Political interviews that leave us in the dark

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2005

The Jeremy Paxman Show – or Newsnight as it rather quaintly persists in calling itself – was on sprightly form last night. “David Cameron, do you know what a Pink Pussy is?” barked the Grand Inquisitor, presumably for a bet, as there was little other justification for such a specious, single entendre question. (It’s a cocktail, by the way.) Still, it set the tone for what was to prove a listless, harmless, pointless bit of political knock-about. This was a set-piece set-to that never set-alight. Why not?

Well, by his own standards, Paxo failed to stuff Mr Cameron. In the clich├ęd, macho argot of the news-room, he scored no ‘palpable hits’, delivered no ‘killer lines’, landed no ‘deadly blows’. Mr Paxman didn’t repeat the same question 14 times, a trick he infamously pulled on the Young Pretender’s mentor, Michael Howard, back in 1997, when Mr Howard’s leadership hopes were dashed by the encounter.

Indeed, Mr Cameron did well deftly to parry his interrogator’s rhetorical thrusts, protesting – in a carefully-scripted fit of pique – that, “This is the trouble with these interviews, Jeremy. You come in, you sit someone down, you treat them like they are some cross between a fake or a hypocrite, and you give no time for anyone to answer the questions. It does your profession no favours at all.”

This might have sounded a tad more convincing, but for the fact that Mr Cameron had just argued, with consummate pained sincerity, that he had “genuinely changed” his mind about university tuition fees. He had been opposed at the last general election – “furious with Labour for breaking its promise” – but is now, just six months later, fully in favour of them.

I have no special insight into the workings of Mr Cameron’s mind, but I suspect this might be a more honest take:

“I always believed tuition fees to be the right policy. They are the only viable way in which universities can be funded. I thought Iain Duncan Smith was absurdly opportunistic (and utterly desperate) to commit the Conservative Party to opposing them. We should have ditched the policy when we ditched IDS, but, frankly, it was about the only popular thing we had going for us. That’s why we kept it in the manifesto.”

It is precisely because politicians refuse to give this kind of straight answer that the brusque manner Mr Paxman has made his own (and which some of his colleagues unsuccessfully attempt, rather embarrassingly, to emulate) is so popular with the public. Witness some of the eulogies from viewers on the Newsnight website: “The interview with Cameron was great! Watching him getting grilled was the highlight of my evening. Only Paxman could get the juicy info from Cameron.” Or: “Not for the first time does Britain owe Mr Jeremy Paxman a great debt for exposing a politician.” And: “I thought Jeremy Paxman was brilliant! Cameron got really agitated by his superb questioning.”

Mr Paxman has another champion, probably a more important one for him to keep on-side: Peter Barron, the editor of Newsnight. In his Editor’s Column on the programme’s website (under the headline, What is the point of Jeremy Paxman?) Mr Barron mounts a staunch defence of his star’s televised confrontations with Messrs Cameron and Davis:

“They are standing for high public office and it’s right that they should be subjected to detailed scrutiny of their principles and policies. In a few weeks’ time one of them will be leader of the Opposition and, in a couple of years, perhaps Prime Minister. He’ll face withering exchanges at the dispatch box and if elected Prime Minister torrid crises at home and abroad. Voters surely want to know if their man is up to it or if he might crumble. Our job on these occasions is to try to find out.”

It is difficult to gainsay such high-minded principle. (Though I am unconvinced that being roughed-up on Newsnight has any equivalence with “torrid crises”, whether foreign or domestic: being interviewed by Paxo is clearly far more stressful.) Yet it is even more difficult to square this self-proclaimed devotion to scrutiny of principles and policies with Mr Paxman’s habit of demanding yes or no answers of his victims: for example, “Do you think gay couples should be able to adopt?” or “Do you believe in free, universal child-care for all?”

Now some people may be able to do justice to their views on these important topics by uttering just one word: if they can, I won’t vote for them. I harbour a visceral disike of binary politics, in which every argument must be reduced to black-versus-white, positive-versus-negative, synonym-versus-antonym. I want to see politicians who respect complexity, wrestle with difficulties, grasp subtleties, and who are able to distil this confusing swirl into a clear, reasoned proposition.

It was put best in the US television series, The West Wing, when the fictional President Josiah ‘every-liberal’s-wet-dream’ Bartlett took a verbal swing at a Dubya-like Republican red-neck Governor, whose stock in trade was 10-word sound-bites:

“Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next 10 words. How are we going to do it? Give me 10 after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.”

Mr Barron is of course right that I want to know how either Mr Cameron or Mr Davis might handle those nuanced moments which would face either one of them were they to occupy 10 Downing Street. To watch an interview which reveals how they think – which shows their minds at work, grappling with tricky issues – would be fascinating. But the Paxman approach gives us the very opposite. The politicians he cross-examines are completely on their guard, so conscious that a word out of place, a careless slip-of-the-tongue, could spell disaster for their careers that they put up their mental shutters and turn off all the lights. Leaving us in darkness.