Jon Snow's mea culpas upon accepting a deserved Richard Dimbleby Award on Sunday must have been the best that politicians have had from the broadcasters since the BBC fired its director general for standing up to No 10. Their pleasure can have lasted no longer than 7.30pm on Monday. Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News, had accused political interviewers of being too cynical. Jeremy Paxman, whose BBC1 interviews with the party leaders ran in week three of the campaign, demonstrated in his quizzing of Charles Kennedy that, on the contrary, TV's interrogators are normally not nasty enough.
Paxman pulled off the only interview of the campaign so far to be worth watching all the way through. How many low-paid people, such as nurses living with firemen, would be worse off under the Lib Dems' new local income tax? (Answer: um, er.) What did Kennedy's doctor think of his smoking and drinking? (Answer: er, um, he's delighted.) The Lib Dem leader emerged as someone you'd think very hard about before voting for; and that is, presumably, one of the tasks of political journalism.
Yet Snow has a point: there is a crisis in political interviewing, and it is because interviewers and interviewees address each other in different languages. The former use journalese, which is sceptical and blunt, but plain-speaking. The latter use lawyer-speak, which means sticking to a brief. There is no dialogue, for a politician can never say "you have a point there" and let an argument develop.
Perhaps because of his medical background, the Tory co-chairman Liam Fox is one of the worst exponents of this. On BBC1's Question Time, his explanation for why his party voted against identity cards, while not being against them in principle, came dangerously close to John Kerry's "I actually did vote for the war before I voted against it". Jeremy Vine on BBC1's Politics Show flustered Fox by asking why the Tory manifesto had buried the health and education passports he had described two years ago as "nothing less than the fundamental recasting of the relationship between the state and the citizen". Fox said everything except the truth: they had flopped in focus groups.
Alan Milburn, Labour's sidelined campaign director, looked equally shifty on Adam Boulton's Sunday programme on Sky News, unable to explain what Blair meant by serving a full term. Boulton's best shot was his parting one: why did Milburn use the same hand gestures as the Prime Minister? Milburn responded with a gesticular flurry that would not have disgraced Rory Bremner, and it said more about the cult of Blairism than Boulton could ever have elicited verbally. Meanwhile, if you wanted actually to learn something, you would have done better watching Panorama's report on Britain's (falling) crime figures. The programme interviewed not a single politician. And it was excellent.