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Five things we learned about the art of the political interview

In this week’s episode of Radio 4’s The Media Show presenter Amol Rajan quizzes three journalists from the worlds of radio, print and television on how to conduct a successful political interview.
The three journalists are:

  • Iain Dale: a columnist, blogger, pundit and host of his own radio show on LBC.

  • Rachel Sylvester: a columnist for The Times - and with Alice Thomson - conducts the paper's Saturday Interview.

  • Andrew Marr: who’s been interviewing politicians right back to his days in the lobby in the 1980s, and now amongst other things interviews key figures in the news on BBC One.

Download or listen to this episode of The Media Show.

[L to R] Iain Dale, Andrew Marr, Rachel Sylvester, Amol Rajan

1. What is the point of the political interview?

Rachel Sylvester: “You’re trying to get something out of them that they don’t necessarily want to say. You’re trying to reveal something about the character, what drives the politician that perhaps goes beyond the soundbites that they sometimes produce for radio or television.”

Some interviewers go into an interview intending to skewer a politician. If you do that you inevitably don’t achieve that.

Andrew Marr: ”Enlightenment. Certainly for a TV interview I'm trying to do two very different things at the same time. I want to get the story - what are the series of questions that are going to allow somebody to say something that changes the world of politics even if only his infinitesimally. I judge myself by the newspaper stories and the online stories that follow any particular programme. But secondly, at the same time, for the couple of million people watching the show I really want them to be able to understand the person on the other side of conversation better.”

2. Don’t go into the interview with the intention of catching the interviewee out

Iain Dale: “Some interviewers go into an interview intending to skewer a politician. If you do that you inevitably don’t achieve that. If the politician gives you an excuse to skewer them, fine, you go and do it but to think you’ve got to get the front page headline on the Daily Mail out of every interview you do is dangerous.”

3. It’s all in the details

Rachel Sylvester: “With a newspaper interview you’ve got a bit more space to go beyond the daily headlines and sometimes it’s the smallest things that are the most revealing, I remember going to see Jeffrey Archer in his penthouse and Mary was flitting around offering coffee and she didn’t know whether he took sugar in his coffee and it’s sometimes those small interesting details that are the most revealing about the person.

It’s not rocket science, is it? Because if you let someone talk they're bound to say something interesting at some point.

4. Encourage the interviewee to talk – sometimes a nod is all it takes

Andrew Marr: “The answer is to encourage someone to talk more and more. The best interviews I thought with Margaret Thatcher were not the confrontational ones but the ones where it effect was where the interviewer said in effect ‘Prime Minister, tell us what's on your mind... Really? Oh… Go on….” It would all pour out in this great sort of molten lava of political thinking.”

Iain Dale: “It’s not rocket science, is it? Because if you let someone talk they're bound to say something interesting at some point. You can't do that in a five minute interview, but you can if you've got someone for an hour.”

5. And finally, is it OK to interrupt the interviewee?

Iain Dale: “It's justified when you're not getting an answer.”

You can tell by the eyes they're not even thinking, they haven't listened to your question

Andrew Marr: “For every single interview I do I know exactly how long. I'm got sitting down and I've got seven minutes dead. Or I've got sixteen minutes, dead, whatever it is and a certain number of things to get through. I think we’re probably all familiar with the experience of a politician beginning a sentence and you know exactly what every single syllable will be for the next thirty seconds because they've said it again and again and aga in. Generally speaking I let them say it once, and then if you get the same pre-digested answer again - you can tell by the eyes they're not even thinking, they haven't listened to your question, they're not thinking about the answer, it just come straight out of the larynx, and at that stage then you have a right and indeed duty to interrupt.”

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