WITH the election campaign now in full swing, broadcast news shows are enjoying access to politicians for head-to-head interviews in a way which is never seen during other points of the political calendar.
Studying how journalists conduct interviews has become an increasingly popular branch of journalism studies. Many use the now infamous interview between good ol’ Jezza Paxman and Michael Howard, when the bulldog of British TV repeated the same question twelve times – and twelve times the Lord of Darkness dodged it – as an example of how interviews can become significant political events in their own right.
It’s pretty funny. But more importantly it clearly displays what can often become a power struggle between an experienced journalist and an equally experienced interviewee who doesn’t want to be drawn on a certain subject.
All journalists develop their own interview technique. For my part I would try to be as open and honest with my interviewee as possible, in the hope that they would respond in kind.
I would be encouraging, kind, and sympathetic to the person I was interviewing. That way I was able to ask tough questions in a way that softened the blow. Mostly, it worked pretty well. Often people would open up to me in a way they wouldn’t have done with other reporters. I, on occasion, even got hardened criminals to speak to me simply through being straight, the way I spoke, and the language I used.
But then again, I didn’t often interview Politicians about events of national significance. If I’d become that sort of journalist, I wonder how my interview style would have developed. Would it have been possible to keep my ‘softly softly’ approach when faced with a corrupt politician for example? Probably not.
Conversation Analysis (CA) was originally used by sociologists to investigate the verbal interactions between humans. However, it has now been successfully applied to the study of media talk, and in particular the study of the broadcast interview. (Hutchby 2006).
It’s really all a question of power within social interactions. Empirical research on interaction is, according to Ekstrom, “a productive way to study at least three important questions: (1) How relations of power, dominance and asymmetries in resources are negotiated in concrete situations; (2) the various power techniques available in different situations; and (3) the outcome of interaction in terms of general patterns of assymetrics in, for example, discursive roles and access in public debates. (2007)]
On March 25th Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling did the rounds defending his, what has been described as at the least boring, and at the worst downright deceptive, 2010 budget.
For his first interview following the budget Darling chose GMTV. The build up and interview itself lasted 5.30 minutes, and opened with regular presenter Emma Crosby looking through some of the mornings papers. She then handed the interview over to John Stapleton who was with Darling at Westminster.
The relationship between John Stapleton and the rest of the GMTV team is interesting. Stapleton is an experienced newspaper and broadcast journalist. His biography on the GMTV website declares he has interviewed every Prime Minister since James Callahan and is the only British journalist to “work for all three major breakfast news channels.”
In essence Stapleton is seen as the proper journalist within a team which includes former professional tennis players, actors and reality TV presenters. Handing over to Stapleton immediately tells the GMTV audience ‘We are taking this interview very seriously.’
And Stapleton opens very seriously. He doesn’t even smile when Emma hands over to him, and he immediately puts to Darling an accusation in that morning’s The Times that this “was a nakedly political speech with one eye on the election not on the woes of the economy.”
Stapleton’s interview style is interesting. He is rather animated in his seat. He doesn’t only use his hands to gesture but at times his whole body, leaning towards Darling when he is making a point. Later in the interview when he is discussed planned Labour tax rises he points at Darling, shaking his finger as if telling him off. Often he makes statements rather than asking questions, and stumbles when making the points. Darling sometimes answers as if he has been asked a direct question, but the fact he has not been asked a specific question gives him the opportunity to move his answer to an area which he is much more comfortable with. He keeps his own body reasonably still and his tone measured and to the point. The effect is Stapleton looks increasingly uncomfortable during the interview and Darling increasingly confident.
Stapleton also appears to display some bias. He opens with a comment from a Conservative Party supporting newspaper, and at one point says “The Tories are being quite plain. They will raise taxes and cut spending, you’re not even prepared to do that.”
As Darling makes a point about the Conservatives, Stapleton interrupts with a stumbling unclear question which appears to display a lack on knowledge about what was in the Chancellor’s speech, which gives Darling an ability to completely take control of the interview, and to do so with a small smile:
Stapleton: “Wasn’t it, wasn’t it, wasn’t it really deceptive of you not, not to even mention that there are National Insurance contributions on the way.”
Darling: “I did it was in my speech, I clearly said – ”
Stapleton: “Well I would of (sic) made more of it.”
Darling: “Well it was in my other speech and I don’t know of any other way to keep a secret other than announcing it on the floor of the House of Commons (laughing). By all means make a criticism but I did actually say loud and clear in the House of Commons that National Insurance is going up next year. So everything we’ve done in relation to tax I have announced….”
From this point Darling has complete control of the interview and this enables him to appear reasonable and knowledgeable. He is given the time to make his points without having to address any difficult questions. In total he is given almost a minute to finish making his points before Stapleton brings the interview to a close.
On the evening of the same day Channel 4 news broadcast an interview recorded with Khrishnan Guru-Murthy. Murthy, as anchor, introduces his own interview which he states was recorded earlier that day at Number 11 Downing Street.
Guru-Murthy’s opening question is clear and to the point:
Guru-Murthy: Chancellor, why didn’t you mention yesterday that the Defence, Housing and Transport budgets would have to be cut by 25% over the next four years.”
Darling: [Deep breath] We have not decided yet what the total spending will be for the next spending period. Now we’ve said that we are going to protect the NHS, the Schools budget and the budget for police numbers but we have to make a decision based on what we think we can afford to spend on what will be available to spend over the next three years.
Guru-Murthy: And what the Insitute for Fiscal Studies say to today is that means that everything you haven’t protected will have to be cut by 25% over four years. Do you accept that?
Guru-Murthy tries a variety of ways of pinning down the Chancellor on cuts. He challenges figures from the budget directly, and when he makes a statement, he always also asks the Chancellor whether he accepts this. This gives Darling little room to manoeuvre from the question in hand.
With just over a minute to go, Guru-Murthy asks: “This was your last budget wasn’t it? Would you like to be Chancellor after the General Election?”
Guru-Murthy half smiles as he is asking the question and coyly glances to one side. It is as if he is acknowledging that he is being a bit cheeky. As the exchange about whether Darling would be Chancellor even if Labour won continues, both Darling and Guru-Murthy continue to smile, as if acknowledging that it was a fun question to ask, and for Darling a one which enables him to flex his political abilities in trying to escape having to answer it directly.
When Guru-Murthy challenges: “You are not going to answer this question are you.” Darling seems very taken aback and stumbles for almost four seconds, but then responds with a point about winning the election, and continues the light-hearted atmosphere by maintaining a smile.
These interviews differ by just five seconds in length at 4 minutes 30 seconds and 4 minutes 35 seconds retrospectively, but they are poles apart in terms of style, and in the way they question the Chancellor.
Stapleton appears to be less focused and informed, where as Guru-Murthy appears to have decided to target just two key ponts – perhaps due to the limited time available during the interview – possible cuts and whether Darling would survive as Chancellor even if Labour won the election.
While Guru-Murthy steers the interview, in making an incorrect statement and then almost petulantly trying to back out of it with a response of “Well I would have made more of it.”, Stapleton allows Darling to take complete control, and make the points he would like without a challenge.
While Darling may consider the first interview as more of a success in terms of allowing him to take charge and make the points he wanted, it appeared at times that he was enjoying flexing his muscles as a political animal during the Guru-Murthy interview, which gave him greater opportunities for point scoring against the Tories and to display his abilities at escaping a difficult question about his personal career.
BBC (1997) Newsnight: Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard interview. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uwlsd8RAoqI
ITV (2010) GMTV: John Stapleton and Alistair Darling Budget Interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh0BPduBkP0
Channel 4 (2010) Channel 4 News: Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Alistair Darling Budget Interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKyMVNMJ5T4