Saturday, 30 January 2010

Can I come in there ...?

*Cross post from BBC College of Journalism, 'Discussion on CoJo'*

I shouted at the wireless three times this week. I've never done that before - I've shouted often enough at people on the wireless: that's an Editor's prerogative. But never at the innocent box before.

Interruptions. Interviewers interrupting. That's what the shouting was about.

And maybe it's because I listen to the wireless now just like any other member of the audience and not as someone in charge of (part of) what's coming out of the loudspeaker.


Interruptions have always been a contentious area; presenters hate being told they do it too much, but it's one of the top two or three things that regularly gets the letters and emails coming in.

I won't name this week's culprits - suffice it to say, they've got form.

What was surprising, however, was that two of the three weren't challenging interviews at all. One was a two-way with BBC political editor Nick Robinson (purpose - to get facts across); another, an appreciation/obit where 'names' had been invited on (purpose - to hear the 'names' appreciate the figure in question).

The third was potentially confrontational, but made no sense unless the interviewee was able to set out his alternative argument - which happened not to be the 'conventional wisdom' that was obsessing that day's papers and, apparently, the interviewer. To set out that argument required several clauses to be heard in sequence - they were not.

We never got to understand or even hear his argument ... though we did get to know exactly what the interviewer thought.


Why, when, and how to interrupt an interviewee has been an issue for broadcasters since Sir Robin Day and his ITN colleagues invented the challenging TV interview back in the 1950s.

Sir Robin is a great role model - but many interviewers and their producers mis-remember him and are unaware of the interviewing code he drew up for himself 1961.

Sir Robin was a challenging, even aggressive interviewer - Mrs Thatcher said as much, as if we didn't know, back in 1987. But his aggression came from the forceful, direct and challenging wording of his questions - not from interruptions.

I was one of Sir Robin's producers back in the early 1980s on The World at One and it was striking how rarely he interrupted or talked over his interviewee. Sir Robin had an ear finely tuned to the punctuation of the spoken word and he could slice into a sentence at the briefest caesura.

One of Sir Robin's successors at The World at One, the late Nick Clarke, was renowned for the forensic sharpness of his interviewing ... but also for his politeness; criteria, incidentally, in the annual Nick Clarke award for interviewing.

Rules of thumb?

Clearly, every interview has a life and dynamic of its own. And part of the point of an interview is the on-air personality of the interviewer - otherwise, we may as well have interview robots.

(Actually, the old BBC political unit did use to have an interview glove puppet, kept on a peg by the door. It had been, allegedly, trained to ask, "what's the problem? what's the answer? how much does it cost? and where do we go from here?")

But there are some rules of thumb - and many of the BBC's top interviewers have their own.

As an Editor rather than a presenter, I'd say the following are important.

First, there are very few reasons why you should interrupt - and by 'interrupt' I mean deliberately talking over the interviewee:
* to correct a factual inaccuracy - especially a potential defamation
* to curtail (politely) an over-long answer or ...
* to bring the interview (politely) back to the main subject ...
* to insist (politely) that the interviewee answer the question ...
* to end the interview when you've run out of time

Ideally, you should never have to end an interview abruptly - it's usually a failure of planning and pacing.

The astute amongst you will note that I haven't included 'to challenge an assertion or an argument'. There's a reason for that.

A strong, effective, telling challenge is one that is cool, precise, short - and delivered at the right moment.If the audience can't hear the challenge because it's delivered over the interviewee's words, then it's the interviewer who sounds weak and ineffectual.

What's more, the struggle to be heard often takes up so much time out of the interview that the interviewer runs out of time to make an effective challenge - senior politicians use this tactic routinely to deflect any challenge.

It's worth thinking, too, about the reasons why you shouldn't interrupt:

* to show you're tough and challenging and won't back down
* to show how much you know (more than the interviewee)
* to be a participant in a discussion - unless it's the format
* to express your view or judgment - tho' as above

And interruptions that are designed to bring the interview back on track are especially irritating (and counter-productive) when the interview is going down a road far more interesting than the one originally planned.

Your urge to interrupt shouldn't overtake your ability to listen to the answers.

Role model

So who's the best around right now? Who'd be a good role model? Who's the 21st century's successor to Sir Robin and Nick Clarke?

Well, he'll hate me for saying this - but there's no question in my mind who's the sharpest, most challenging, toughest interviewer around right now ... and by some distance. Has been for some time.

He's also someone who rarely interrupts, is unfailingly polite yet never lets anyone off the hook.

You can find him here.

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