14 May 2009

Why it's so easy for politicians not to answer interviewers' questions - and what should be done about it

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d once heard the late Robin Day complaining that the news interview had been ‘hijacked’ by politicians who had discovered that they could get away with ignoring questions and talk about whatever they felt like.

In the clip below, you can hear David Dimbleby making much the same point:


If interviewers as experienced as Day and Dimbleby can be so easily thwarted, there must be some quite deep-seated reason why it’s so easy for politicians to get away with it. And I think Dibmleby is on to it when he says that he doesn’t have a gun to point at them if they don’t answer a question.

The thing about pointing a gun at someone is that it is about as hostile and aggressive an action as you can think of. And the trouble is that the only conversational techniques available to us for trying to get someone to answer questions also come across as hostile and agressive.

Consider, for example, the kind of thing that happens when a witness in court fails to answer a question during cross-examination.

Barristers can ruthlessly intervene and demand an answer:

Counsel: “Did you make any attempt to persuade the crowd to go back before you baton-charged them?”

Witness: “I don’t see how you could persuade them to go back.”

Counsel: “Never mind that – just answer the question first and then give your reason. Did you make any effort to persuade the crowd to go back before you baton-charged them?”

Witness: “No.”

Or they may refer the matter to the judge for a ruling, as in this sequence where the alleged victim in an American rape trial is being cross-examined:

Counsel: “Didn’t you tell the police that the defendant had been drinking?”

Witness: “I told them there was a cooler in the car and I never opened it.”

Counsel: “May the balance of the answer be stricken, your honour, and the answer is ‘no’”

Judge: “Yes - the answer is ‘No’.”

If the lawyers sound hostile or aggressive towards the witnesses, this is of course perfectly acceptable in an adversarial legal system in which barristers are paid to take sides.

But the insurmountable obstacle that our news interviewers are up against is that they are paid to be neutral, which means that appearing to take sides can get them into serious trouble - so that they are, in effect, barred from using the kinds of hostile conversational techniques used in other settings to force people to answer a question without also coming across as aggressive and, by implication, politically biased (unless, of course, they’re willing to court controversy and take the risk of losing their job).

So here’s my formula for sparing us from having to watch the repetitive evasiveness of politicians in interviews: they would be conducted in front of an audience equipped with handsets that would enable them to press a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button, according to whether or not they felt a question had been adequately answered. These would be instantly added up and displayed on a scoreboard behind the interviewer and interviewee.

Whenever more than 50% of the audience felt that the politician had not answered the question, the interviewer would have the right and duty to press further on the same question – and to continue doing so until more than half the audience had rated the answer as adequate.

Such an approach would have three advantages over the present situation:

1. It would liberate interviewers from the risk of being accused of hostility or political bias, because they would merely be acting as representatives on behalf of a dissatisfied audience.

2. By making it more difficult for politicians to be so evasive, it would give viewers and listeners a clearer idea about where the interviewees really stand on a particular issue.

3. It would be much more entertaining television than the tedium currently inflicted on us (and might even have the added bonus of getting people more interested in politics than they are at present).

1 comment:

Graeme Buck said...

Just to say that, although interviewers are paid to be "neutral", given the fact that they're interviewing those skilled in being evasive (politicians), perhaps the interviewers should instead be paid to be "even-handedly committed to getting a relevant answer". Individual interviewer personalities matter here: J. Paxman and K. Wark are universally respected for doggedly pursuing politicians in a way less easy for others, perhaps. Too many interviewers (and their bosses?) may still be hampered in their style by their undue respect for their interviewees, and shouldn't be afraid of criticism for earnestly, but politely, pursuing a satisfactory answer before, none being forthcoming, moving on. With the ever-decreasing level of respect for politicians among the public, many people are now savvy to weasel- or non-answers spilling from political lips, and are attuned to these. Perhaps someone should tell politicians what, after so long refusing, could be a lifeline for them: you answered the question? Respect!