WHAT makes a good political interview? It’s a question I’ve been pondering a lot this week for a couple of reasons. First came the sad news of the death aged 86 of Brian Walden, one of my journalistic heroes and an incomparably tough but scrupulously fair television interviewer.
Second was two of today’s heavyweight political broadcasters – Andrew Marr and Andrew Neil – both hitting the headlines with notable interviews this week, offering us an ideal opportunity to compare and contrast the style and content of political interviews from today and in the past.
First to Walden, who was an unlikely television star. At a time when regional voices were vanishingly rare on TV he sported a soft Brummie accent and a noticeable speech impediment – he had trouble pronouncing the letter R.
Born into poverty in West Bromwich, he attended the local grammar school before winning a scholarship to Oxford, which he took up after National Service. He became the Labour MP for Birmingham All Saints in 1964 and served in the House of Commons until 1977 when he joined London Weekend Television for the then hefty salary of £40,000 a year.
His first programme, Weekend World, became a must-see for anyone trying to make sense of politics. There were no gimmicks, fancy graphics or silly location stunts. Just one long, cerebral interview between Walden and a top politician – and during his tenure he interviewed all the key players of the time.
Walden was unfailingly polite, rarely interrupting or badgering his subject, as is common today. Modern politicians who are trained to bluster through four minutes on the Today Programme without saying anything meaningful would find that trick impossible during 40 minutes of Walden’s relentless forensic probing.
He was not afraid to ask the tough questions, such as on the famous occasion when he put it to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1989 shortly before her downfall, that her backbenchers thought she was “domineering” and “slightly off her trolley”.
The best thing I can say about Walden is that you even if you disagreed with the politicians being questioned you always came away with a much clearer idea of what made them tick.
Contrast that with today’s political interviews, which often leave you none the wiser and are, or course, usually much shorter – no longer than a YouTube clip that can be shared on social media.
Take for example Andrew Marr’s interview with Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. Here was an opportunity to delve deeply into Farage’s character and political philosophy. Instead, Marr was only interested in nailing that elusive ‘gotcha’ moment and started rabbiting on about old comments Farage had made about global warming and gun control.
It is fine to admit you don’t understand what is going on in politics. After all we live in crazy times. But I found the complete absence of intellectual curiosity to try to make sense of the Farage phenomena astonishing.
Farage called the interview “ludicrous” and added: “Here we are with the biggest change in politics that has ever occurred and the BBC is not interested.” It was impossible to disagree.
Andrew Neil is a more substantial figure, who is invariably well briefed and impartial – and woe betide any politicians who appear on his show without knowing their stuff.
This week it was American political commentator Ben Shapiro’s turn to be put through the Neil mincing machine. Neil also played the “gotcha” game bringing up old comments Shapiro had made on social media and Shapiro eventually lost his temper.
In one way this is fair enough – if public figures make controversial comments on social media, journalists are right to challenge them. But it was also a missed opportunity. Shapiro is one of the most influential conservative commentators in the US and it would have been fascinating to explore his ideas at length.
The worse thing about modern interviews like these is that the viewer ends up knowing no more about the subject than they did at the beginning.
Contrast this to Brian Walden who once said: “It is not my job to be an interrogator on an ego trip, or to score points in confrontation. My job will be to draw out the actual opinions of those I interview and give them adequate time to reply.” He is sorely missed.