How Andrew Neil’s interviews became more important than the TV Debates

Seven-way, four-way or two-way, the debates have not informed in the same way as the interviews.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Tonight Jo Swinson will submit herself to thirty minutes of interrogation from Andrew Neil. Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon have already endured their moments in the chair. Nigel Farage is pencilled in for 4 December. 

There is now widespread acceptance that the Prime Minister will not do the same. He told Andrew Marr on Sunday that he was avoiding being interviewed by Neil because Marr was a "perfectly brilliant Andrew" before rowing back and saying he was "happy to be interviewed by any Andrew from the BBC". But it is manifestly not in the interests of CCHQ to expose Johnson to considered questioning.

This is disappointing for the electorate because, unlike the debates, which have mostly descended into party political broadcasts, Neil's interviews genuinely inform. The feasibility of Scottish independence was interrogated from an economic perspective — what currency would Scotland adopt and for how long? The costing of Labour's last-minute WASPI pledge came up woefully short. There is no comparison between an audience member asking one question about anti-Semitism and Neil being given time and space to expose inadequacies and extract a response.

There is also evidence that the public engage more with the interviews than with the debates. In the age of social media, it is assumed that short extracts and clippings will win the air wars. Yet the full 30-minute interview with Jeremy Corbyn has 800,000 views on the Conservatives' Facebook page. Compare that with a clip of Johnson's closing speech from the ITV debate which has a mere 31,000 views. 

Just as important is the way in which the interviews set the news agenda. The day after the Neil interview The Guardian ran the headline "Corbyn struggles to rebuff antisemitism accusations". By comparison the ITV debate could only be covered with a much less revealing summary: "Leaders stake their ground: Johnson Brexit, Corbyn NHS". The interviews create news where the debates do not. This is why Johnson, with his lead in the polls, is keen to avoid them.

The interview between Corbyn and Neil took place in the expectation that Johnson would submit himself to the same treatment. Just look at the opening credits  — the faces of all the party leaders, beginning with Johnson, are shown. The Prime Minister will do another head-to-head debate with Corbyn on Friday, but his appearance there will be no substitute for an interview with Neil.

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.