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Posted October 2012

Political journalism on television – What is the job of journalists? When the question is put to me, I usually reply that it can be summed up in three words: “saying what is”. Our job is to cut through the spin and tell the public what is really going on. Consequently, the attitude journalists should adopt towards those in power, be it in politics or business, is one of irreverence, scepticism and suspicion. As Louis Heren, a former deputy editor of the Times of London, put it ever so memorably: “When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?'”

Many older viewers in the United Kingdom will have been witness to one of journalism’s finest hours. It was on 13 May 1997 when Jeremy Paxman, the presenter of the BBC’s evening programme “Newsnight”, interviewed Michael Howard. At the time Mr Howard was the Conservative’s Home Secretary and notorious for his tough approach to crime, as summed up in his sound bite “prison works”.

Earlier that day, a critical inquiry into a series of prison escapes had been published. In advance of the publication, Mr Howard had made statements in which he assigned the blame to the prison service.

Millions of viewers held their breath when Mr Paxman put the same question to Mr Howard 12 times (14 if including two earlier inquiries that were worded somewhat differently), if he had intervened when Derek Lewis, head of Her Majesty's Prison Service, sacked a prison governor. Without batting so much as an eyelid, Mr Howard consistently avoided giving a direct answer. Each time he was asked, he only replied that he “did not overrule him [Lewis]”, while ignoring the “threaten” part of the question. What the British public took from this interview was Mr Paxman asking a very simple yes or no question over, and over again, and Mr Howard flatly refusing to answer it.

Ultimately, after what seemed like an endless eight minutes of air time, Mr Paxman still failed to get the truth out of Mr Howard. But he must have been quietly pleased when secret Home Office papers were released in 2005 under the Freedom of Information Act, which failed to corroborate Mr Howard’s earlier statement.

Back in 1997, in the ensuing public debate over the Newsnight programme, opinions were divided whether Mr Howard had merely been exposed to some tough interviewing or had, in fact, been interrogated Gestapo-style (minus the blinding lights and piano strings, though). Some commentators criticised Mr Paxman’s style as aggressive, intimidating and condescending. Others applauded it as hard-hitting and incisive.

At the time, I supported the latter line of argument. Although I also secretly admired Mr Howard’s nerve and skill at prolix waffle. Other politicians might have turned against Mr Paxman in the course of the interview and called him an old nag (à la “Have you got no other questions for me?”) or even walked out on the interviewer, as recently did Gertrud Höhler, one of Germany’s celebrity intellectuals who once advised Helmut Kohl, the Christian Democratic chancellor from 1982 to 1998. Upon being presented with the interview questions (a practice I find debatable in itself) she took one look at them and turned on her heels minutes before she was to go on air. The TV journalists were far from pleased and posted an open letter to her on their website including their questions for her, which were fair and far from confrontational - unlike Ms Höhler’s book on Chancellor Angela Merkel (“The Godmother” – which The Economist newspaper had called “a 273-page polemic filled largely with psychobabble and paranoid insinuations”) which she had hoped to flog by appearing on the programme.

I know that politicians are given a hard time by journalists, especially by those working for television. These days you will be hard pressed to find a serious, area-specific, non-face-card reading journalist who asks politicians the questions which really matter. With audience ratings having become the sole parameter of a programme’s success, political formats, which once had four elderly men hiding behind clouds of cigarette smoke giving serious answers to serious questions have been phased out and replaced by gladiatorial mudfests. Nowadays politicians are sicked on each other by a so-called “host” (stretching the traditional conception of hospitality quite far) and whipped into frenzy by an obligatory non-politico who is usually a B-rated celebrity high on emotion and moral indignation but low on nous and facts.

As these formats bend their subjects to their whims, I wonder why politicians so willingly take part in them. After all, they turn political debate into another form of light entertainment, much like a soccer match or the strangely popular “Strictly Come Dancing”, where – incidentally – a former high-ranking German politician made a fool of herself as she strutted (okay waddled) her stuff across the floor. Following a negative campaign, she resigned from the show – quoting health reasons – before she could be voted off, in TV-speak, “eliminated”, for her clumsy gracelessness.

I know that politicians, like the contestants on this show, feel the need to emphasise that they are people like you and me, that they are on a “journey” hoping to experience personal “growth”. However, when they say this, they tend to forget that they were voted into their respective parliaments because we, the people, wanted them to do a proper job at governing us. In my opinion, if we had wanted them to experience personal growth, we would have sent them to a gym to lose a few kilos and shape up.

Over in the U.S., political journalism on television has gone one step further. There does not seem to be any such thing as unbiased political reporting or debate. If are you are a Republican you tune into Fox TV and if you are a Democrat you turn on CNN, a station Republican jibes refer to as “Clinton News Network” or even “Communist News Network”, according to Forbes. The political programmes I managed to watch while travelling around the U.S. this summer had journalists reduced to face-card-reading stooges who would not even cut their interviewees short when these used the given air time to make a political statement totally unrelated to the question asked. That’s what I call absurdist theatre at its best.

The other thing I noticed was how willingly politicians pop up on funky chat show sofas. Whether it’s to avoid some tough and unwanted political questions or to underline their all-too-humanness, I don’t know. Even President Obama would not let the opportunity pass when he was invited to “The Late Show with David Letterman” in September. Whatever Mr Letterman’s show is in terms of format, political it ain’t. U.S. commentators snickered and sneered afterwards that President Obama’s appearance was pretty much like a stump speech with prompts from Letterman and commercial breaks. Did it do his campaign any good? I would not be able to say.

Apart from that, these seemingly cushy sofas can become quite slippery, literally, when a politician is faced by a TV host as notorious as the UK’s Jonathan Ross. In 2006, in an interview he asked the then Conservative leader David Cameron if he had schoolboy sexual fantasies about the former Prime Minister “in stockings”?

According to UK media, when Mr Cameron tried to change the subject, Mr Ross persisted with the same line of questioning, actually asking Mr Cameron if he masturbated thinking of Margaret Thatcher?

Initially, Mr Cameron burst out laughing, along with the shocked audience. But as the full impact of Ross's extraordinary remark dawned on him, he squirmed with embarrassment, lost for words,” the Daily Mail newspaper reported.

A triumphant Ross taunted Mr Cameron: “See? I'm like Paxman.”

I don’t share many people’s contempt for politicians. I think most of them do a very difficult job amazingly well. But that’s the ones who for the most part stay clear of the limelight. They don’t do chat shows and they don’t do Big Brother. They don’t care if they are liked by you and me.

Asthe UK columnist India Knight wrote recently: “No one should go into politics to be liked. Not caring whether you are liked or loathed seems to me a pre-requisite of the job. ... Politicians, from the Prime Minister down, belong on the green benches [in Parliament]. The lure of the bright lights can wait until retirement.”

My opinion, exactly.

 

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