02 July 2014
Why is this lying bastard lying to me?
Jeremy Paxman, who recently hosted the BBC's Newsnight for the last time, has cited the words attributed to Times foreign correspondent Louis Heren that make up the title of this post as inspiration for his method as an interviewer. It says a great deal about the news interview as it is now understood, and the function of the news producer. News may in part be about holding those in power to account, but should its starting point be the belief that its subjects are liars? How did the news interview become so inquisitorial, and will it remain so?
Jeremy Paxman interviewing Michael Howard, Newsnight, tx. 13 May 1997
It is interesting that in the same week Paxman stood down, with many commentators discussing his contribution to the art of interviewing, some of the first ever filmed interviews were honoured with an inscription on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. The Hepworth Cinema Interviews are a series of 36 filmed interviews with UK public figures (Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Bonar Law and others) made by film producer Cecil Hepworth in 1916. The subjects were invited to give comments on the war and what would follow after it. This was the era of silent films, so the subjects mouth their answers to the camera, with their words being reproduced through intertitles. There is no onscreen interviewer - these are just statements made to the camera. Rather than being any sort of radical development, they are interviews in the tradition of nineteenth century newspaper interviews - pronouncements from the elite, with the media serving as the willing vehicles for such pronouncements.
Lloyd George's words as intertitles from the Hepworth Cinema Interviews, courtesy of National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales
Interviews in newspapers are generally accepted to have appeared in the USA in the 1860s and in the UK in the 1880s, where they were often viewed - often with suspicion - as an American innovation. The American journalist James Gordon Bennett is credited in some quarters with having 'invented' the newspaper interview in 1836 with his verbatim transcript of a conversation he allegedly had with Rosina Townsend, a witness in the trial of the murderer of a New York prostitute Helen Jewett, which was published in the New York Herald. Other cite the interview conducted by Horace Greeley with Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon religion, and published in the New York Daily Tribune of 20 August 1859 as being the first interview as we would now recognise it.
Part of Horace Greeley's interview with Brigham Young, New York Daily Tribune, 20 August 1859, p. 5, from Chronicling America
But newspaper interviews were not 'invented' - they grew out particular changes to the medium. The process of interviewing is as old as journalism itself, so one can trace it back to the 17th century at least. Journalists find the information they require often by asking someone questions, and then using the replies they receive as the substance of their report. That is interviewing, and Daniel Defoe employed it as a news reporter for his Weekly Review much as today's journalists do 400 years later. Interviewing is integral to how news is understood - see how often news readers on TV and radio ask questions of reporters, experts and other interviewees, extracting what we need to know through that dialogue.
The interview as a formal newspaper feature emerged in the mid-19th century, as newspapers turned from being vehicles for partisan standpoints to broadly factual reporting. This included the use of direct quotation. The evidence became all the more important, and what better evidence could there be than the words spoken by the subjects themselves, in answer to the questions put by trustworthy journalists? Of course, it was also part of that process by which "news gathering turned into news making", as Daniel Boorstin writes in The Image, where he labels the interview as one of his 'pseudo-events' - events artificially created in order that they may be reported. The interview is not what happened but rather what the media has caused to happen.
Interview with Lily Langtry (in which she complains about being interviewed so often), Pall Mall Gazette, 29 October 1892 p. 3. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
However, the nineteenth century newspaper interview was a far cry from the investigative and combative interviews of today. The interviews that British journalists such as William Howard Russell (The Times), George Augustus Sala (Daily Telegraph) and W.T. Stead (Pall Mall Gazette) produced were the pronouncements of the great and the celebrated who had reason to use the press for self-promotion. Stead undoubtedly helped establish the interview as a standard newspaper device by his enthusiastic adoption of the form, part of the 'New Journalism' revolution of the 1880s which placed great emphasis on the personal, through devices such as the interview. As well as his own interviews with figures such as Tsar Alexander III and Pope Leo XIII, Stead employed Hulda Friederichs as 'chief interviewer' at the Pall Mall Gazette from 1882 (women journalists were considered to have a particular aptitude for interviewing). Unfortunately interviewers are seldom named in newspapers from this period, making it difficult to trace the work of particular reporters.
The subjects of late nineteenth century newspaper interviews give their opinion on the experience in this piece from Pall Mall Gazette, 31 December 1890, p. 3. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Interviews in newspapers in the late 19th century tended towards celebrities from the world of entertainment. Politicians were wary of the practice, and saw little advantage in indulging requests to give interviews, when what they had to say could be heard on public platforms or read in Hansard. As A.J. Balfour says in the quote above, "this channel of communication must be rarely required by English politicians considering the great increase in platform speaking which has taken place during the last twenty years." Instead the interview became primarily the feature of journals such as the 'Illustrated Interviews' in George Newnes' Strand Magazine - light reading for those who wanted some personal insights into the lives of the famous. Interviews in newspapers were to become more searching as the new century began, particularly in America, but it would be new technologies that would help transform them.
The first sound interview (probably). Interview by Phonograph with Edison agent Colonel George Gouraud, as recorded by the Pall Mall Gazette, 24 July 1888, p. 1. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
A startlingly early intimation of how thing could change occured in July 1888 when the UK agent for Thomas Edison's Phonograph sound recording machine was 'interviewed' by the Pall Mall Gazette, boasting of how a sound recording would provide a 'faithful report of the conversation' (intimating that not all newspaper interviews were so faithful to the words spoken). This was in all probablity the first sound interview, but although the Phonograph and later technologies such as the Dictaphone were used to record famous voices and as dictation devices in the early 1900s, it would be decades before they were adopted for news reporting.
Colonel Gouraud (left) being interviewed by an unidentified journalist from the Pall Mall Gazette, with the Phonograph recording the meeting, July 1888. From British Library Sound Archive collection.
Projected film appeared in 1896, but it proved a medium ill-suited to interviews. Attempts were rare and seldom successful, even after films gained sound in the late 1920s, with the few efforts from the cinema newsreels being short statements delivered in stilted fashion that offered little advance on the Hepworth interviews of 1916. What gave the news interview new life was radio, which began in the early 1920s. This gave the interview greater credibility, through the chance it gave the public to hear the subject's voice, through the live nature of radio, and because the interviewer's questions gave the sense of a process of interrogation, a driving towards the truth. BBC radio interviews of the 1920s-50s were seldom adversarial, being more in the way of civilised conversations, but the greater power had now been offered to the public to judge what was delivered to them, be it the words spoken or the ways in which those words were spoken.
It took live television to make the news interview come into its own, a process not for delivering statements but instead a contest for the truth.
Leslie Mitchell interviewing Anthony Eden for a Conservative party political broadcast, BBC tx. 16 October 1951. From University of Sheffield's Department of Journalism Studies' YouTube channel
Television's first news-related interviews were a disappointment. The BBC's Leslie Mitchell's pre-planned interview with prime minister Anthony Eden for a Conservative party election broadcast in 1951 has become notorious for its stilted obsequiousness, even if it was viewed as a technical success at the time. Mitchell asks:
Good evening. I would just like to say that, as an interviewer, and as I what I hope you will believe to be an unbiased member of the electorate, I'm most grateful to Mr Anthony Eden for inviting me to cross-question him on the present political issues ... Well now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs, it's quite obvious that I should start by asking you something about the international situation today, or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home. Which is it to be?
Supine as this was, it did show at least an understanding of how television was ideally suited to the question-and-answer format, counterbalancing formality with informality. The first step on the road from here to Paxman came in 1955, when Robin Day brought a new forthrightness to television interviewing at ITN, two notable highlights being his sharp questioning of President Nasser in 1955 and his interview with prime minister Harold Macmillan in 1958, where what might now seem a fairly tame question asking about criticism that had been made of the foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd was seen by some as shockingly intrusive, not least because you could see Macmillan thinking about his answer before delivering it. The interview was letting the viewer be the judge, exposing what might be the truth between the lines.
The adversarial quality of the television news interview grew throughout the 60s and 70s, in tandem with the emergence of a less deferential, more determinedly democratic society. Television was becoming the forum for public debate. The medium delighted in getting the upper hand, as demonstrated by David Frost's interrogation of the fraudster Emil Savundra and the revelations that he coaxed out of Richard Nixon. The goal of the interview came to be the revelation of the truth, hoping by a process of seeking out weak points to lead the subject into revealing something they would rather not have made public. The interviewee was no longer someone who had deigned to share some selected information with us all. They were now lying bastards, and their lies had to be exposed.
Interviews on radio likewise became less polite and increasingly forensic. BBC programmes launched in late 1960s/early 70s such as The World at One, Analysis and It's Your Line (a programme hosted by Robin Day, in which the public phoned in questions to ask of the interviewee) made the interview central to a process of burrowing beneath the headlines to uncover what was really happening. The Today programme moved away from its cosy beginnings to become the programme opinion makers had to listen to and had to appear on. This was particularly on account of presenter Brian Redhead's refusal to doff his hat to anyone in power, as in his famous response (in a 1987 interview) to Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson accusing him of bias through being a supporter of the Labour party:
Do you think we should have a one-minute silence now in this interview, one for you to apologise for daring to suggest that you know how I vote, and secondly perhaps in memory of monetarism, which you've now discarded?
Politicians accountable to an electorate had little choice but to appear before the cameras and microphones, but as television became bolder so they responded through increasingly sophisticated media training. The art of not answering, or of turning the interview to your advantage arose. Margaret Thatcher was well trained in interviewing techniques and image management, through the guidance of former TV producer Gordon Reece, but it was the Labour government of 1997 that turned control of message into an artform (guided by another former TV producer, Peter Mandelson).
A power game arose between politicians and the news media over the communication and interpretation of the message, with the interview as the battleground. There was an increased desire on the part of the media to use the interview to extract revelations, matched by an increased determination from their subjects to reveal no more than they had been instructed to reveal. Sharp interviewers such as Paxman for Newsnight and John Humphrys for Today gained praise for their tough questioning and refusal to be hoodwinked, but the praise was sometimes more for the stance than any illumination obtained about the subject discussed. Paxman's celebrated 1997 interview with Michael Howard in which the interviewer asked the same question twelve times did little to inform its audience, for whom the point that the subject was not going to answer the question could have been made after two or three attempts.
Jon Snow and Alastair Campbell, Channel 4 News tx. 27 June 2003
Interviews turned into theatre, perhaps most famously when Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's Director of Communications, turned up unannounced at Channel 4 News on 27 June 2003 and was interviewed by Jon Snow on the Iraq 'dodgy dossier'. The result was a tour de force on both sides, a great interview of sorts but primarily a startling display of political passion. Politicians understandably prefer softer rides - Margaret Thatcher's interviewer of choice was Radio 2's Jimmy Young, for example. Equally, one of the marks of a successful politician has come to be how well they can deal with the toughest interviews. It is a trial of strength, as much as anything.
Interviews on television and radio flourish on non-news programmes of course. From Face to Face to Parkinson, to Piers Morgan's Life Stories there has been a consistent focus on celebrity and the personal revelation, teased out through a bonding between interviewer and subject. Interviews continue to be a mainstay of newspapers, or their associated magazines, where some of the dangers inherent in a live interview are lost and both sides have greater control over what is said. The interviewee will have their press adviser by their side, determining what can or cannot be covered; the interviewer can fill out the verbal testimony with background impressions, barbed or otherwise. Both sides have control, though it is still a battlefield, a game of attack and defence.
HARDtalk interviews, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n13xtmdc/clips
A good example of the news interview programme of today is the BBC World series HARDtalk, first broadcast in 1997 with Tim Sebastian as the interviewer and now Stephen Sackur asking the questions, is a model of how two intelligent minds, with good preparation, can discuss issues of the day in a form that is a genuine questing for the truth. This is not news manufactured as pseudo-event - it is rational and vital extension of what is news. Nor is it a question of exposing liars (usually) - it is using the time-honoured process of question and answer to come to an understanding.
Tweets from a Twitter interview with US Vice President Joe Biden, 26 January 2012
Where next for the news interview? HARDtalk is a good programme, but quite traditional in format. Newspaper interviews continue, but seem more about drawing out character than setting the news agenda. The online world is developing new ways in which subjects can be interviewed, which involved the general public much more, such as Twitter discussions, while BuzzFeed's interview of 29 May 2014 with Ed Miliband (the one in which he said it was a good idea not to read the newspapers) transfers the magazine-style interview with illustrations to a web format in a way that resfreshes the interview form. Al Jazeera's web/TV programme hybrid The Stream is an example of how engagement through interviews is being adapted for a multi-platform world, and television interviews can feature questions posted by social media (see, for example, Glenn Greenwald's interview for NBC on 18 May 2014). The growth of citizen journalism may make anyone into a potential interviewer, with all of the hazards as well as the advantages that suggests.
In such a world, the traditional confrontation between interviewer and interviewee begins to look like it belongs to another age, an age when current affairs television (and radio) served as the forum for public engagement with the issues of the hour. That forum is increasingly located elsewhere, and the interview will have to adapt accordingly if it is to continue to be meaningful. It may not be so combative or theatrical as it has been in the past; it will undoubtedly be more social. It will be less constrained by space (as is the case with newspapers) or time (as is the case with television and radio). Consequently it may either be freer in form or hampered by a lack of discipline. The questions demanding answers remain the same; just who will be asking them looks certain to change.
- The Hepworth Cinema Interviews are held by the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales - a press release on the UNESCO recognition is here, and a catalogue record for the films is here
- Michael Cockerell's Live from Number 10: The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television (1988) is insightful and full of great anecdotes and quotations (such as the Eden-Mitchell interview quoted above)
- On interviewing in Victorian newspapers, see Lucy Brown, Victorian News and Newspapers (1985) and Laurel Brake, Marysa Demoor (eds.), Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism (Gent/London: Academia Press, British Library, 2009)
- The Pall Mall Gazette for the period 1865-1900 has been digitised and is available online via the British Newspaper Archive
- On Hulda Friedrichs and other women journalists of the nineteenth century, see F. Elizabeth Grey (ed.), Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siècle: 'Making a Name for Herself' (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
- On the technique of modern interviews, see Steven Clayman and John Heritage, The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
- The Radio Times has a list with links of 'the greatest broadcast interviews of all time', including Campbell v Snow, Paxman v Howard, Frost v Nixon, and John Nott walking out on Robin Day