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Summer 22: A lot of heat but not much light

BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson


An argument or even worse a fight, tends to happen when reason has left the building and all that’s left is emotion. While the consequences of shouting a lot can be quite cathartic for those involved, spare a thought for anyone who has to witness the spectacle. Most people try to avoid confrontation, especially when they are trying to have their breakfast and contemplate another day of sweltering heat.

At least that was how I felt when I heard Nick Robinson and Brandon Lewis knocking seven verbal bells out of each other at 7.30 on Monday morning on the Radio 4 Today programme. I can’t even remember what they were arguing about – inevitably something to do with tax and the Tory leadership contest. The thrust of what they were saying or any useful contribution to the debate was completely lost amid the verbal sparring, aggressive rhetoric and general ill-temper.

Similarly when Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss met for their first TV debate, the consensus was that Rishi’s insistence in ‘mansplaining’ or talking across Ms Truss had done him no favours. The voter verdict as expressed in subsequent vox pops (usually entirely forgettable) was “I didn’t realise that Rishi Sunak could be so rude” – damning, but almost certainly a view shared by many others.

So why is it that people who are experienced media performers fall into the trap of getting into a row when it is almost always counter-productive?

In my experience of conducting interviews and preparing interviewees the spectres of Paxman, Neil and Humphrys still loom large. Theirs is a lasting legacy that casts fear into anyone who thinks the media spotlight is likely to shine upon them – and when it does, it promises to be an uncomfortable experience.

If you are not used to being interviewed – and to a certain extent even if you are a veteran media performer – the cards are stacked against you. Journalists and broadcasters do this every day, the studio is their castle and they are in command. Lights, cameras, microphones are their tools and they are surrounded by varying numbers of people with indeterminate roles who are very much ‘on their side’. You get told where to sit, where to look, when to speak and quite often what to say (at least how long you have got to say it). What chance have you got?

But take heart for all is not lost and there remain many good reasons why doing a media interview does make sense and might not be the nightmare it is often considered to be.

The first reason is that the vast majority of interviews can be classed as benign rather than hostile. The reason you are of interest to the media is that you have knowledge or experience which will shed light on a complex or topical subject. They don’t want to trip you up or make you look stupid, they want to help you look, sound and be as memorable as possible. These kind of interviews vastly outweigh the more scary hostile encounters when you are being challenged about a decision or confronted with uncomfortable evidence.

And the second reason comes down to the general shift towards mediation rather than dispute. In law mediation is increasingly popular as a quicker, cheaper and less painful method of reaching a settlement and increasingly the media is adopting a similar approach.

I know for a fact that a number of well known (and feared) presenters have heeded the negative feedback from audience panels and are adopting a more conciliatory approach to interviews. Not for them the Paxman eye-roll or the Humphrys sneer – instead a more forensic, calmer approach intended to shed light rather than generate heat. This interview style may not lead to viral videos of walk-outs or meltdowns, but it may – possibly – boost understanding and give the interviewee a chance to make their point or explain a decision. There is always a bigger picture, the trouble comes for most interviewees when they don’t get the chance to explain it.

So that verbal punch-up between Robinson and Lewis the other day felt a bit old school. Two middle aged men talking over each other with no care for what the audience might think. I am all for people being asked tough questions and having to account for their actions. I am also all for people being given the opportunity to answer those questions without it descending into a row.

Most of us of a certain age will remember that Jeremy Paxman once asked then Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question 14 times in a row during a Newsnight interview. A far smaller number will recall what they were talking about.

Any interviewee should prepare beforehand, but that preparation doesn’t need to be in hand to hand combat or clever put-downs.

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