Magazine article The Spectator

A Gentler Age

Magazine article The Spectator

A Gentler Age

Article excerpt

Listening to Tony Blair being interviewed by John Humphrys on Today last week I was struck by the unusually deferential tone throughout. It sounded very cosy considering its substance was the future of the National Health Service whose shortcomings are now under such scrutiny. Where were the incessant interruptions we have grown to love? It even ended with some yukkiness about whether or not the Prime Minister would be taking paternity leave when his child is born in May.

One has mixed feelings about this. It would be splendid if the Prime Minister were to take six months off to change nappies and coo into the pram but one has to balance this against the prospect of John Prescott taking over. Such is the nature of this dilemma that I fear there is no satisfactory answer. Anyway, although Labour politicians are generally given an easier ride on Today than the Tories, the interview itself was something of a throwback to a gentler age of broadcasting.

It is always amusing to hear period recordings of this genre, as we did in Kebabbed: the Story of the Political Interview on Sunday night's The Westminster Hour on Radio Four. It was the first of four programmes presented by Ian Hargreaves and he delivered a brisk trot through the sycophantic style of early 1950s broadcasting interviews to the later more robust approach. The title comes from the moment in 1989 when the then opposition leader Neil Kinnock lost his temper during a pre-recorded interview with James Naughtie on the World at One. Naughtie asked Kinnock for his party's economic proposals and Kinnock either didn't have any or couldn't remember what they were. `I'm not going to be bloody kebabbed talking about what the alternatives are!' he shouted back. His outburst wasn't broadcast but copies of the tape were gleefully circulated around the BBC. A fuller version will be broadcast on Sunday, I believe.

The programme reminded me of how much present-day interviewers have two men to thank for their freedom of approach to political interviews: Aidan Crawley, editor of ITN when it began in 1955 and a former Labour MP, and Robin Day, lawyer-turned-interviewer. Both decided to challenge three decades of BBC deference. Day said Crawley believed strongly that politicians should be asked proper questions which gave listeners and viewers some answers. In this respect, Crawley and Day were pioneers.

Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's press secretary, said that Wilson was the master of the interview, knowing how to sit, when to light his pipe and disarming the interviewer by using his first name. …

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