Towards the end of his life, the great Robin Day gave an interview in which he reflected on the impact that his style of interviewing had had on some of his successors. The great interrogator had led the way in the emergence of the new interviewing style, helping to haul Britain out of the era of deference towards politicians and ushering in an era of greater accountability.
Like all changes, there were some people who regretted them, feeling that Day’s interrogative style went too far. They felt that the relation between interviewer and interviewee could do with taking a step backwards to those deferential times. But it never happened. The move away from deference turned out to be a one-way street – albeit one that Day himself ended up worrying about.
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Latterly, people would blame the interviewing styles of Jeremy Paxman, John Humphries and others on Day. Where he had led they had merely followed. But the man himself clearly felt unhappy about this.
In that late interview, he explained his problem with that style. It was, specifically, when broadcasters would accuse their interviewee of lying. If you believe that your subject is lying, Day said, then your job is to show that they are lying. It is not simply a matter of saying to them, to their face, “You are lying”.
As she delivered the annual MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival this week, the head of Channel 4 News demonstrated that major figures in the television industry certainly no longer see things that way. In her remarks, Dorothy Byrne said that television producers should be more willing to directly accuse politicians. “If we continue to be so polite, how will our viewers know that politicians are lying,” she asked.
There is quite a minefield of presumptions in that one question. First, it assumes that politicians regularly lie – a presumption that we may allow to pass for now. Byrne also assumes that the viewer is unable to notice when a politician lies and cannot (without the intermediary of Channel 4 or others) understand what politicians are and are not saying. But thirdly – and perhaps most problematically – Byrne assumes that it is the job of the interviewer or journalist to be ‘impolite’ and to point out that the politician is lying. Is that such a good idea?
There is a whole conference of problems there. For instance, Byrne presumes that the interviewer is in a position to identify what is true and what is not. Yet in the transparent age in which we live, few journalists are granted – or, perhaps, deserve – the right to be the arbiters of what is true or what is not.
For instance, let’s look at the stable of campaigning journalists who make up the regular presenting team on Channel 4 News. Plucking only a couple of examples, these include Cathy Newman, who four years ago made headlines when she claimed that she had been ushered out of a mosque. The claim stirred up various people online. And only after CCTV footage was released was it clear that Newman’s version of events was completely at odds with what had actually happened.
Worshippers at that mosque, along with the wider public who were told a fib by Cathy Newman, may well wonder whether she is the right person to decide whether various politicians are liars or not.
Likewise, Jon Snow, the grand old man of the Channel 4 newsroom. He may not be regarded by everybody as the most impartial, balanced person able to go around making judgements about politicians and the truthfulness of their claims. He has, in the very recent past, been accused of being nakedly partisan in his views on members of the Conservative party and has by no means demonstrated impartiality when it has come to certain foreign disputes.
This media and social media environment is one in which everybody can have their flaws exposed; it’s hard for any journalist to look so pure that the public will simply take it on trust when they accuse a politician of lying.
There’s a larger problem, however, at the heart of Byrne’s argument. In her speech she criticised Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn for avoiding interviews on the main news programmes. In criticising the Prime Minister’s recent reliance on social media videos as his way to speak directly to the public, Byrne said that this reminded her of someone. She was thinking specifically of Vladimir Putin, who she said “also likes to talk directly to the nation”.
Boris Johnson may or may not be correct in choosing to avoid being interviewed by Cathy Newman or Jon Snow on a regular basis. But he is certainly right if he presumes that such an interview would not be conducted in good faith. It would be conducted by an interviewer who is known to have particular political biases. And he might now add to that the fact that it would be conducted on a channel whose news head has compared him to Vladimir Putin. Not exactly the way to mend trust between the politicians and the media, is it?
Avoiding the conventional media is one of the signature techniques of successful politicians today. Donald Trump’s successful race to the White House would most likely never have been possible had he not been able to speak directly to his voters and potential voters (while deranging those who did not support him) using Twitter.
Likewise, Matteo Salvini has managed to double his potential share of the vote in Italy in under a year and a half partly through his regular, relaxed and freewheeling social media streamed videos beamed straight to the nation. Boris Johnson’s decision to address the public through videos is not so different from Theresa May’s regular video updates. His are simply more interesting, enjoyable and clear to watch.
Perhaps it is inevitable that broadcasters watch this move away from their platforms and regard it as an aberration – including an ethical aberration which deserves the comparison with Vladimir Putin. But at least some of the responsibility for that exodus must be shouldered by the broadcasters themselves.
Consider this thought experiment. If Boris Johnson were to agree to an interview with Jon Snow, what would the interviewer and the head of news consider a victory? Would Byrne and Snow consider it a victory if Johnson used his considerable erudition, knowledge and charm to persuade the British public that a no-deal Brexit is no problem? Would they consider it a victory if, over the course of the interview, the Prime Minister had an opportunity to lay-out his vision for a post-Brexit Britain?
I do not think that anyone would be presuming to be a mind-reader if they concluded that, no, neither Byrne nor Snow would chalk that up as their idea of a ‘successful’ interview. It is almost certainly fair to say that ‘holding Boris Johnson to account’ would consist of haranguing him constantly, rarely allowing him to get more than a sentence out uninterrupted, accusing him of terrible things to his face, trying to embarrass him and – dream of dreams – getting him to say something embarrassing or wrong which could subsequently be reported across the world’s press as ‘Boris Johnson exposed as liar in Channel 4 News interview’. That is the story they want, and there is ever-less effort at Channel 4 and other channels to disguise that fact.
A president or prime minister’s unwillingness to face regular questioning from mainstream broadcasters is something that could cause many problems – including untruths – to foment in the years ahead. But broadcasters such as Channel 4 should not be surprised at this turn of events. The politicians have been driven away by a media which has forgotten some of the basic rules. Including that golden rule that Robin Day knew: show, don’t tell. And certainly don’t harangue.