4 Jul 2011

Changing the rules of the TV interview

So here’s the truth about the “Ed Miliband Loop” : there’s nothing new about it, politicians have been doing it for years and it is partly our fault in the media for letting them get away with it.

Labour Leader Ed Miliband (Getty)So here’s the truth about the “Ed Miliband Loop” : there’s nothing new about it, politicians have been doing it for years and it is partly our fault in the media for letting them get away with it for so long.

I’ve had politicians from every party try a variation of the loop on me. Somebody in political PR training school obviously told them that if you’re doing “a clip” for the news and you want to make sure the media only use what you want them to then only say one thing.

Ed Miliband’s crime was to deploy the technique to such a perfected degree that he looked like a robot. But as every experienced political interviewer and politician knows it is an old trick and it often works.

Ed Miliband may have been exposed this time, but most viewers only saw the clip he intended them to on the main bulletins, not the full tedious exchange online. 

When TV programmes bid for political interviews we are generally looking for either a soundbite to run in a report or an interview to run in full including the questions. Political advisers and PRs demand to know which is wanted and an uneasy compact has been struck up.

A soundbite or clip generally means you are looking for a 15-30 second reaction to a specific news story. The politician turns up expecting not so much an interview as a platform to give their take on the day’s story to be used in a report across several bulletins. They expect the interview will not be combative, but more of the “What is your reaction to the announcement today?” type. And they believe that if you basically say one thing no matter what the question then even if things do cut up a bit rough the main bulletins will only use a short clip anyway.

Occasionally, if the politician is very important, very busy or both they will say they will only do a “pooled” interview – where the soundbite will be done by a reporter from one broadcaster and fed out to everyone in the pool. The reporter isn’t supposed to do a big interrogation because Sky News won’t want to use a BBC News reporter’s questions.

Ed Miliband must have been counting on the usual convention that a pooled clip means one answer will be cut into reports across all outlets, rather than the whole thing going online.  And in general nobody in the pool will bother telling viewers the clip was gathered by a rival broadcaster.

A full programme interview is harder to arrange, because the political PRs know there is a chance it will be probing or combative, and could stray into other subject areas they do not wish to discuss. So quite often a bid will go in and the PRs will say no to a programme interview with a presenter but yes to a clip with a producer or reporter. This is not to do down producers or reporters as pushovers – many are better interviewers than the supposed expert presenters. But this is an understanding that has developed between broadcasters and the political class – if you want the politician to appear and give their side of the argument you must sometimes agree to a clip, rather than a full cross-examination. And in turn they know that the broadcasters can’t then “empty chair” them and say they refused to appear. Again, both the media and the politicians get more or less what they wanted and the viewer is none the wiser.

Sometimes a programme like Channel 4 News or Newsnight will be told ‘no’ to a live interview but ‘yes’ to a clip and tries to beat the political PR by saying “Ok, no problem, we’ll send Jon/Krishnan/Jeremy/Emily down to do the clip…yes 8 a.m? In Leeds? No problem, they’ll be there.”

Sometimes this works, we turn up and get a useable pre-recorded programme interview out of what was supposed to be a clip. Other times the political PR will ask who is coming to do the clip and promptly cancel.

So perhaps it is time for a new deal between television and politics. Perhaps an interview should just be an interview without any rules. Or perhaps when politicians only agree to be clipped or pooled we should make it clear, when they repeat themselves they should be challenged on camera and when they refuse to debate with other guests we should say so. When they repeatedly refuse to appear we should perhaps publish a log of requests and refusals over time.

Transparency might also mean there are times when we should tell viewers that politicians offered themselves for interview and we declined. It might all mean publishing more interviews in full unedited form online.

I know, I know…this could get very tedious very quickly. But the point of an interview is not just to give somebody a platform but to discuss, challenge and hold to account. Without that we risk letting down the viewers and voters both the media and politicians are supposed to serve.

* 9 am Update*

In answer to a couple of twitter questions :

1.@DavidAllenGreen So it’s all a racket then?

No – I don’t want to overstate this. I’m describing how many political PRs and politicians try to manage the news. Certainly at C4 News we see it as our job to prevent it happening, and many other programmes and organisations do too. Most politicians, for example, know better than to try it on with people of the calibre of say Gary Gibbon or Michael Crick. In fact you will have noticed the trend for including questions from these sorts of journalists so you can see exactly what was asked and what was dodged.

2. @herealeuan Geeks like me and many others would be v interested to know which politicians were arranging pre-conditions to every interview.

I’ve written about pre-conditions before – we don’t agree questions, we sometimes find guests trying to specify subjects (so they don’t get asked about something they are either not prepared for or want to avoid) and we resist that

3. @shannonmkennedy It’s not that media let ’em get away with it; 24hr media requires soundbites. Press savviness classes teach it.

I think the era of the news channel and online news has changed things a little – the beast must be fed, and a good politician or PR knows that.