good television. The late Robin Day, doyen of the BBC’s interviewers, was known for his incisive style. But he greatly regretted his disastrous 1982 interview with John Nott, then defence secretary. The two men were discussing cuts to the Royal Navy. The cuts had triggered protests among the Navy’s top brass. Day asked Nott why the public should believe “a transient, here today, and if I may so, gone-tomorrow politician”, rather than a senior Navy officer. Nott walked out, and that became the defining television moment of his career. He did at least get a snappy title for his autobiography: Here Today Gone Tomorrow.

Calm persistence gets better results than self-righteous confrontation. Back in 2002 I was working on a biography of Slobodan Milosevic. An interview with him was not possible as he was incarcerated in The Hague. But he authorised one with his wife, Mira Markovic, instead. Before I travelled to Belgrade, I watched Tim Sebastian’s encounter with her on HARDtalk. His questions were tough but fair: her husband’s role in the war, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and the destruction of Yugoslavia. But they were fired off in a hectoring, self-righteous tone, like a barrage of demands. Markovic had clearly never been interviewed like this. She became angrier and angrier. Sebastian became more indignant. She ended the encounter. Sebastian had done a Robin Day. I did not want to.

Once in Belgrade, I met a contact who knew Markovic and asked him for advice. “Be polite,” he said. A few days later I was sitting across from her in a café. She glared at me over the table, her dark eyes glinting like obsidian under her trademark pelmet of black hair.

“So,” she almost hissed, ”you are the one who is going around all over Belgrade asking questions about my husband.”

“Yes, I am,” I replied, my back straight, my gaze steady as my stomach churned. “I am writing a book about your husband,” I said, politely. “And he agreed that you would talk to me, because he cannot.”

The transformation was instant: Markovic talked for three hours. She was still in complete denial about her husband’s role in the destruction of Yugoslavia. I challenged her; she avoided the questions. But she talked and talked. She seemed to exist in a parallel universe. The transcript was 10,000 words long. It was all invaluable material for my book, letting me into the folie à deux in which she and her “Sloba” had existed.

Journalism, they say, is a rough draft of history. But an effective television interview is much more than that. It takes the viewer into the studio. The interviewer becomes us, demanding answers and accountability from our political masters. Thanks to the internet, we can watch and re-watch at will. Corbyn’s evasions, his sideways glances, his prevarications, his shifty body-language are all preserved for ever. That rough draft is not so rough after all.

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