Magazine

Can ordinary people make good interviewers?

  • 13 April 2011
  • From the section Magazine

Gillian Duffy - famously called "bigoted" by Gordon Brown last year - has been tackling Nick Clegg about the coalition. So can members of the public make good interviewers?

It's that woman again. When Nick Clegg came to Rochdale to visit a factory on Tuesday, pensioner Gillian Duffy was waiting for him. He greeted her with a friendly smile, and was then given a grilling.

This was, apparently, no chance encounter. Since an open mic caught Gordon Brown calling her a "bigoted woman" almost a year ago, Mrs Duffy has been befriended by the local Labour MP, Simon Danczuk. He reportedly alerted her to Mr Clegg's visit and suggested she take the chance to have her say.

And that she did, repeatedly pressing the deputy prime minister on his choice of coalition partner. So how did she fare as an interviewer?

"She clearly has a natural ability to ask tough questions of politicians - she did it last year with Gordon Brown," says Richard Bacon, of BBC Radio 5 live.

He admires her ability to cut through misdirection - a tactic politicians often use when faced with tricky questions.

"You ask them a question, they set out their own premise and then answer that. Nick Clegg did this."

Mrs Duffy asked Mr Clegg whether he could look her in the eye and say he was happy with the coalition's policy decisions. He replied: "I tell you what, whoever was in power now, any government now, would have to take difficult decisions."

She is the latest voter to put a political leader on the spot. In 2001, Sharon Storer angrily challenged Tony Blair about the hospital conditions her ill partner had to endure. And in 1983, Diana Gould repeatedly asked Margaret Thatcher why the Argentine warship General Belgrano was sunk when it was outside an exclusion zone.

These "citizen interviewers" benefit from having an agenda, coming with just one question that demands an answer.

And Dr Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, of the Cardiff School of Journalism, says this is why the public play an increasingly central role in news-gathering.

"Ordinary people might be seen to embody the interests and viewpoints of the audience, and better represent their interests than professional journalists, who are sometimes viewed as an elite group that's out of touch."

Bacon agrees.

"They can be quite single-minded, and become like a dog with a bone. But the professional interviewer has to remain courteous and come to it with a broader remit," he says, adding that he sometimes has a list of up to 30 questions.

Newsnight's Emily Maitlis says voters-turned-interviewers are less encumbered by what they're "supposed" to ask, or what producers are telling them to ask, so can cut to the chase.

"But just because you are an ordinary person, and look a politician in the eye and say 'trust me Nick, what do you really feel' doesn't mean Nick Clegg is about to break down in tears and treat you like you're his mum.

"She got exactly the same response as a TV interview an hour earlier. That is clearly Nick Clegg's answer to a question he has answered many, many times before."

Emma Gilliam, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism, says questions from members of the public are more likely to be partial - but no less interesting for being subjective and, at times, emotional.

"It's like when you have a conversation with someone who is engaged. Your brain goes in a great gear, you're inquisitive.

"Take, for example, a planning application row. A journalist will come at it objectively and get both sides of the story. But someone faced with the prospect of a block of flats being built at the end of their garden is going to come at it subjectively. But it will still be interesting."

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