Aggressive interviewing goes out of fashion

The macho interviewing style of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys was called into question last week by the softly-spoken BBC star journalist Evan Davis.  A bullying, hyper-aggressive approach, he said in an interview with the news site Byline.com, had been fresh and useful once, but had become worn out.

Arms race

Evan Davis

Davis argues in Byline.com that a macho approach to interviewing has had its day

“It’s just made an arms race where politicians become more defensive and instead of making gaffes they just sound obfuscatory and boring,” he said.

There’s no question that the Paxman style –  which you might caricature as “you’ve all got something to hide and I’m going to bully it out of you” – has made great entertainment over the years. Arrogant politicians, civil servants, businessmen and other public figures have been made to answer, on live television, for every detail of their actions and the consequences.  It has certainly concentrated the mind.

But public opinion has moved on and Davis’ remarks will have hit a chord.   As he pointed out to Byline.com: “it’s not really a public service to try and trip someone into a gaffe or get them to say something … in order to then blow it up into something which isn’t really what they meant.”

Less confrontational approach

A less confrontational approach – as practised by Davis himself – is far more effective at weedling out truly interesting material.  In any case, these days most senior public figures will have armed themselves against the heavy bombardment threat with preparation and practice, before agreeing to appear in front of the camera.


Fear of Paxman-style cuffing up is what turns many executives to media training

Fear of a Paxman-style duffing-up is what turns many executives to media trainers. We certainly train our clients to cope with the former Newsnight presenter’s interviewing style as one extreme of the techniques you are likely to face, and we include some aggressive questioning in our practice sessions.

And there is no doubt that being prepared and trained to fend off this kind of blustering assault is an essential part of preparation for a media interview.  But in reality the greater challenge to senior executives and politicians is elsewhere – how to be interesting.

Clear explanations, good examples

The vast majority of media interviewers are not interested in humiliating or embarrassing their targets, unless there is a real matter of substance involved; they need clear explanations, simple facts and good examples and an answer which says something their audience wants to hear.  They are happy to cooperate if you can deliver that.

For most interviewees, the challenge is working out how to make your message interesting, how to find stories to illustrate it, and how to ditch the jargon and waffle for good clear English.  That’s actually much tougher than simply keeping Jeremy Paxman at bay.


Oliver Wates

About Oliver Wates

Oliver Wates hosts communications training courses for The Media Coach. He was a Reuters journalist for 21 years, covering business and general news in more than a dozen countries. His role includes solo reporter, team reporter, bureau chief, desk subeditor and news editor. He has worked with print and broadcasting, reporting on international conflict, the arts, sports, finance and economics. Oliver Wates hosts Media Training, Crisis Media Training, Presentation Training and Message Building courses for The Media Coach.

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0 replies
  1. Robert Matthews says:

    I find that many delegates who’ve never been media trained are amazed to hear they’re unlikely to get “Paxo’d” in most interview situations for the simple pragmatic reason that journalists need relationships with contacts to get stories.

    As for delegates trained some years ago, they typically only know “defensive strokes”, taught in anticipation of bouncers that never arrive. Ironically, when opportunities to deliver key messages do arrive, they don’t know what to do.

    Anyone who was last media trained “back in the day” needs to get back in the nets and practise being less Geoff Boycott and more Joe Root.


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