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Side-stepping the question

Gavin Allen | 10:15 UK time, Wednesday, 30 January 2008

It's the broadcast equivalent of being beaten over the head with a very heavy economics manual. Repeatedly. After a while it becomes a tad wearing. You duck and weave, to try to avoid the crashing blow, but back comes the manual with an inevitable thud. And there's Gordon Brown wielding it relentlessly. He'd like you to know that inflation and interest rates are at a low level in this country. And the economy's stable. And as luck would have it we're in a very good position to withstand any global economic downturn. Hold on, what was the precise question again? He doesn't care - thud, here's his answer.

Gordon Brown and Jon SopelThe interview that Jon Sopel conducted with the prime minister for the Politics Show this weekend addressed the economy, street crime, welfare reform and Europe among other topics.

The questions were thoughtful and serious and so were the answers. But any resemblance between the two was entirely coincidental.

Instead the interview became a traditional Two Ronnies sketch in a modern setting: prime minister answers his own question, again and again, with no comedic results whatsoever. But maddening though it is for Jon and the production team - hours of finely-honed questions battered into submission by the weighty manual - can you actually blame Gordon Brown for playing the straight man? In short, no.

Our job is to analyse and test and hold to account. But it's not his, so why should he play our game? Why play mouse to our cat when he can sidestep the traps and instead tell the viewers directly what he feels they need to hear?

He made absolutely sure he got his message across. The economy's in safe hands. And so are our streets. And British sovereignty. While the media generally hails gloom and recession round every corner - failure, disaster: great story! - politicians deal in triumphs at every turn. No wonder, as Mr Brown told us, being prime minister "is the best job in the world".

Luckily for us, non-answers and side-stepping can still make for an interesting interview and Jon did a fine job trying to nail the proverbial jelly to the wall (no offence, prime minister).

Let's be clear: we are absolutely committed to the in-depth extensive interview - and Gordon Brown's welcome to come on again. But if the long-form exchange is going to offer more than a short-form interview on an extended loop, then we might need to re-think how we get answers to the actual questions we (repeatedly) put. That's our job and it matters, as our viewers made clear from their responses. The question is how to achieve it. A clunking fist is, I fear, not an option.


  • 1.
  • At 11:10 AM on 30 Jan 2008,
  • DaveH wrote:

Why not put the question in writing ona strap along the bottom of the screen until it is answered? At the end, the interviewer can say "Thank you x, you havbe not addressed y questions still showing on the bottom of the screen".

Politicians would always like to answer the question they wanted to be asked, but this is precisely why the public are turned off them.

Hang on, surely being held to account is absolutely part of his role as Chief Executive of HM Government? If we're really saying he can't be expected to answer difficult questions, let's shut Millbank and all go home. We can watch The Two Ronnies on UK Gold.

And next time I have a job appraisal, I'll keep telling my boss all the good things I did, and ignore his/her questions about the bad things. I'm sure he/she will be equally understanding.

  • 3.
  • At 01:47 PM on 30 Jan 2008,
  • Scott Graham wrote:

Aside from Paxman, I have yet to hear an interviewer say to the political interviewee - 'I'm sorry can you answer the question I asked'

Paxman did it once and it has become a world famous clip. Why? Every interviewer should do it every time they are shown disrespect by the interviewee.

I am happy to carry out the duties if none of your journalists feel up to the task.

Well there is one similarity with your boss, Simon. Like the voter with the prime minister, ultimately he can sack you if he doesn't like your non-responsive approach. But for the interviewer that's not an immediate option (or goal). I'm not for a minute saying the prime minister shouldn't answer the question - I'm saying he all too often doesn't and that inevitably presents challenges for us. Twas ever thus of course, but rarely so relentlessly or to such an extent. There's always the Paxman-Howard approach of course. And DaveH's question straps idea is certainly an intriguing one. Could both make for some very long - if entertaining - interviews.

The people will (hopefully) be able to make their own minds up as a result of the answers he gave, and more importantly the ones he didn't give.

Very few will take a politician's pronouncements at face value any more (I hope), although I fear most will have expected no substantive responses, and simply see it as "business as usual", "unsurprising", and will allow collective apathy to rule their judgment.

The question is, are you willing to allow an interview to become nothing more than a party political broadcast on behalf of the idiots claiming to run the country?

  • 6.
  • At 03:31 PM on 30 Jan 2008,
  • RobC wrote:

How about a bit of audience participation? After the interviewee has given his/her answer, the interviewer turns to the audience to ask whther they believe that the question has been answered sufficiently. The audience could then vote. Regardless of the audiences view the interviwer moves on to the next question. At the end of the interview, the interviewer tells the interviewee (and the audience) that the interviewee was asked X questions of which, according to the audience s/he sufficiently answered Y.

Best to ditch the interviewer and cover real debates and conversations amongst MPs of differing views and from different parties.

There should be far more coverage of parliamentary debates, parliamentary committee hearings and public meetings. I would much rather see one elected person debate with another elected person.

  • 8.
  • At 04:06 PM on 30 Jan 2008,
  • Pobman wrote:

Why not just pre-record the interview and refuse to show it unless the questions are answered? Starving the politicians of the oxygen of publicity is the best way to ensure that they ctually respond to what is being asked.

  • 9.
  • At 07:44 PM on 30 Jan 2008,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:


I think Jon Sopel is generally a very good interviewer. He certainly didn't shy away from pursuing a particular line of enquiry with Patricia Hewitt 3 or 4 times as she was equivocating or trying to avoid answering the question. She did eventually succumb and try to answer the question as put.

However the problems in this interview were largely, but not entirely, of the Prime Minister's making. Since located at the World Economic Forum it was reasonable to focus on the economy for the first five minutes of the interview.

However it ill behoves you to then complain that the interview became focused on economic facts & figures, as it did rather set the scene for the rest of the interview. A more broad brush introduction may have helped set the scene rather better.

So although Brown was rude to dive in on the 'police pay' question, having framed the early part of the interview about inflation and the economy, does preclude you from too much complaining about the response to the later question being framed in these terms. Maybe you should have focused on the 'My Word Is My Bond' trust element lost when the deal approved at binding arbitration was rescinded.

Despite that you are right to feel aggrieved that he tried the same interruption technique when Sopel brought up the quote from the widow - that was unforgivable and redolent of the attempt to 'set the scene' at PMQs by running through the list of soldiers killed in action, to try and deflect hostile questioning. This is shameless politicking, totally insincere and should be stopped.

However there were some classics in the interview. Brown's slip over the Peter Hain 'resignation' was picked up very sharply indeed by Jon Sopel.

And whatever other aspects of the interview might have been less than satisfactory [particularly Brown's continual interruption of questions] the fact that he referred to the Lisbon Treaty as the ' so-called Constitutional Treaty..' was worth the price of admission alone !!!

Someone suggested having debates, we have enough MPs in the UK Parliament alone that 2 different people could debate one another every single day in an half hour slot - if only the BBC could bring itself to spend less time on EastEnders, makeover shows or lotto draws and show something that eveb looked like it's PSB obligations.

Which do you think would better inform the public: Sopel doing the BBC house style, sneery, cynical interview routine with one eye on point scoring or two public servants actually discussing topical issues which affect their electorate?

When was the last time some Welsh Assembly member got airtime on BBC One - other than when they are having to respond to an often whipped up fake crisis that is? An MSP? A London Assembly Member? The Mayor of London?

  • 11.
  • At 12:55 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • pete hibberdine wrote:

I can't help thinking the Spike Milligan approach would be more productive in these situations:
"So Gordon, your stewardship of this mighty country, the economy in particular, but also crime and education seems to suggest you've read a lot of books. Tell me: Is Noam Chomsky REALLY a gnome?"

  • 12.
  • At 12:58 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • John wrote:

I remember an interview where Paxman had Michael Howard dodging the question about who fired the prison service head.

When Howard did not answer the question he just kept asking it. I've seen this clip several times, repeated as a classic piece of TV.

How about making it clear in advance to our unelected PM that this is going to happen - If you don't answer the question we will state that you have not answered it ask the question again.

Under no circumstances let him off the hook.

The thing that really worries me about Gordon Brown (or come to that any other politician in power), is that they end up believing what they say - even when they are saying nothing. e.g. Side stepping the question. So they probably believe that these really are the answers to the questions which are being asked. Now isn't that really scary.

  • 14.
  • At 04:21 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • James wrote:

Easiest thing to do is to have a policy of cutting the interview short if the interviewee isn't answering the questions put to them.

That way these parasites who supposedly represent our interests will be starved of the publicity they feed off.

  • 15.
  • At 11:42 PM on 31 Jan 2008,
  • the truth wrote:

"Like the voter with the prime minister, ultimately he can sack you if he doesn't like your non-responsive approach"

Wrong. A better analogy would be having millions of bosses, enough of whom blindly vote to keep you

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