NS Profile - The political interview

Poor ratings and a new regard for human interest dross may kill off a grand British institution. So

You believe in accountability? Then you could hardly demand more than that the people's leaders should be grilled at length by professional interrogators on the issues of the day, in view of all citizens who care to watch. Obviously, Saddam Hussein would not submit to such treatment, but neither (generally) do the democratic politicians of mainland Europe or America. It is fuddy-duddy, constitutionally backward Britain that subjects its potentates to the broadcast political interview.

A taste for the studio showdown has given our political culture an urgent focus unmatched around the world. Remember Margaret Thatcher ranting that her mislaid Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, was somehow still "unassailable" as Brian Walden asked her if she was "off her trolley"? Or John Major confiding that some of his cabinet colleagues were "bastards"? Or Neil Kinnock telling Jim Naughtie he was not going to be "bloody kebabbed"? Or Harold Wilson sweating as Robin Day asked him if, in view of his "record of lies and broken promises", he expected "the electorate to place any reliance" on his word?

You may have noticed that none of these examples is recent. Unfortunately, these are dark days for the political interview. One of the few full-scale dingdongs which the Blair era has seen was the PM's confrontation with John Humphrys over the Bernie Ecclestone affair. The programme on which this occurred, On the Record, is the last stronghold of in-depth, hard-core Q and A. Inevitably, it has fallen foul of the BBC's plans to get rid of boring political stuff. A few days ago, after the party chairmen and the odd broadsheet had lumbered to the programme's aid, the BBC backed down. On the Record is safe - until the autumn. Even then, all that will probably change is the title, the presenter, the editor and the content, much of which will be given over to regional opt-outs dominated by "human interest" dross.

As the political interview absorbed this blow, another fell. The genre's most illustrious practitioner, Jeremy Paxman, had to apologise to Charles Kennedy for questioning the Lib Dem leader's drinking habits. Opinion was divided on whether this lapse reflected desperation in the face of Newsnight's ratings or the current futility of attempting serious political dialogue.

Today, disengagement from the political process threatens the survival of our democracy. This is no time for the most dynamic channel between rulers and ruled to be allowed to silt up. Yet this is what is happening. How come?

The political interview's beginnings offered few hints of the exalted future that awaited it. Its first, stumbling steps were constrained by the culture of deference into which it was born. Early interviews, usually conducted at airports, would go like this: "Mr Attlee, is there anything you would like to say to the nation?" "No." "Prime Minister, thank you very much indeed." It was the late Sir Robin Day who set the infant on its road to glory. A barrister by training, Day's insight was that you could put direct and obvious questions in a studio as easily as in a court of law. In 1958 he conducted the first real political interview, asking Harold Macmillan if he was going to sack an unpopular colleague. Day's successors took the courtroom analogy a step further. Why not subject politicians to full-scale cross-examination?

Crucially, studio interviewers were able to develop a line of questioning, unlike MPs at PM's Questions or reporters at a press conference. By the early 1990s, Brian Walden was conducting 50-minute, Sunday lunchtime inquisitions on ITV backed by a 60-page battle-plan designed to prepare him for every possible response at every stage. During the show, the programme team fed him continual guidance through his ear-piece. On the other side, On the Record battled to surpass his efforts. The following day's papers feverishly chronicled the outcome.

At first, politicians took this in their stride. Margaret Thatcher relished argument. She believed that the more fiercely she was challenged, the more obvious it would be that she was right. Her ministers were expected to think likewise. Meanwhile, Labour's desperate leaders were in no condition to quarrel with those controlling access to the air-waves. But then things changed.

John Major saw himself not as a fearless evangelist but as a timorous fudger, struggling to hold a divided party together. He soon realised that in the glare of studio lights, fudge melts. At the same time, Labour turned "professional". Policy was to be avoided or disguised and supplanted by meaningless reassurance that would not bear scrutiny. Politicians' prating about accountability reached new heights, but Socratic dialogue was no longer to their taste. And they quickly identified the Achilles' heel of the whole concept of the studio as courtroom.

Interviewers may see themselves as prosecutors, but there is no judge to say, "The witness will answer the question: yes or no." A politician's response to an interviewer's question need not be an answer. So prevarication quickly took hold. "Experts" trained politicians in techniques like "bridging", which involved gradually turning a non-answer into a party political broadcast. "Will Labour put up taxes?" "I'm glad you asked that question . . . you know, the Tories have put up taxes 22 times."

Gradually, interviewers realised that the most they could often hope to achieve was to demonstrate that their questions were being evaded. Thus it was that Jeremy Paxman ended up asking Michael Howard the same question 14 times. This may have been a bravura performance, but on the whole such stalemates made dreary viewing for an increasingly fed-up audience. In any case, the politicians soon realised that this Achilles had another heel. The studio courtroom could issue no subpoenas. Top politicians started boycotting tough programmes, especially when in the kind of fix which made them a suitable subject. The mighty interviewing machines found themselves beached, and audience interest waned still further.

Not that the politicians were wholly to blame; broadcasters bear their share of the guilt. As the going has got rougher, they have committed less, not more, energy and resources to the struggle. Some programmes have succumbed to the temptation to undercut their competitors by offering interviewees an easier ride. This can happen even within the same organisation. Politicians who do not fancy a grilling by On the Record can opt instead for Breakfast with Frost, on the same channel on the same day. Here they can be sure of more sympathetic treatment and the absence of unwelcome follow-up questions. Some of them affect to fear that this cosy ambience may foster indiscretion, but, surprise, surprise, it is Sir David, not John Humphrys, who usually bags the top names.

Broadcasters have also sold out their own interviewers. Eager to renounce elitism, they increasingly prefer to let "real people" ask the questions. Thus ITV has replaced Walden with an audience participation show, and on Question Time, once Sir Robin's proud stamping ground, the lunatics have more or less taken over the asylum. Politicians affect to fear the rude probing of Joe Public as much as Sir David's silky fawning, but it too suits them well enough. Not only do the punters lack the forensic skills of an experienced professional; they are usually denied the chance to put those all-important follow-ups, so that as many of their peers as possible can have a go.

One further group should not escape censure. It's us. Viewers and listeners have let it all happen. We watch Big Brother instead of Newsnight. We neither punish politicians who evade scrutiny nor reward those who submit to it. We complain when interviewers interrupt a filibuster, as if politicians would bare their souls if only they had time. Instead of demanding proper policy debate, we hanker for politicians who will "open up", thereby falling prey to smart operators like Clare Short and Mo Mowlam who are good at faking sincerity.

Sir Robin used to complain of dinner party guests who asked him what he did to "get the best out of" his interviewees, as if he was Sue Lawley coaxing a confession from a Desert Island castaway. "I just try to ask the right questions," he would grumble. For how much longer will anybody really be doing this? There are still capable interrogators at work, like Nick Clarke, who performs cameo miracles daily on The World at One. But it does rather look as if the political interview is entering its death throes. If we let it perish, our body politic will feel its loss.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The workers are restless