Who asks the questions round here?

The tables are turned on our top political journalists, to oddly little effect

Tony Benn: intervi

One of the eeriest things I ever saw on television was a mid-1970s edition of ITN's lunchtime news programme First Report. The presenter - it would have been Robert Kee - asked Tony Benn a question and Benn began to reply, but, instead of responding to the conventions of television and normal discourse, he did not address his remarks to Kee. Instead, he turned away and addressed the camera or, as he would have said, "the ordinary viewers out there". This was a mistake. The staring eyes were even more obvious.

An almost-as-outlandish breach of telly etiquette occurred last Saturday night: a television interviewee spoke for one minute and 27 seconds without interruption. The paradox was that the interviewee was John Humphrys, the great interrupter from the Today programme. His interviewer, turning the other cheek in a truly Christlike manner, was a former interruptee, the very same Tony Benn.

Benn has always had a thing about the power of broadcast interviewers. One of the questions he asked the four leading political interviewers on this programme (12 August, 7.10pm) was whom they were accountable to. I remember he once went off on one, to use the vernacular, about this to Robin Day. "Now, no one elected you, Robin," he said, to which Day blustered that he had been elected by the people, who had voted for a government, which had selected a BBC chairman who had appointed a director general who had appointed him.

Today's orthodox answer to the question appears still to be the people, although the mechanism has changed: if people switch off, you'll be fired. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News was particularly convinced of this, but the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, admitted that there is no simple chain of accountability. Only Jeremy Paxman owned up to how things really work at the BBC. He was accountable to his editor, who would periodically tell him, "You've made a right mess of that." The thought of being sacked for poor ratings made him laugh out loud.

Offering the greatest hostages to fortune, however, was Snow, who opined: "One of the reasons I've achieved in journalism is because I have a limited intellect, and therefore I've tended to ask reasonably simple questions which the medium is at peace with." Far from being a bloody spectator sport, politics was dull: "It is flat in real life and flat on TV because of a firewall of PR people who stand between us and the politicians." Or what about this? "I believe if you can't say it in 30 seconds, then it probably isn't worth saying." (As if in refutation, this programme, which had been commissioned for a 30-minute slot, ran for an hour.)

Benn scored some bull's-eyes. Were these interviewers establishment figures? Well, as all of them were male, and three out of four had been to Oxford and/or public school, it was hard for them to deny that (though Humphrys would have had the easiest job of it). What did the oft-used term "the international community" actually mean? Um, the west plus Russia, seemed to be the answer. And, yes, the technique of not interrupting did seem rather effective - but then these were incontinent journalists Benn was talking to, not professionally retentive politicians.

What was most annoying about Benn, as always, was his sanctimony. Having promised to ask the interviewers about their work "so we can understand them better", he ended each section of the documentary with a ruthless paraphrase of his interviewee's opinions. Humphrys was "too interested in the powerful". Snow "seemed preoccupied by the establishment". Real power, he summed up, was media power, and these "opinion-formers were trying to form our opinions every day". Benn should not judge others by his own lights. I doubt, if you locked John, Jon, Nick and Jeremy in a room together for a weekend, that they would emerge with a coherent political opinion between them. Poor old Benn. He'll die having never noticed the beam in his own eye.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

The X Factor
From 19 August, 6.50pm, ITV1
Like the football, the humiliation-to-adulation talent show seems to return earlier every year.

To Kidnap a Princess
21 August, 9pm, ITV1
"Princess Anne nearly kidnapped!" Not The Day of the Jackal, but still . . .

Admission Impossible
Starts 23 August, 9pm, Channel 4
Six families try to infiltrate their kids into decent secondary schools.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights