Eddie Mair on interviewing Boris: 'We achieved what we wanted out of it'

Four journalism students from Northampton University secured the first interview with the BBC's Eddie Mair since his controversial interview with London Mayor Boris Johnson on Sunday.

Mair concluded his tough interview by asking the Johnson if he was "a nasty piece of work". By Tuesday the BBC had received nearly 600 complaints about the interview.
 
The four students were visiting the BBC studios to watch the broadcast of the Andrew Marr show, on which Mair was a stand-in presenter, and interviewed him over breakfast.
 
Students Cali Sullivan, Zi Patel-Champion, Catherine Wilson and Carissa Jumu carried out the interview and were accompanied by head of department John Mair (no relation).
 
Here are some extracts from the interview:
 
Sullivan: "So do the questions just come from the top of your head?"
 
EM: "No, no, we have a plan for each interview that we talk about.
 
"We spent several hours yesterday planning each interview, where to start, where to end up, how to ask certain questions, whether to be open and... whether to be a bit more aggressive.
 
"So I’ve got my plan in front of me on the set."
 
Sullivan: "With the interview with Boris Johnson, he got quite ruffled towards the end of it – would that stop you from questioning or does that make you want more?"

EM: "No, we kind of did... we achieved what we wanted out of it, which was to look in detail at some of the stuff that appeared in the documentary that is a less cuddly picture of Boris than the public know and to get him to talk about that.

"There were three points we wanted to make. Having done that we then wanted to move on to something else but by which time I think he... realised he hadn’t made many points.
 
"He said on the interview, on air, that he wanted to talk about the Budget but actually his people told us he didn’t want to talk about the Budget, so we didn’t ask him about the Budget. So maybe he’d been a little bit ingenuous there – maybe he had just forgot.
 
"We had 12 minutes for the interview, which in television terms you don’t see many 12-minute interviews much anywhere apart from this programme and maybe Newsnight.
 
"But 12 minutes even being a long time in television terms is virtually no time to cover much ground so again you have to decide beforehand and pick one or two topics that you can cover in great depth or a bit more scattered and get four five or six topics but in less depth – so it’s a sort of balance."
 
Patel-Champion: "Do you have a preference - radio or television?"
 
EM: "I don’t really have a preference. The main thing is the actual journalism, if that doesn’t sound too portentous. Whether we can say something asking the questions, whether we’re picking the right angles... the medium doesn’t really matter.
 
"I suppose you’ve got to wear a suit on television, which is annoying. I get to dress like a tramp for radio so there is that, but apart from that it is about the journalism."
 
Sullivan: "Who’s been your favourite interviewee?"
 
EM: "Well there’re some people who are nice to interview because you find them interesting like Henry [Goodman] today.
 
"It’s nice to hear from someone who’s at the top of their game or interesting and engaging. In terms of interviews I suppose as a journalist you want to get people to say things that haven’t been said before or ideally I want to make an interviewee think in an interview. Because often politicians have got their brief, their notes and have a message they want to stick to so to be honest this is one of the things with Boris today.
 
"I think we made him think a little or at least slightly unsettled him from his usual very measured and very confident performance – it was about trying to examine other aspects of his past and his character.
 
"If you are able to achieve what you set out to achieve then those are the best interviews.
 
"I can never remember exact interviews – I remember today but if you ask me tomorrow what happened today I wouldn’t be able to remember."
 
Patel-Champion: "If you had that one minute longer who would you like it to be with?"
 
EM: "From today’s programme?"
 
Zi Patel-Champion: "Any interview?"
 
EM: "Oh well again I’m serious now – I can’t really remember - maybe a little longer with Boris.
 
"With interviews... there can be a temptation to keep things going and they run out of steam or you realise actually we should have stopped two minutes ago.
 
"The idea of leaving people wanting more is quite good really. But when I watch  top BBC programmes, [with] other people, I never think, 'that was a dumb interview, why did you fail, that’s the question you failed to ask', because I know what it’s like for every question you ask there are another 20 questions. You can’t possibly ask them all."
 
Sullivan: "What’s your best and worst, favourite and least favourite thing about journalism?
 
EM: "Favourite thing, asking questions. It’s a very simple idea but don’t be afraid to ask another question – I don’t mean in a live interview, but when your speaking to someone. Don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question – I do it all the time. Sometimes asking a very basic question is what you should do,
 
"Alan Alda who you may or may not know, he was an actor in M*A*S*H, which you may or may not know – he did a series on science for a channel and for his first couple of programmes he read up and knew almost as much as the scientists so he asked a lot of technical, very detailed questions because he wanted to know as much as they did and to show that he had an interest in the subject.
 
"He realised, of course, from the point of view of the people watching that what he wanted to do was ask the scientist, what is the universe? Where does gas come from? Because that’s what informs people – you shouldn’t use the opportunity to show off, so I’d say ask questions. That’s the best advice and listen."
 
John Mair: "Any advice for young journalists?"
 
EM: "What I would say is at the core, ask the questions you want to ask, that may sound pretentious, but I think that is really important.

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