4 January 2010

Do interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences?

Regular readers will know that I have serious reservations about the way speeches have steadily given way to broadcast interviews as the main form of political communication in Britain (a selection of posts on which can be found at the bottom of this page).

So if you think that I might be dreading the thought of having to put up with the boredom, tedium and repetitive evasiveness that's awaiting us between now and the general election, you'd be dead right.

Masochists wanting to prepare themselves for the ordeal need look no further than Andrew Marr’s interview with Gordon Brown yesterday morning (see above or HERE for full transcript).

The big story was latched on to by quite a few commentators, including the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, who noted in his blog that:

“.. the interview was memorable … for a slip - on election timing…”

This reminded me of a question that first occurred to me after the 1987 general election, namely:

Has any broadcast interview ever generated any good news for a politician?

If you can think of an example of this happening, I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, here’s a summary of the conclusions John Heritage and I reached in a paper we presented at a conference at Essex University after the 1987 election. Unfortunately I'm having to rely on fading memory, as Heritage migrated to UCLA shortly afterwards, which meant that we never got round to writing it up for publication. I do, however, clearly remember the title of the paper:



Our general argument was that speeches work like 'ladders' that can move you up towards a winning position on the board, whereas interviews work like 'snakes' that can only move you downwards.

The advantage of speeches is that politicians (and/or their speechwriters) have total control over both what they say and how they say it. Skillful deployment of rhetoric and imagery can produce punchy lines that get noticed and selected as sound bites for evening news programmes and as headlines for the next morning’s newspapers.

An added bonus is that an audience of millions gets to see and hear the cheers, applause and enthusiasm coming from the local audience of a few hundreds or thousands.


But being interviewed is like walking a tight rope. Success means getting to to the end of it without falling off - for which your reward is little or nothing in the way of positive news about what you actually said. Its only chance of becoming newsworthy is if you slip up, as Mr Brown did on Sunday, when he more or less revealed the date of the election. And slips hardly ever generate news that puts you in a good light.

In other words, our argument was that interviews are only capable of generating negative news for the politician.

Three notable examples of the Q-A format leading to negative stories about political leaders stood out during the 1987 general election.

1. Thatcher says she'll go on and on - and on

In an interview with Mrs Thatcher, Robin Day asked her if this, the third election in which she'd led the Conservative party, would be her last election – to which she replied “No, Mr Day. I intend to go on and on”.

Her two-part list was promptly extended to “on and on and on” both by headline writers and by Labour party leader Neil Kinnock in a speech a few days later, in which he used it as the second part of a powerful contrast:

“A leader who has let unemployment go up and up and up and up should not be allowed to go on and on and on” - a line that was singled out and replayed on most prime-time news bulletins (i.e. it took him, albeit temporarily, up a 'ladder' on the Snakes & Ladders board).

2. Kinnock says we’ll take to the mountains to fight the Russians

Meanwhile, unilateral nuclear disarmament was still at the heart of Labour’s defence policy in 1987.

When pressed on this in an interview, Neil Kinnock said that people would take to the hills and fight, thereby rendering any Soviet occupation of the UK “totally untenable” – lines that generated a huge amount of damaging publicity for him and his party (taking him down a 'snake' on the board).

3. The two Davids and Ask the Alliance Rallies

The SDP and Liberal Party fought the 1987 election as the Alliance under two leaders, David Steel (Lib) and David Owen (SDP). Until close to the end of the campaign, neither of them made any set- piece speeches at all, as they’d decided to run events called ‘Ask the Alliance’ rallies (probably because Steel was a better public speaker and Owen didn't want to be outshone by him).

The ‘rallies’ involved members of the public reading out prepared questions to the leaders, who then ad-libbed their answers. I don’t remember a single positive quotation from either of them that made the headlines. But I do remember saying that they came across like Gardeners’ Question Time on a bad day.

What little media interest they did generate mainly concentrated on the question of how well or badly the format was working, but reported little of what either of them had actually said.

Will 2010 be the first general election with no speeches, no rallies and no excitement?

Given the benefits that can come from making speeches to enthusiastic crowds (look no further than the success of Barack Obama's journey from nowhere), I remain completely baffled by the logic of our politicians’ apparent preference for doing endless interviews rather than letting us judge what they want to say and how they want to say it to audience at lively rallies.

After all, if you're going to play Snakes and Ladders, why on earth would you chose to spend all your time landing on Snakes and avoid the Ladders altogether?

The answer, I fear, is that our politicians have fallen into a bigger trap set for them by a mass media that's more obsessed with increasing their control and decreasing their costs than they are with what audiences find boring or interesting about politics and politicians. Otherwise, how could anyone get so excited about the dreary prospect of lengthy televised election 'debates' between party leaders?

But accountants at the BBC, ITV and Sky News, of course, have every reason to get excited by the hustings being transferred to television studios. The fewer reporters and camera crews they have to send to film speeches at rallies around the country, the lower their costs will be - the net result of which looks like being the most tedious and boring election on record.

Fewer snakes and more ladders, please!

If I were still active in advising a political leader, I'd be urging him to ignore the new rules set by a misguided media and to get back on the road. And I don't mean just walking around a few schools, hospitals and shopping centres. I mean holding proper rallies, making inspiring speeches, creating some excitement and building some momentum.

The media would have no choice but to cover them, and the wider public would surely find them a bit more lively than more and more interviews in which we have to wait longer and longer, on the off-chance that someone will slip up and make it interesting enough to become news.


Gordon Brown's interview technique: the tip of a tedious iceberg

A prime minister who openly refused to answer an interviewer’s questions

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

Why has Gordon Brown become a regular on the Today programme?

Interview techniques, politicians and how we judge them

Politician answers a question: an exception that proves the rule

Did the media ignore Hannan because they think speeches are bad television?

‘The Lost Art of Oratory’ by a BBC executive who helped to lose it in the first place

Is the media no longer interested in what goes on in parliament?

Obama’s rhetoric renews UK media interest in the ‘lost art’ of oratory

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