Evolution of the political interview

Updated Thursday, 19th September 2013
The set-piece interview has become background noise. But do gladiatorial battles turn voters off?

How in your view has the 'political interview' changed in recent decades?

William Hague and Andy Burnham doing a live interview outside the Houses Of Parliament William Hague and Andy Burnham being interviewed live following the State Opening Of Parliament Formal, set piece interviews are part and parcel of the senior politician's everyday form of political communication. Both televised and print media interviews have become, alongside 'doorstop' interviews (one to one interviews conducted in the street or after a meeting), the principal 'above the line' public way in which politicians communicate with the public (and they increasingly complement the politician's speech or statement by helping politicians explain their speech or statement).

As such, alongside 'below the line' communications (having advisors spin and brief journalists on or - more likely - off the record), political interviews have become ever more ubiquitous. So much so - and almost to the point of saturation coverage - they can become 'background noise'.  Televised interviews, whilst they can be confrontational, are ever more routine and unremarkable.

It is rare, for example, for an interview on Andrew Marr or on Newsnight to ever break new ground or to uncover facts or opinion that the politician would prefer not to be uncovered. The politician may be put on the backfoot, but he or she is rarely wrongfooted; they know how to avoid answering difficult questions and can routinely avoid making errors or mistakes.

Politicians rarely provide hostages to fortune because they know how to handle interviews and they are increasingly skilled at navigating difficulties by, for instance, providing answers to the questions they would want to be asked/only giving the information they want to give. Routine televised interviews rarely succeed in getting behind the politicians preferred headline and generating a different or a critical news story.

Only those interviews (usually door stops or two way interviews, less so formal sit down or set piece interviews) when the politician is defensively trying to deflect criticism - or trying to positively respond to a negative news story - can help prompt a story or form part of a serious news agenda.

For the most part interviews are unremarkable and routine. Soundbites in speeches and statements (as well as leaks and briefs) tend to be more significant. Formal interviews with print journalists are, however, much more likely to help set the political agenda - much more than set piece television interviews. So too, largely because of the timing of the interview and the fact that the programme can sometimes set the daily news agenda, can interviews on the Today programme. 

Do you see the relationship between journalists and politicians as increasingly cozy, or confrontational? Where does this leave the viewer/voter?

The relationship is cozy (because it is routine and unremarkable), but it is also confrontational. Politicians and the news media have a symbiotic relationship because politicians need to be reported and the news media needs to have stories to report; this necessarily binds the two together.

This symbiotic relationship is, however, adversarial: politicians want to be reported positively and uncritically, but the free news media wants to critically interrogate the politician and so report the story, not necessarily as the politician wants it to be reported, but how the journalist independently thinks it should be reported.

This makes the relationship adversarial. It also means that televised political interviewing (but less so more reflective interviewing in print media) can often therefore generate much more heat than light. The interviewer is criticizing, probing and accusing the politician and the politician is defensively responding by deflecting such criticism; each are trying to gain the upper hand, but both fail to secure any real advantage when the politician still gets some sort of message across and the journalist succeeds in presenting him or herself as a necessary public interlocutor.  

Do you think this could make any real difference to our voting behaviour or other ways in which citizens might be involved in politics?

Adversarial yah boo politics tends to turn the public off politics. Being accused of bad behaviour and interrogated in an adversarial manner can cast politicians (unfairly) in a poor light and our assumption that they are bad people engaged in nasty activities is reinforced. In addition, by being endlessly seen to avoid answering a question, the politician's poor reputation for probity, plain speaking and honesty is reinforced.

Do you think the growing hyperbole of political interviewing helps to illuminate political issues, or is it merely a means of personalizing the interaction. And is this to the detriment of politics?

A media image can reflect a political reality, but it also reinforces and amplifies that reality. By portraying a party or a politician as effective or ineffective, the news media can help make a government popular or unpopular by reinforcing that reality. Because politicians consider the news media to be a necessary and indispensible resource enabling them to communicate with the public (but also with each other) they make endless use of it by spinning and providing stories.

They see the same news media as an obstacle which they have to simultaneously circumvent and to try to manage or control. Thus they like the media when it supports them, but dislike it when it checks and balances them. They have always, however, to engage with it and try to manage it, but all the time know that they cannot control it.

As Enoch Powell once observed, for a politician to "complain about the media is like a fisherman complaining about the sea…".

Politicians know the news media enables them to communicate with the public and that it plays a central role in constructing and shaping public assessments of themselves and the government. This is why, eager to secure favourable, supportive media coverage, they deploy a variety of political communications strategies to project a positive image. Sometimes these strategies succeed, sometimes they do not.

The public, by contrast, merely spectate the process and are often put off politics by the unseemly sight of politicians trying to turn a news media obstacle into a resource, whilst the news media seeks to be more obstacle than resource….




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