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.
“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 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.