How to interview politicians

Over the years, I’ve been exposed to the arrogance of Archer, the benevolence of Benn and the charm of both Clarke and Clegg.

I never got to experience the blarney of Blair or the thunder of Thatcher.

But I always enjoyed dealing with politicians.

It’s a pleasure denied to me now – but one available to hundreds of local media journalists up and down the country for the next couple of weeks.

At least in theory.

It is clear that some of the country’s most experienced politicians do not want to meet real, challenging members of the public, with this piece by Marina Hyde in the Guardian a brilliant analysis of a situation that threatens to damage faith in democracy.

Not only that, our potential national leaders don’t seem that keen on meeting us journalists either.

Papers in Huddersfield, Nottingham and Milton Keynes have attacked the secrecy, high-handedness and sheer contempt that has characterised the organisation and execution of visits by David Cameron’s election battlebus.

I’m not a big fan of the ‘We can’t tell you the story they don’t want you to read’ style of hand-wringing, self-pitying journalism.

But I can understand my colleagues’ frustration.

As Trinity Mirror regional digital publishing director David Higgerson says in his blog :

For a man whose background is in PR, this Prime Minister seems to be very good at generating the wrong local headlines.

But let’s assume for the moment that Mr C – or one of his senior friends, or anyone else with half an eye on Number Ten – decides to grant you five minutes.

How do you make the most of it?

The country’s best-known inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman, didn’t actually say his starting point was always “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Those are the words of onetime Times deputy editor Louis Heron.

Paxman has in fact said that “only a moron” would assume all politicians lie all the time.

But he has cornered the market in regarding those who seek high office with a degree of deep suspicion.

And he’s just shared his top tips for interviewing politicians – all of which are worth bearing in mind as you set out for your slot with the man who would be Prime Minister.

One I particularly like – although it is perhaps more relevant for longer form TV and radio set pieces – is ‘do your homework’.

James O’Brien of LBC did just that ahead of an interview with Nigel Farage last year, to devastating effect.

But what other advice is there out there? Here are some thoughts from colleagues in my neck of the woods.

“My rule of thumb is to think of questions to which you wouldn’t be able to predict the answer.

“I’ve just interviewed Cameron for the third time in a week earlier today. He’s a slippery customer, very slick – but also very predictable. I could ask him 15 questions on policy but I know almost to the word what he’d say in reply. So that kind of means there is little point. Politicians don’t answer questions directly: if I ask about, say, foxhunting, he won’t answer the question I’ve actually asked, but will instead say what he wants to say about hunting.

“So the challenge is to ask him a question that will give you a story either way, whatever he says.  I got a front page the other day out of ‘what would your message to the French be over Hinkley Point?’ He had nowhere to run – whatever he said would then be his message to the French and be a story. Or you have to find a question that you couldn’t predict the answer to.

“With ordinary civilians, the rule is to ask open questions to get them to say more than they would otherwise. With politicians, the general rule is to ask as closed a question as possible, to get them to commit to actually saying something. They hate ‘yes/no’ questions.”

“Don’t be intimidated by senior politicians. Remember you’re just talking to a boring, middle-aged white man.

“Your aim is to get the politician to go off-script. Don’t be afraid of talking over them if you need to. This is your five minutes out of a whole election campaign.

“But give them a fair crack of the whip.”

 “Be persistent but polite.

 “Don’t feel intimidated whoever you are interviewing – your questions are just as valid and important as anyone else’s. It’s OK to ask obvious questions like your Mum or Dad would ask – the name of the game is not to prove that you read the Guardian every day and you know everything that is going on in Westminster.

 “You can have a go and asking the same question 17 times (like Jeremy Paxman) if you want to but I usually – not always – take the view that it’s best to take their answer, let your readers evaluate how much they have hedged, and move on.

 “Print are usually last in the queue when interviewing politicians – the pecking order is national TV first, local TV second, then radio and then us, the Tail End Charlies who write stories for newspapers.  Don’t bother asking the same questions and making the politicians go over the same ground again. Try and come up with something different, something local if you can or something left field, like what would you do for the day if you weren’t famous?”

So there you have it.

Good luck out there on the campaign trail.

Are you enjoying it so far?

I said, are you enjoying it so far? Answer the question, damn it.


One thought on “How to interview politicians

  1. Excellent stuff – I got some good copy from a politician last week, thanks to a conversation with my big sister – she said: “Ask him how he keeps fit for campaigning, and when he says he runs, asking him what his mile time is.” (She’s not a journalist, she sells wool, by the way) It threw them off guard enough to get them to say other far more interesting things.
    “So Mr Osborne, how much IS a pint of milk?”

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