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The truth about car-crash interviews Of course Neil and Marr aren't impartial

Credit: David M. Benett/Getty Images

May 16, 2019   5 mins

We all know the rules of the interviewing game: the questioner should be an inquisitor but never, ever a protagonist. Only by keeping to the rules can the broadcaster put clear blue water between themselves and the politician: ‘I am here to ask questions and get answers and I have no politics of my own’ is the assumed position. Many of us understand that there’s quite a lot of make-believe in this formulation but it is necessary to maintain the appearance of impartiality. But in recent days there have been high-profile examples of what happens when the rules are broken and things go wrong.

One involved Andrew Neil interrogating an American Right-wing commentator called Ben Shapiro; the other pitted Andrew Marr against Nigel Farage. In the normal way of things these interviews would have passed unnoticed simply because political interviews are routine, two-a-penny – once over, are quickly forgotten. These two stimulated much wider comment largely, I think, because the golden rule was broken, something which seems to be happening more frequently. Of which, more later.

Andrew Neil’s interview with Ben Shapiro started calmly enough although Shapiro, a rather brittle personality, seemed uneasy faced with the gravitas of the much older Neil. But a point came when the discussion turned to abortion. Shapiro is a down-the-line pro-Life advocate; he opposes abortion on moral grounds under almost all circumstances. Andrew Neil cited legislation restricting abortion in some states and asserted that such laws “…would take us back to the dark ages.” Shapiro bridled at this and came back on the offensive. “Are you a comment journalist or an objective journalist?” he asked.

From that point onward the interview deteriorated; Neil confronted Shapiro on a ‘confirm or deny’ basis with some old quotes; Shapiro rather lost his cool, at one point saying “…who are you anyway? I’ve never heard of you”. At another point Shapiro accused Neil of being “Left-wing” to which Neil responded “you’ve no idea how ridiculous that sounds”. Eventually Shapiro terminated the interview.

In the ensuing media debate most people scored it as a win for Neil; in fact Shapiro himself tweeted that Neil had “destroyed” him. But I wonder. It’s true that Shapiro allowed himself to be riled – never a good look on a medium where keeping cool gives you the upper hand. But Andrew Neil surely revealed himself by his “dark ages” remark. It was Robin Day – the pre-eminent political interviewer of his day – who once said that “every question contains a comment” and Neil’s question certainly did that. No viewer could have been left in much doubt about where he stands on the abortion issue.

The truth is that Neil is one of the last true Thatcherites in matters economic and a thorough going social liberal. In America social conservatism is the defining characteristic of the Right and Neil’s mix of attitudes (pretty common among British Right-wingers) confused Shapiro’s political compass. So did Andrew Neil ‘win’ the encounter? Shapiro came across as prickly and thin-skinned but Neil also advertised his own beliefs; both were losers in my view.

The Andrew Marr interview with Nigel Farage showed up another kind of failing – the interview which is over-produced. Big set-piece political interviews on TV are carefully prepared; the interviewer comes into the encounter armed with a brief (the work, usually, of some bright, junior producer.) The brief gives the interviewer everything they need to know, including instances of past indiscretions or old quotes which might embarrass the politician. A plan of attack is worked out by the production team – but as with grand military strategies that fall to pieces on first contact with the battlefield, the interviewer has to be nimble enough to change the plan if it’s not working. Last Sunday, Andrew Marr demonstrated why this is such a necessary skill.

Marr had worked his way through the interview until he got to a point (certainly pre-planned) where he hauled out a series of old quotes to confront Farage. Marr clearly felt these were all embarrassing gaffes (although Farage dealt with them easily enough) but it was clear Farage understood the game plan – and wasn’t having any of it. So he went on the attack, accusing Marr of ignoring the real issue at hand, which, he said, was the question of democratic accountability.

And he had a point: after all, the forthcoming Euro election – surely the phoniest ever held in Britain – is not about choosing a governing party. However well Farage does, he’s not on the brink of becoming Prime Minister, so taxing him with questions about his attitude towards the NHS seemed somewhat irrelevant.

An important component of every interviewer’s professional shtick is keeping any personal antagonisms well in the background; the last thing any inquisitor wants is for the audience to sense that ‘this time it’s personal’. But last Sunday Marr certainly gave the impression that he has a real dislike of Farage. It was an interesting clash of style: Marr, the cerebral, cool, liberal up against Farage, the garagiste and beery populist. Unfortunately for him, Marr came out of the encounter looking like a football manager who couldn’t adapt to the opposition’s surprise tactics.

Do these two instances tell us anything more generally about the current state of political interviewing? The Andrew Neil interview with Ben Shapiro highlighted the uniform social liberalism of our media world. Some operators are a little bit more to the Right (think Iain Dale or Nick Robinson) and some to the Left ( think James O’Brien and Jon Snow) but they are all social liberals. So much for diversity.

As for the interview with Farage, it demonstrated something we pretty much knew already, which is that Andrew Marr is a wholehearted Europhile. One got a sense of how much Marr really dislikes Farage, a feeling Farage reciprocates in full measure, so the encounter was unusually heated.

The art of political interviewing is constantly adapting and it is my sense that experienced interviewees are increasingly willing to take on their inquisitors. I am surprised that more do not do so, because it can be an effective tactic. The journalist asking the questions is always vulnerable if they are challenged about their own politics, because they all have their own political prejudices. This means a canny and self-confident interviewee can wrong-foot them with a well-judged counter-attack.

There’s another thing to bear in mind: I claimed that these two instances showed what happens when things ‘go wrong’ but this is, of course, merely a figure of speech. Interviews that ‘go wrong’ are very often the ones that are most watched and get pick-up in the print media (like this article). The political interview is an important staple of our democratic process – but it is also a kind of entertainment. There isn’t an editor in TV-land who really regrets the car-crash interview if it brings a spike in the viewing figures.

My guess is that the most-watched interview of the past several years was the one between Jordan Peterson – the apostle of positive masculinity – and Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. That too was labelled a ‘car-crash’, with Newman being cast in the role of idiot woman behind the wheel. The interview became an internet sensation – the last time I looked it had registered more than 15 million views – and I’d bet good money that Channel 4 doesn’t regret that, though what Newman herself thinks about it might be another matter.

The true significance of most of these ‘car-crashes’ is the way the audience’s attention is directed away from the interviewee and towards the interviewer. Political interviews are supposed to put the subject on the spot; when they go wrong they reverse the focus and tell us more about the journalist asking the questions. That is uncomfortable for the journalist, but gives the rest of us an insight into what lies behind the dogma of ‘impartiality’.

Robin Aitken was a BBC reporter for 25 years; his book: The Noble Liar – How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda is published by Biteback Publishing

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