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Bearing down: how Ed Miliband got tangled up in jargon

Antonia Quirke reviews World at One on Radio 4.

Bearing down: Miliband used the phrase so many times it was like being in a maternity ward. Photo: Getty
Bearing down: Miliband used the phrase so many times it was like being in a maternity ward. Photo: Getty

World at One
BBC Radio 4

Some praise for Martha Kearney. One of the memorable things about her lunchtime interview with Ed Miliband (16 May, 1pm) was the quiet, untriumphant way she stood back and allowed the politician to tie himself into knots with his favourite new phrase: “bearing down”. “The idea is to bear down on low-skilled immigration,” he said. “It’s important we bear down . . . I’m gonna bear down, er . . . I believe we should bear down as a country.” He said it no fewer than six times. It was like being in a maternity ward.

At least Miliband came over as a human being. Perhaps this was because Kearney, as his interlocutor, is evidently a well-balanced person not remotely interested in making World at One all about Martha Kearney – unlike Eddie Mair on PM, which has long been about the presenter fancying himself as a comedian and dropping all manner of “deadpan” routines into the show.

I suppose it is the destiny of all newsrooms to wind up a little like The Day Today. But John Humphrys’s Today interview with Nick Clegg on 15 May, on the subject of an EU referendum, only made him sound even more like a strange, Rumpelstiltskin figure who would fit right into Ron Burgundy’s crew in Anchorman, ever twisting the debate into yes-and-no questions and yelping victoriously when Clegg – perhaps foolishly – used the word “unpatriotic”.

Kearney managed to get Miliband to move from flatly refusing to “make false promises” about immigration to articulating a firm election pledge during the interview: that newcomers will have to “wait at least six months, if not longer”, before they can claim benefits.

She managed to achieve this in under two minutes. Often, she simply applies the word “perhaps” to the end of her sentences, opening the door to compromise. “With the freedom of movement, perhaps?” she  might say to Ed, building up to the more insistent, “What about now?”

You could sense Miliband’s pulse slow,  his natural discomfort fading, and he started to drop some of those unyielding phrases. (“No, I don’t think so. And let me tell you why!”) Kearney’s tone is key: it’s serene and never smug. But in truth her secret weapon as an interviewer is simply that she listens.