Solutions for “Boring Snoring”

cat on tv1

The editor of Newsnight, the BBC show famous for its political interviews, thinks many political interviews have become “boring snoring”.

Ian Katz and others say the format has reached an impasse in Britain. Interviewers are aggressive, so politicians focus on avoiding gaffes – a statement that could be construed as inconsistent or as a sign of discord within their government or party. Instead they repeat a message decided in advance.

The result is a safety-first ethos that conspires to make even the most interesting political figures seem dull, and rewards those who prove themselves to be “a safe pair of hands” with the highest offices in the land.

Katz is right – and perhaps candid to a fault.

I frequently watch Newsnight because it promises depth and insight lacking from a regular news bulletin – and then I swtich off midway because studio guests are trying to score points and I’m not learning much.

Some of the slugfests can be entertaining, and lists abound on the Internet of favourite attacks by former presenter Jeremy Paxman. But they are enjoyable for the “wrong” reasons – the game of attack and defence, the desire to see who will “win”.

This level of TV interviewer aggression seems peculiarly British, something that has evolved from a culture where humbug, pretension and arrogance are regarded with more hostility than elsewhere. Top people are thought to need taking down a peg or two.

Contrast the style with a few seconds of this 2013 French TV interview by Claire Chazal with President François Hollande, and consider what such a regal setting does for the tone of an interview. After this Hollande interview, Chazal was quickly criticised for being reverential.

But these presidential interviews have been going on – and criticised – for decades and there’s been no serious change. (Here, a few years earlier, former President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks across his desk to a couple of interviewers as if they are his subordinates. He probably thought the format was refreshingly businesslike.)

Katz doesn’t call for this kind of format in Britain. But he does propose a kind of Geneva Convention to give interviews the space to breathe. In exchange for more candor from politicians, interviewers would accept that government is often about making the least-bad decision, and politicians should not be blamed for this.

The trouble is, the pressure on this kind of interview is too great. Even if interviewer doesn’t jump on a “slip”, other people on other media will do in the hours that follow. So it’s going to be very hard to persuade polticians (or business leaders thrust into the spotlight by some bad news) to drop their guards and open up to the world.

My suggestion: interview different people. I’ve interviewed foreign and finance ministers and a prime minister, but they’ve never said anything I didn’t basically know already. My hunch is that they’re too busy dealing with different demands on their time, so they often get their insights from advisors and they have little recent experience of the normal life their decisions are supposed to improve.

Real insight often comes from people that haven’t climbed a corporate or political ladder: experts, people with an original way of looking at the world, or regular people who have coped with a difficult situation.

It needs work of course to make such people seem relevant – to link them to present concerns and what’s on the public radar. Of course, such explanation takes time and words, so you need viewers with some free time, which is rare.

I guess I’m saying that documentaries are often more interesting than news programmes – or that I’d rather the news featured more short, documentary-style reports. Newsnight does some of these already. Maybe it should do more.


Illustration constructed from photos by mwanasimba (flickr) and Chiltepinster.