The political interview unwrapped

The political interview unwrapped

By Caroline Frost,
Thursday, 17th December 2020
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An RTS Christmas special event reviews gems of the genre from the 1950s to the present day

As this RTS exploration of powerful moments in TV political interviews unfolded, it quickly became clear just how extraordinary 2020 has been, even in an era of jaw-dropping statements from politicians and startling TV encounters.

Our host, ITN’s Tom Bradby, was quick to note that the word “unprecedented” had been bandied about rather too freely in news reports and political briefings, but his three panellists agreed that, for once, this year’s events justified its ubiquity. Both media and ministers have faced fresh challenges in dealing with each other as they have laboured to address the coronavirus crisis.

John Whittingdale MP, Minister of State for Media and Data, was quick to point out that media organisations faced the same organisational problems and obstacles as any other business.

But, he added, the audience ratings told the big story: “We’ve seen huge numbers – figures we haven’t seen for decades – of people watching news bulletins.”

Former Labour advisor and broadcaster Ayesha Hazarika saw both the good and bad in this: “What people thirsted for was the return of a more traditional way of consuming news and the desire for trusted narrators, particularly on broadcast.” She added: “[We saw] how politicians [recognised] TV as such an important medium… with the Downing Street press conferences, and people were absolutely glued to them. This was the year that broadcast, be it TV or radio news, was back.”

Writer Jed Mercurio, whose hugely popular Bodyguard told the story of a relationship between a fictional Home Secretary and her protector, saw nothing surprising in any of this. For him, the twin problems of accountability on the part of politicians, and of reliability on the part of the media, were already present before the stakes became so high with the pandemic.

“The fact that we were in the middle of a public health crisis only accentuated public desire for straight answers, with frustrations sometimes being taken out on journalists,” he said. “The public blamed journalists for failing to get a straight response from a politician in one of their coronavirus briefings.”

Bradby then took his panel down memory lane to watch some of the most striking political moments of previous years – a mixture of long-­rehearsed speeches, well-prepared interviews, unforeseeable events and, most delightfully for viewers, ministers’ memorable mishaps.

Back in the 1980s, Whittingdale was one of Margaret Thatcher’s speech­writing aides. He doffed his cap to her defiant message the morning after the 1984 bombing of the Tory party’s Brighton conference hotel. At other times, though, he made the case for using humour and memorable lines in speeches.

He cited Thatcher’s 1980 message to her doubters, written for her by playwright Ronald Millar: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!”

The contrast between Thatcher’s gravitas and our current Prime Minister’s reliance on his natural bonhomie was pounced on by Hazarika.

She said: “Boris [Johnson] functions quite like a stand-up comedian. I think he’s very good when he’s in his comfort zone, being his mischievous, playful persona. That’s what he likes doing, that’s what we’ve seen from his conference speeches.

“Since he became leader of the Conservative Party and [then] Prime Minister of this country, I think his oratory has struggled, because he’s not in his comfort zone anymore. He’s trying to be two people: sometimes the clown and being funny, but he’s also been plunged into this very difficult situation with a lot of responsibility – and I think that he has sometimes struggled with the more sober prime ministerial voice that’s had to come out.”

For her, Johnson’s challenge lay in channelling his own zest and love of language when he is supplied with other people’s words, as is the norm for Prime Ministers. “He performs best when he’s performing his own words and he’s let off the leash,” she thought.

Whittingdale agreed that Johnson relied on humour, and noted how this was difficult to do with something as serious as Covid-19. However, he said, “Boris still uses very typical Boris lines to deliver his message. ‘’Tis the season to be jolly, but ’tis also the season to be jolly careful’ is a very Boris line.”

Bradby shifted the focus back to 1991, to Thatcher’s first sit-down interview after she was ousted from power by her own party in November 1990. Responding to ITN journalist Michael Brunson’s questions about her final day as Prime Minister, a very emotional Thatcher told him about the awkward Cabinet meeting she faced that last morning: “You don’t take a decision like that without it being difficult, without heartbreak.”

For Hazarika, this was a rare insight into a much softer side of Thatcher than viewers were used to seeing, for which she credited the perceptiveness and soft-pedalling of Brunson, who was familiar with the former premier.

“That’s a collision of a trusting relationship but he also judged it well,” she said. “There was no need to go in hard. His approach elicited a very raw, interesting response from her. Sometimes, with political interviews, less can be more. With sofa interviews, a question can come out of nowhere, the politician’s guard can be down, something can come out that wasn’t intended.”

For Mercurio, both this intimate encounter and the forensic style typical of that past master Robin Day contrast bleakly with the current confrontational style of political interviews.

“[Then], it was a conversation,” is how he put it. “What we have now is the real frustration of watching two people speaking at cross purposes a lot of the time.

“When ministers were being asked direct questions about PPE and testing, I was sick of hearing politicians talking of ‘ramping up’, [instead of] dealing with what was going on in the present.”

Finally, Bradby ran an entertaining cross-party montage of political gaffs caught on camera. The highlight was, inevitably, Neil Kinnock being knocked over by shallow waves on Brighton beach in 1983, but we were also reminded of John Gummer forcing his daughter to eat a beefburger at the height of the BSE crisis in 1990, John Prescott’s one-two punch in 2001, and, more recently, Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich, Gordon Brown’s “bigot” moment, Theresa May dancing, and David Cameron tootling a tune on his way back to the front door of No 10 Downing Street.

Miliband’s election-ending sarnie came on Hazarika’s watch as his press officer, something to make her put her head in her hands at the time, but which can make her laugh now. She reflected: “You plan so hard as a press officer: never have your minister stand under a sign that says exit – but, if the wind is against you politically, then any opportunity to make you look like an absolute plonker is going to be taken. Sadly, it’s part of the job.”

On the other hand, as Johnson proved the day he got stuck in mid-air on a zip wire, it is not only possible to recover from such an embarrassing spectacle, but to emerge stronger from it. For Mercurio, this capacity comes down to power of personality.

“It depends what character trait it reveals,” he suggested. “If a politician can weather one of those moments, particularly with a sense of self-­deprecation, and they’re prepared to laugh and humanise the moment, it can sometimes enhance their reputation with the public.”

Let’s face it, as 2020 draws to a close, viewers will take their laughs wherever they can find them, even from the world of politics.

Report by Caroline Frost. ‘Television’s most memorable political moments’ was an RTS event held on 16 December. The host was Tom Bradby and the producer was Lisa Campbell, ITN’s director of corporate communications.