New spin on interviewing

Last week I was involved in one of the more unusual TV pairings of recent years “Alastair Campbell interviews Peter Mandelson”.

When you ask one New Labour “spin-meister” to interview another New Labour “spin-meister” it’s safe to assume that the outcome is not exactly within your control. At the risk of sounding immodest, I reckon this was one of the most honest and illuminating political interviews of recent years and, by New Labour standards, it was distinctly offmessage.

Of course not everyone shares my view.

Simon Hoggart of The Guardian, who attended the preview screening, described it as a “fang to fang feast of misinformation” and concluded it was “a load of old cobras”.

On the day of transmission I was delighted to see that our schedulers here at Five had decided to follow on with a nature show called Seven Deadly Snakes.

Perhaps it was because I’d been expecting Alastair and Peter to cook up some ultra-Machiavellian New Labour showpiece that I was so surprised by the rawness and candour of much of the encounter.

They obviously did confer before the interview, but I know that Mandelson had decided this was an opportunity to get a lot off his chest in public. I also know that Campbell got rather more than he bargained for – notably on the Blair succession strategy.

To hear Mandelson – the Prince of Darkness – acknowledge his “loathsome” reputation, and confess to having roughed people up too harshly, was surprising enough.

For me, however, the real gold dust was the insight into Mandelson’s professional and psychological innerconflict between “Peter the able Government minister” and “Peter the ruthless behind-the-scenes manipulator of the Blairite modernising project”.

Campbell and Mandelson: raising the bar for TV interviews?

This was a rare confessional moment from a very shrewd politician.

This soul-searching conversation clearly could only have occurred because both men trusted one another sufficiently to ask and answer some extremely direct and difficult questions.

Mandelson and Campbell were definitely jousting for real – there was nothing fake about the flashes of irritation and the general electricity between them.

Contrast this with the bland and unilluminating political interviews we see day-in, day-out on television, with journalists trying to get a line or a rise out of a media-trained minister.

So how does television shake off the curse of these synthetic nightly confrontations between reporters or presenters and politicians? Obviously, we can’t go around asking political chums to interview each other in the hope of turning up the odd exclusive revelation, but it does show that a bit more trust and openness from both the interviewer and the interviewee could produce some much more interesting and revealing results.

Perhaps our politicians could be less defensive and our journalists could be less offensive.

In the meantime, what a delicious irony that a brace of New Labour’s spin kings should actually provide one of the most honest insights into New Labour thinking.

The BBC has been celebrating 50 years of television news on and off screen with a series of programmes, events and interviews.

The anniversary coincided (deliberately I suspect) with some significant announcements on the lesson learnt from Hutton.

The overall impression to an outsider like myself is a bit odd, frankly.

The mix of excessive soul-searching and collective back-slapping produced some strange vibes. It’s the kind of occasion where you are not sure if you are supposed to burst into applause or remain in penitent silence.

The fact is that the BBC News and Current Affairs department, with its 7,000 staff, is a stupendous institution and, I imagine, the biggest concentration of journalistic firepower in the world. Frankly, the whole country should be celebrating its 50th anniversary.

BBC News, with the exception of BBC News 24 and the digital news offerings on BBC Three and Four, is in pretty rude health. Its online service is unquestionably a world-beater.

As for the penitence bit, I found the University of HNTFUA (How Not To Fuck Up Again) an idea too far. The BBC already runs excellent training programmes, so did they really need yet another BBC offshoot and another BBC building to house it in? I thought the Empire was supposed to be shrinking! And finally, some further reflections on virtual reality and graphics. These days a news programme isn’t a news programme unless it includes at least one whizzbang virtual reality sequence. However, it’s often a pretty hit-and-miss business.

Reproducing high-end 3D graphic environments on a daily deadline is unquestionably a huge technological achievement, but too often the effects are faintly comical or clunky.

Viewers now expect sophisticated graphics on television and, however hard they try, news graphics will never have quite the polish of a CGI film or documentary sequence.

There’s one other issue here.

Personally I feel the vogue for virtual reality news studios and giant video walls are helping to depersonalise our television news programmes.

Presenters reduced to the size of Subbuteo figures can’t possibly convey the nuance of a news story in the way a trusted and authoritative newscaster can in glorious close-up. I do hope the fashion for giant graphic images, which dwarf the human face of news, has now peaked. 

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Chris Shaw

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