I’ve recently come back to the UK after six years in China. I never watched Chinese TV news, it being transparently propaganda (they call it “correct guidance of public opinion“). The English-language news channel CCTV9 was mostly lightweight content-free bullshit, but occasionally you got a glimpse of the iron fist behind the velvet glove – usually in relation to Japan, as mentions of Tibet, Taiwan and the Dalai Lama were verboten. I kept up on UK and Western news via the Guardian, people posting on Twitter, and blogs like Mike Tomasky. But I didn’t see TV news at all unless I was staying in a hotel. Now I’ve come back and occasionally watch TV here (mostly the BBC and ITV: I’ve never liked Sky News), and I find the standard of journalism dreadful.
Maybe this is because in China I edited a magazine in which we regularly interviewed six, seven eight people per issue. So I got a lot of practise in. With the magazine targeted at managers, execs and professionals, I had to make sure I was interesting and pertinent, to avoid leading questions and to encourage the interviewee to open up. I would normally start by asking some background questions and then move onto aspects of their current post and the broader industry. This wasn’t always successful (hotel general managers were generally the least forthcoming, for some reason), but I did some good pieces. I was the first editor to feature “the China-watcher’s China-watcher” Bill Bishop (of Sinocism and the NYT) for example, while I’m quite proud of the one I did with economist Patrick Chovanec, to take two examples. In all cases, a good interview takes time and research.
These qualities seem to be completely lacking in the interviews I have seen recently. The most egregious are in the sports media. (Check this article for a good analysis of the reasons for this). Football hacks seem completely unaware of what a question actually is. Time and time again, they ask something to which the athlete or manager can only answer “Yes”. (And that’s before we get to Alan Partridge-level stupid sexism from John Inverdale, or the grotesque racial slur of Don Imus calling a women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos“!) For example, I was listening to the Celtic vs Ross County game on the radio just yesterday, and in the pre-match interview manager Neil Lennon was asked if he hoped the new signing Derk Boerrigter “could provide a bit of excitement for the Celtic fans?” HOW COULD HE SAY ANYTHING BUT YES?
Most footballers go along with this shit-for-brains charade, but a glorious few cannot be bothered. Sir Alex Ferguson had little but contempt for most football journalists. Gordon Strachan has a classic array of sarcastic retorts to moronic questions:
Reporter: There goes your unbeaten run. Can you take it?
Strachan: No, I’m just going to crumble like a wreck. I’ll go home, become an alcoholic and maybe jump off a bridge.
Reporter: There’s no negative vibes or negative feelings here?
Strachan: Apart from yourself, we’re all quite positive round here. I’m going to whack you over the head with a big stick, down negative man, down.
Reporter: Welcome to Southampton Football Club. Do you think you are the right man to turn things around?
Strachan: No, I think they should have got George Graham because I’m useless.
Reporter: What is your impression of Jermaine Pennant?
Strachan: I don’t do impressions.
Reporter: So Gordon, any changes then ?
Strachan: Naw, still 5ft 6, ginger and a big nose!
Gary Lineker: So Gordon, if you were English, what formation would you play?
Strachan: If I was English I’d top myself!
It’s not just sport. Politics is a great example of where the facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story (“the narrative”), and interviewers will persist in a line of questioning to the point of absurdity. (Check out Max Atkinson’s blog, where he looks in depth at political interviews, speeches and communications). Fox News made an ass of itself (yeah, really) demanding to know why a Biblical scholar wanted to write a book about Jesus Christ, given that he is a Muslim! Andrew Marr’s asking whether Gordon Brown was on prescription drugs I found contemptible, like school bullies harassing an incompetent teacher. Paxman I admire, because he gets to the nub of an issue and goes after it with extreme tenacity; but gimps like Adam Boulton, Nick Robinson, and John Humphrys always seem to have an agenda (even if only their own self-promotion). On the other hand, I like Jon Snow, Ian Hislop, Eddie Mair, Khamel Amed, Michael White and Allegra Stratton, because you get the sense of them finding stuff out and thinking about things.
The sorry state of political discourse isn’t entirely the media’s fault: politicians often refuse to engage in debate if it’s unprofitable for them. (No matter that the public fucking hate this). Ed Milliband’s repetition of the same answer no matter what the question is sheer effrontery.
Simon Hoggart subjects political statements to what he calls “the law of the ridiculous reverse“. If the opposite of what you were saying is absurd, there is no point saying it. Any politician saying “I want the best for British people” (you mean, you don’t want them to be tortured?) should be laughed at. Henry McLeish tried to define himself as a “progressive pragmatist”, but given that few would identify as ideological reactionaries (except maybe Nicholas Fairbairn), it just means nothing. Similarly, if a question is asked in which one answer would be absurd, it should not be asked.
Editors – get your thumb out, check what questions your journalists are asking and provide some rigour. Your laziness impoverishes the dialogue of the whole country.