Last Tuesday a letter was sent to Downing Street from the heads of Channel 4, BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and more complaining of Theresa May’s “unprecedented refusal” to grant interviews to public service broadcasters.
So what exactly were these broadcasters so riled about? And why is it so important?
Last week the Conservative Party Conference took place in Birmingham where it is customary for the party leader, and in this case Prime Minister, to be quizzed by the leading news networks. However, this year May’s team limited the number of interviews she would give, leaving numerous major networks out in the cold. This move to bar certain broadcasters from access to May was compared, in the letter to Downing Street, to the frosty relationship between the US media and the US government. This marriage iced over when many American broadcasters and publications found themselves unable to question the press secretary at White House Press Briefings. The reaction was one of uproar at the attempt to censor and control the media and ultimately what information is made available to the public. Thus, this comparison shows the solemnity of the press’s complaint.
In the letter concern was expressed that one to one interviews with the Prime Minister were “vital” for it is important to have access to representatives of all parties during the conference period in order to produce balance coverage. A balance coverage that they declared fundamental to a “functioning democracy”. Broadcasting institution, and pioneer in fashion forward funky ties, Jon Snow personally took to Twitter to air his concern on having been refused an interview with the Prime Minister at their party conference for the first time in 29 years.
Yet of course it is important to consider the other side. Downing Street hit back saying that May gave 36 interviews across the conference and that there were plenty of opportunities to “cross examine” the Prime Minister. They also pointed out that there were other senior ministers more widely available for interview.
Whatever one makes of the statements from either side, it is evidence of a tension between TV Press and politicians. With the brutality of many interviews it is understandable why Theresa May would be reticent and hesitant to making herself so readily available. It is also understandable why the Press feel this move begins to limit their ability to hold politicians accountable and fully inform the public. But how exactly did we reach the point of this stand-off? I will attempt to shed some light on this by guiding you, like a Virgil to your Dante, through a brief history of the politician’s TV interview.
In the early days of broadcasting the power balance was completely different with TV interviewers addressing members of parliament with tortuous politeness. We see this during a 1951 interview on the BBC with Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Interviewer Leslie Mitchell begins by saying that it would make sense given his “considerable experience” for Eden to answer some questions on foreign affairs. However, if Eden would rather talk about home policy then they would of course do that. This placation and accommodation of the wants of the politician feels completely alien to us today, where we are used to a far more combative approach. It may be the mark of a civilised society to treat public servants, including politicians, with respect. However, it does not benefit that society if the politicians are not held accountable. These early interviews were glorified party-political broadcasts. In fact, Eden’s interview was used as a pseudo-party-political broadcast. There was the option for Eden to give a direct address to the public but he instead chose to be questioned and chose Mitchell as the man to do the job. The whole affair was highly staged managed and choreographed. Such a style of interview is not the same as the type that today is being cited as crucial to our democracy. At this time, the duty of television was not to hold politicians accountable. This responsibility was solely to lie with Parliament itself. Clement Atlee labelled TV “an idiot’s lantern” and was in company with Winston Churchill, and the director general of the BBC himself, Sir William Haley, in saying that TV should not play a role in politics. However, what the politicians did not know was that the days of interviewers cow-towing to their preferences were dwindling. For on the horizon a new broadcasting beast was about to appear.
ITN arrived in 1955 along with their firebrand journalist Robin Day. Gently asking whether the politician had “anything of interest to say to the nation” was thrown out of the window and instead Day adopted a blunt edged forensic style of questioning from the start. In 1956, he asked Harry Truman if he regretted dropping the atomic bomb. In 1957 in Cairo, he pushed Colonel Nasser to answer whether he recognised the existence of Israel. Then, in 1958, Day conducted an explosive interview with the unflappable Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about what he would do to address the criticism levelled at the foreign secretary over the Suez crisis. This forced Macmillan into revealing that he would stay loyal to the foreign secretary and not change his mind due to pressure from the papers. Politicians found themselves increasingly challenged on TV and the appearance they gave became increasingly important. Consequently, they began developing techniques to sleekly manoeuvre their way through these battles and maintain a slick appearance.
As politicians became slicker in the face of tougher and tougher questioning, a new generation of journalists, namely Jeremy Paxman and John Humphreys, raised the level of aggression again. In 1997 Paxman won interview of the year at the Television sports and Journalism Awards for his interview with Michael Howard on Newsnight. The interview took place amidst a scandal following the escape of three dangerous prisoners from Parkhurst. Paxman asked the Home Secretary a total of 14 times whether he was going to sack the head of prisons over this calamity. This has become an historic exchange, crystallising the conflict in the state of interviewing. Politicians learnt to become more oily and evasive to swerve questions they did not want answer. By parroting rehearsed and ambiguous statements, a dance as choreographed as the Eden interview began to emerge. In the face of evasive answers interviewers became more invasive and confrontational. The duty to hold the politician to account became muddled amongst personal questions, such as Andrew Marr asking a new Prime Minister Gordon Brown whether he takes prescription pain killers. When ITN first set out on their mission it was because they could see the BBC was failing in getting important information out of politicians. However, the gladiatorial spectacle that emerged from this was also far more entertaining than grey and rigid interviews from the early days.
Politics has always had connections to theatre. In the ancient Greek Polis, politics meant entering into the Agora where you could speak and be heard by fellow Greeks. This was a public realm where the only things other citizens could judge you on were your words and rhetoric. Thus, everything had to be a carefully constructed performance. We can see Eden using the BBC as his Agora, a platform for him to perform his ideas, and we can see Robin Day trying to break through this by getting answers about policy that politicians do not want to give but that the public would want to hear. However, in this process the interviewing got caught up in the realm of entertainment and became part of the performance of politics. Instead of forcing politicians out of their actorly ways the TV interview has forced them to hone in on these very skills.
This has left us today with politicians dodging interviews left, right, and centre. The damage to their image through not making their way successfully through an encounter with Paxman could be disastrous for their career or campaign. However, there are deviations to these trends and new developments to have a look at. In the previous general election Diane Abbott could not give an answer to the funding that would be allocated to recruiting 20,000 new police officers. The impact of this interview was exacerbated by it spreading so quickly across social media channels, making the stakes even higher. In a caveat to the general trend expressed in this article there are some examples of interviewers returning to the trend of appeasing the interviewee. Firstly, there is a strange feature of Richard Madley incessantly defending Tony Blair. More recently we see Piers Morgan’s interview of Donald Trump where he showed him a level of respect he seems to reserve for no one else. The case of Piers Morgan also gives rise to another problem that has been born from the politician interview being seen as entertainment. Interviewers are increasingly being seen as personalities who develop their own brand of questioning. When journalists do this they completely give up their aim of finding truth and fully embrace the theatre of politics.
So, we end up here today. A confusing state where TV journalists have developed a multitude of sins that prevent them holding politicians accountable. We see politicians so scared of the destruction of their image that they avoid being interviewed and answering questions. It is not right that Theresa May is not available to be interviewed by leading networks but it is understandable. Between the two extremes of flattery and flagellation there is a possibility to forge a more effective interview that is firm but fair. It is clear that the TV interview has always been entangled with the theatrical element of politics. However, there are some journalists who manage to avoid this trap and perhaps with some more nuanced thinking by television companies we can save this relationship between interviewer and interviewee and begin to nurse it to health.