The Art of Interviewing that Floored Shapiro and Farage — Except it’s Not So New.

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Original Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

By now you’ve probably seen the BBC’s Andrew Neil interview with Shapiro. No sooner had it finished than a number of researchers were suggesting it was worth studying. What clues would it give about how to interview savvy commentators, or guests who can be thankful for Edward Bernay’s techniques in communication — adopted wholesale by politicians, PR managers, spin doctors and the rest?

Bernay, nephew of Sigmund Freud, was a pioneer in public relations and propaganda.

Well, today Exhibit 2 emerged — an interview with Nigel Farage on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, which was attracting all sorts of opprobrium prior the broadcast. Farage has become the BBC producers’ favourite choice for anti-establishment views, which is odd as Farage is part of that media mix.

You don’t need to be a researcher to see the similarities between the two interviews, but being critical will reveal a well rehearsed pattern between Neil and Marr. I wonder if a memos circulating now at how best to handle strident interviewees.

Recently added is this from BBC Cymru Wales Political Correspondent, Arwyn Jones‏

The patterning is as follows:

  • Assume nothing is natural; that is previous information in the public realm being normalised.
  • Avoid getting into a debate about answering your guest’s questions. That’s a slippery slope to interview purgatory.
  • Be forensic in determining where you’re heading. Each question serves to build up a picture for the viewer/ listener.
  • Be polite to your guest and stay in control. Tone and demeanour matter.
  • Be firm in your line of questioning. Come back to it if it remains unanswered
  • Stay attentive to your guest’s questions with a firm rebuff and assume your line of questioning, when they’ve finished their point.

Why does this work? Political interviews and answering questions in an interview has changed over the years into a combative confrontation. Practitioners of this style include the BBC Radio 4’s John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. Though Paxman’s famous persistent questioning of Home Secretary Michael Howard is also one of the firm but polite styles.

I worked as a researcher with Paxman when I was at Newsnight in 1991 and was in awe of his style then and mimicked for a while the approach whilst presenting on BBC London. This style goes back even further. Remember John Nott MP walking out on Robin Day. Day, could at times be brusque with his interviewees.

Unfortunately that style in the 90s/2000 became a template for how generations would view the approach to interviewing. Paxmanesque became a moniker for some.

The perceived aggressive approach arose out of a need to extract information from guests who had been media trained, but could, if badgered, be forced into a mea culpa. They had their own agenda why they were going onto a programme. Open questions that fell into their orbit were quickly and strategically dealt with.

But something else must be taken into consideration, captured in this BBC Radio 4 Documentary, The New Philosophers and the Death of the Interview.

The advent of the Internet and web broadcasts promulgated a different, unchallenged, coffee-table form of interview i.e. podcasts which became the norm, from 2005, for the Net generation. For a generation an interview is merely a platform to speak without any inertia. If you have your own platform, any interview is erroneously viewed as an extension of your own brand. Heavens, you don’t envisage being challenged.

Back in 1995, when I presented the Web to Londoners, this form wasn’t detectable, but we (net -broadcasters) did sense a way of reforming how programmes could be made with a fire-side interview approach.

“Why rely solely on the news construct”, I said in this Press Gazette article in 2006. “Those four minutes of unused Q&A from your five-minute interview now has a new lease of life.”

Seemingly good manners is difficult to attack in interviews whilst asserting control. You only have to listen to a seasoned QC (Silk) pick a defendant apart at the Old Bailey or any court to understand how it works.

In many ways this approach is a return to deference, without the fawning. If you look at BBC interviews in the 1950s, they can be excruciatingly painful to watch now. The difference now is that television communications is more matured, and at the fingertips of the interviewer is a raft of readily available data e.g. tweets and the rest that can reveal the sentiments of the interviewee. You don’t, as a manner of speaking, need the question answered, but to build up layers of the interviewee’s characteristics for the listener.

We all have good ears, but there’s a danger in broadcasting that we simply steamroll what we feel is paramount in the alloted time. Time is the enemy of the interview and your interviewee knows this.

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Author working for the BBC as a programme presenter in the early 1990s

One of my first national broadcast jobs for Radio Five was in 1992; I was also a BBC London presenter at the time too and it yielded an encounter with a producer I’ve never forgotten.

He’d given me a set of questions to ask and advised that I listen to the interviewee properly. I did and without my questioning becoming a statement, was able to wrap up three answers to pose back to the interviewee — a sort of transitive logic. The art of interviewing he said was the art of listening. And I was applauded.

There are those that do this effortlessly on British television; Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy to name a few. Will this technique last? There’s no reason why not. At the centre of it is a humanist approach: be polite and firm and do the research.

Of course you don’t have to interview them in the first place, as any oxygen of publicity is deemed good publicity.

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Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah is a senior lecturer at the Cardiff School of Journalism. He’s the recipient of several awards in innovation in journalism e.g. Knight Batten and has worked for BBC, Channel 4 News and ABC News ( South Africa). He is the Asper Visiting professor of journalism at UBC, Vancouver 2018 and is one of Medium’s top writers in journalism.

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