21 Jun 2011

And when did you stop beating your wife, Sir?

Somehow the slightly awkward ones often fall on my days in the chair – those interviews about one thing with somebody currently famous for another, when colleagues say things along the lines of “obviously you’re going to ask about the sex change” when we are really supposed to talking about credit default swaps, writes Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

Somehow the slightly awkward ones often fall on my days in the chair – those interviews about one thing with somebody currently famous for another, when colleagues say “obviously you’re going to ask about the sex change” as I walk into the studio when we are really supposed to be talking about credit default swaps.

So when Channel 4 was in hot water over the Big Brother race row it was me who had to interview my (now ex) boss and throw in the questions about whether he deserved his million pound pay packet. When Gordon Brown was launching the last election campaign it was me who had to ask about whether he regularly pushed, hit or threw things at his staff. At the end of the interview, in which he denied all the allegations, he smiled with understanding and said “Well you may as well have asked me when I stopped beating my wife”.

These are the moments television interviewers both enjoy and find a tad excruciating. They are often bringing up relatively trivial matters that are of great interest to others, and momentarily might seem quite crucial to their careers. So to get two examples on the same programme was amusing, if slightly stressful, as I walked into the studio last night: Vicky Pryce (“obviously you’re to ask about Chris Huhne’s speeding points Krishnan”) and Donald Trump (“you have to ask if that’s a wig Krishnan”). 

The dilemma is usually whether to give any warning about that curved ball you have planned for the end of the interview. If you do they might walk out of the studio, if you don’t are you being fair? Politicians are generally wise to this and will try to secure agreements that the interview will stick to one subject. They might sit down beforehand and say “So we’re just talking about the deficit/war/policy aren’t we?” (and not my extra-marital affair/fiddled expenses/secretly recorded indiscretions about my boss).

You can’t ignore the elephant in the room

And PR people will always ask exactly what the interview is about. Or they will try to secure an agreement that if you do ask about something else it will just be one question and you won’t pursue it. Lord Mandelson was the expert at this in government – he had so many things he didn’t want to talk about. It is the job of the TV bookers these days to be both specific and vague. Nobody wants to book a guest on false pretences, and we want them to come prepared, but we can’t agree to ignore elephants in rooms either.

The interviewer then has to judge the actual question quite carefully. You want viewers to be glad you asked it, not embarrassed that you did, or suddenly feeling sympathetic towards the interviewee and hostile towards you the interviewer. If they are a sympathetic character and not somebody we are trying to catch out, I will make the question a tiny bit longer sometimes to give them a couple of extra seconds to think. Some viewers will always be cross either way – you will be accused of being too soft by one lot, and of being too horrid by another. But if you’re to dole it out you have to be reasonably thick skinned yourself about criticism. As for the interviewees, some will understand you have to ask certain things and forget about it, others will be furious and remember forever.

Only a few days ago I met a businessman who still slightly holds an interview more than ten years ago against me, even though I’m an old friend of his wife. And a celebrity who shall remain nameless once accosted me at a party and quoted a five year old interview that wasn’t even with her, but merely mentioned her. I don’t want your sympathy here – I’m just pointing out the slightly comic nature of what we do.


To her great credit Vicky Pryce did not seek assurances in advance and didn’t seem cross afterwards. She can’t have been terribly surprised that the speeding points came up – given her role in the whole saga. The ex-wife of Climate Secretary Chris Huhne had a sparkling career in the private sector before becoming one of the government’s most senior economists and is now an influential consultant. She will continue to be in demand if she wants to do media appearances. And now she has made it clear that she isn’t going to say anything more on whether she took her ex-husband’s speeding points there will be no excuse to ask her again, as long as no new information comes to light.

As for Trump – bringing up anyone’s appearance would normally seem cruel and trivial. Especially when the issues he was there to talk about in our allotted five minutes were conservation, the economy and bullying allegations. But Trump is a man who lives on television, and who enjoys the discussion around his peculiar barnet. So the hairstyle was fair game. Personally I’d like to spend more time discussing his politics in future, but sometimes no matter how serious your programme you just have to mention the thing a lot of people are wondering.

Follow Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Twitter: @krishgm