Tony Benn: Interviewing the Interviewers

This cute little programme appeared on Channel 4 television on Saturday evening, featuring Benn posing a short number of questions to TV and radio noteables John Humphrys, Jon Snow, Nick Robinson and Jeremy Paxman. Whilst it probably didn’t receive the kind of attention it deserved, and no doubt was shorter than Tony Benn would have liked, the programme elicited some interesting points of view from the various high profile interviewers.

All defended their often belligerent approach as being necessary to get their job done, Humphrys even admitting that the added side-effect of the interview becoming something of a spectator sport was a necessary evil if viewers and listeners were to remain involved. Similarly, most seemed to be reading from the same hymnsheet when it came to the other questions Benn posed, as regards what they saw as the principle motivation behind the interviews they conduct, and the use of adjectival introductions and blanket phrases like ‘the international community’ (which all claimed to deliberately avoid using).

There was certainly a sense of idealism in the way each viewed their rôles, feeling that they were at least in some way responsible to the viewer, who was the ultimate master. Additionally, it was commonly claimed, somewhat optimistically, that despite the fact that the interviewees more often than not came from a selected group of MPs, ministers and experts, were were there to be an opportunity to interview someone from outside the fold, away from the conventional, accepted wisdom of current society (examples such as the Suffragettes, Gandhi and Mandela were given), that opportunity would be taken.

Whether these rather optimistic appraisals of the job of the political interviewer were justified, perhaps a more interesting point was revealed when Benn asked questions about the length of time of interviews. Whilst all bemoaned the limits placed upon them by the broadcasters, and many used this to justify the use of flippant short-hand introductory phrases (which Benn correctly pointed out might offer colour to the interview before it has even started), Jon Snow came up with a rather different interpretation. Claiming rather modestly to be a man of ‘limited intellect’, he offered that “If you can’t say it in 30 seconds, it isn’t worth saying,” a statement that suggests a much greater understanding of his average viewer than his rather modest claim intimates.

Finally some mention should be made of the answers offered by Jeremy Paxman, who Benn appears to have given much more leeway and less guidance in his interview. In many respects, Paxman seemed unable to justify what he did, his comments on the place of the interview very washy compared with the almost textbook answers from his peers. Claiming to be ‘straightforward’ rather than aggressive, he had little idea of what to make of a term such as the ‘international community’, avoiding the typical post-Cold War explanations offered by the others. Nevertheless, Paxman seemed to acknowledge to a greater extent the influential position he held, candidly pointing out that unless his ratings literally flatbottomed, he is not directly accountable in any way to the viewers, instead feeling that his was a job as any other, and he was primarily responsible to his bosses. And a statement such as this provokes more questions than it answers…

Tony Benn’s alternative to the typical current style of political interviewing will no doubt fall by the wayside, as the rules of the game have as much if not more to do with broadcasting format and media presentation as the material contained. Of course, Benn belongs to an age and a society which has slowly transformed by seemingly organic forces, and these old world ideas were evident in the interviews. Nevertheless, Benn alighted on some interesting points of view from some of the kingpins of the world of the political interview about their own rôles in the media and society in general, and it would be heartwarming to believe that Benn’s friendly but thought-provoking style might cause them to think more seriously about their methods and responsibilities in conducting what they do.

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