Combative Journalism


The other day I picked up through Twitter an interesting link to a blog post by Graham Linehan, a writer, actor and director. The piece referred back to a recent interview on BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme, and was extremely critical of the adversarial interviewing techniques adopted by the presenter. Linehan felt he had effectively been set up for a combative exchange, and although I didn’t hear the interview in question, it didn’t take much for me as a regular listener of the programme to imagine what it must have been like.

I have some sympathy with Linehan’s observations. I went through a phase a few years ago where I found it quite hard to listen to the Today programme sometimes because of the interviewing style of certain presenters. For overseas readers who have never listened to it and can’t access it on the web, it’s a daily current affairs radio programme which covers a great deal of interesting and informative stuff, and can be excellent entertainment. But as Linehan found, there are very often occasions where interviews descend into adversarial, interrogative and frequently rather rude cross-examinations of an interviewee accompanied by a disturbing triumphalism on the occasions the subject is cornered into declaring white is now the new black.

Of course, sometimes the subject fights back, which makes for great radio entertainment. I’m rather sorry I missed the Linehan encounter, but there have been other rewarding moments where a presenter clearly pushes too hard on a particular topic and then flounders hilariously when deprived of the expected response.

Why does it matter? Is my unease just about impoliteness? Or trying to catch less experienced media players out? Or trying to put one over on sanctimonious politicians?

I wonder whether in some way it’s informed by our adversarial judicial system. There are times when an important issue demands a firm interviewing technique, and there are equally times when a politician or public figure merits a challenging and difficult interview. But attempts to railroad through a black and white opposing views of the world even when when truth and reality call for a more nuanced view are unhelpful in a flagship current affairs programme aiming to inform. And whilst I understand that journalism is about getting a story, I don’t think the story  should come from an advance set up.

It just doesn’t credit the listener sometimes with much intelligence.


2 responses to Combative Journalism

  1. Isn’t it still a traditional thing in your Parliament to have members jumping up all the time and holler rather rudely at the speaker, and for the whole floor to erupt quite often into something rather like a verbal food fight at a boy’s school lunch? Do they do that more in the spirit of a theatrical kind of tradition to political discourse? Or is it truely unbridled testosterone and real emotion? Our congress is rather boring to watch most of the time because even though they speak frankly and directly, it is always rather subdued and dry.

    There is a documentary about the life and music of Canadian songwriter and activist for environmental and huiman rights issues, Bruce Cockburn. There is a scene where he is being interviewed on a CBC news show, and you see the moment when he notices the sheet on the desk between him and the interviewer and reads the written message to the interviewer from the program’s producer instructing the interviewer to purposely badger Cockburn when he tries to talk about the concern he came to discuss, and to cause the audience to perceive him as a long-hair, pinko-commie traitor, rather than as a serious, successful and effective defender of human rights. You also see then that the producer off camera also saw him read those instructions on the desk. As the discussion proceeds, you can see that the woman interviewer is receiving more instructions from off-camera in her earphone and she continues to up the anty on her negative badgering ridicule to discredit his concerns. It’s rather interesting to watch, although I wish they showed more of what the outcome was at the end of the program.

    I used to enjoy some of David Frost’s interviews, and even though his politics were rather odd, William F. Buckley’s Fring Line program on American TV in the 70s could get pretty intense, and guests came on “armed for bear.” Buckley was a masterful manipulator of language, and always had the last word, usually a not very veiled insult or slam at the last thing his guest just said, then he would quickly move on to another subject giving the guest no way to reply. I don’t remember anyone ever getting the better of him.

    You’ve probably heard of Bill O’Reilly over here on FOX Cable News? He was on that morning show “The View” with Barbara Walters and Whoopie Goldberg and those other couple women a few months back. He made a rather broad generalization accusing ALL Muslims of being terrorists or something to that effect, and you saw Whoopie swell up like a cobra ready to strike. Then she removed her microphone and walked off the set. She eventually came back on a while later, and in an interview a few weeks later she described what was going on in her mind at that moment. She knew that if she remained on the set, in about two more seconds she would have done something that probably would have cost her her job, and she might regret later. She could see “Big Whoopie” rising up in the back of her mind lumbering forward to deliver an unprecedented attack of brute physical and verbal force that O’Rielly may not have survived. THen the little voice inside told her to leave the stage RIGHT NOW, or else!! She said she has learned over the years to respect that little voice more and more, even when “Big Whoopie” is rarin’ to go.

  2. gillianholding – Author

    What an entertaining set of anecdotes! Thank you so much for taking the time to write about them! I should watch a few more talk shows, i think. The one about the Bruce Cockburn interview is particularly telling. I wonder what a talk show or interview ithout an agenda would actually be like? bcause so much of my practice is open-ended and exploratory, i really like going into situations where i have no idea of the outcome, but it bothers me enormously that so much of what i read or see is so much a reporting of pre-conception.

    Yes, our parliament would put a toddlers’ tea party to shame. I can’t listen to parliamentary exchanges. They annoy me too much…

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