The Political Interview: why the wrong ‘un is as important as the bouncer
There is, frankly, a lot of wasted air expended on the post-mortem of a political interview. Mostly it’s not actually on the content but instead another triumph of style over substance.
So, from someone who has done it and spent an awfully long time watching other people do it, here are some facts.
Like bowling in cricket, there is no one right way to conduct a political interview. It depends on who you are interviewing, what the prevailing topics are, the situation you are in and the time you have.
Some people expect interviewers to always bowl the political equivalent of the bouncer. Always attacking, always bowling what may be perceived as the most dangerous of balls. That is the biggest misconception. Like a good and experienced batsman or woman, politicians are used to it.
On any major issue, a senior politician such as the PM or Treasurer or Opposition leader can do five or six interviews a day. In many of them an interviewer will try to do a ‘tough’ interview because they know it is the one that wins the praise of the cognoscenti. Sometimes the praise is warranted, sometimes it’s more about listening to the questions and not the complete lack of answers.
Politicians have practice at this. They know how to survive it. They know how not to answer those questions, and the good ones know how not to answer the questions and not have the interviewer realise that.
Interviewers cannot make a politician answer a question anymore than I can simply demand my children clean their rooms and magically have that happen. You can ask the question over and over or ask it fifty different ways, but if the politician doesn’t want to answer then they won’t.
What an interview can do is make it obvious to the audience that their question isn’t being answered and let the audience make the judgement about the politician.
What a good interviewer needs, and has, is a variety of tactics, not just the one.
Gentle insistence, humour, going off on an unexpected tangent, what some might see as a ‘soft’ interview are all good tactics to elicit information from a politician well used to not giving anything away.
Broadcaster, Philip Clark got John Howard to say he’d give the game away when he was 64 at the end of a very gentle interview. It was a big story and it was new information.
The trick sometimes is to get the politician to let their guard down. Interrupting them and having a fight often doesn’t do that. Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet series is criticised by some for offering a ‘soft’ interview but the politicians who took part revealed more about who they are on that show than any number of ‘tough’ interviews would have given us.
David Speers often uses polite insistence and a tonne of preparation. The right question, phrased in the right way, and insisted on. Skilled politicians regularly, and I mean regularly, have fallen to bits in his studio and almost none of the interviews were combative.
(It’s not a factor in a skilled interviewer’s consideration, but those who criticise journalists for not being tough all the time should realise that many members of the audience hate interviews where the subject is interrupted all the time and isn’t perceived as being given time to answer the questions.)
Time and topics are other factors. Sometimes you have half an hour, sometimes you have six minutes. Time is outside the interviewer’s control. It’s in the purview of the program length, of the executive producer, and of a million other factors.
An interviewer might also have a number of topics to ask about in that limited time. Often it’s their choice, but also dictated to by the events of the day/week. You don’t get a Prime Minister sitting in your studio whenever you want them. So, when you do, there may be a number of issues you want to canvas. Sometimes you can make the call to toss out the plan and just sit on one question until they answer it, sometimes you can’t. So you do what you can do in the time you have given the demands of the day.
Politicians are well trained in handling the media. They have formal training and they have oodles of experience. Politicians used to do interviews to give out information. Not any more. Now they regard it as a win if they say nothing reportable. It’s a waste of time for them, the interviewer and most importantly, the audience.
They use all sorts of tactics to try to make this happen so it’s only fair an interviewer be able to use all their own tactics to try to extract information. Insisting that only one type of political interview is the only acceptable type of political interview really only benefits the politician who then knows what to expect.
Stop concentrating on the way the questions are asked and listen to the answers.
That is after all the important bit.