John Humphrys - Interviews: Are They a Democratic Duty for Politicians?

August 23, 2019, 10:49 AM GMT+0

Democracy is under threat and that, in part, is because leading politicians are refusing to be interviewed at length, or even at all, by probing journalists on television and radio. That is the view of Dorothy Byrne, the head of news and current affairs at Channel Four. In her forthright MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Ms Byrne called Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn ‘cowards’ for dodging such interviews. She also said that journalists should be prepared to call politicians liars when they say things they know aren’t true. So how important to our democracy is political interviewing? Is of crucial, as Byrne suggests, or are voters perfectly capable of weighing up politicians without it? And what part does social media play? Can it – or should it - replace the broadcasting studio?

Ms Byrne’s case is that there has been a big change in the relationship between politicians and the broadcast media, especially television, and that it is bad for democracy. She said: ‘In the past, our politicians accepted that they had to be held accountable on television. But in recent years there has been a dramatic fall in politicians holding themselves up to proper scrutiny on television and in recent months and even weeks that decline has, in my view, become critical for our democracy. … I genuinely fear that in the next election campaign there will be too little proper democratic debate and scrutiny to enable voters to make informed decisions.’

She contrasted the current scene with what was going on thirty or forty years ago when Margaret Thatcher and others would routinely do live interviews with the likes of Robin Day and Brian Walden that could last up to forty five minutes. More recently, she said, Theresa May was unwilling to submit herself to an interview that lasted more than six or seven minutes and she rounded on Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson for shunning the long interview.

Mr Corbyn’s minders, she said, would sometimes restrict an interview to a single question which, she said, he then did not answer. As for Mr Johnson, he had refused requests for extended broadcast interviews and opted instead for a live question and answer session with members of the public on Facebook. He claimed they were ‘unpasteurised and unmediated’ (i.e. by a pesky middleman, the interviewer). But Ms Byrne said this amounted to little more than propaganda, because the questions were pre-selected and there was no opportunity for any comeback.

She said: ‘I believe Mrs Thatcher would agree with me: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are cowards. She had a word for men like them – frit.’

So, in her view, democracy is under threat because politicians have become cowards in not facing up to their duty to be interviewed and have their views scrutinised on television. Is she right?

Of course, you would expect a political interviewer like me immediately to agree with her wholeheartedly. But first it’s worth doing what she rightly believes all journalists should do and subject her argument to examination - in particular her claim that our party leaders have become self-serving cowards.

One of the more revealing anecdotes she tells concerns her failed attempt to get the then prime minister, Theresa May, to give an interview to Channel Four at the 2018 Conservative Party Conference. Indeed she says that Mrs May ‘made history’ by giving interviews to neither Channel Four nor Channel Five, eliciting a protest to Downing Street from all the other major broadcasters. Ms Byrne said: ‘When we were trying to get that interview, Robbie Gibb, May’s press supremo, said to us: “What’s in it for us?”. As if interviews were purely for the benefit of politicians and not the public’.

By drawing attention to our current leaders’ sense of self-interest, she implies that their predecessors (or at least some of them) were not so self-serving. But is that so obviously the case? Margaret Thatcher is evidently her hero in this regard and a case can indeed be made that she did interviews out of a sense of her democratic duty. Unlike her successors, she did not agree to interviews only if and when it was politically expedient for her to do so. She would commit herself to them months ahead and would turn up even if the circumstances had turned against her. She went ahead with a famous fifty-minute interview with Brian Walden even though her Chancellor had suddenly walked out of her government only a week earlier. As her political opponent, Tony Benn, admiringly put it, she was a teacher with a strong sense of democratic duty to instruct her voter/pupils what to think and a political interview was simply a practical means of carrying out that duty.

But is it quite as simple as that? In those days, television and radio, along with newspapers, were the only means by which a politician could communicate with a mass audience. So the answer in those days to Gibb’s question (“What’s in it for us?”) was simple: going on television to do an interview was very much to a politician’s advantage whether they had a sense of democratic duty or not. Having to submit themselves to tricky questioning was simply the price that had to be paid for that access. In short, agreeing to do interviews was not necessarily a mark of democratic probity but simply something a politician had to do to reach a big audience.

That, however, has now changed. Social media have given politicians access to huge audiences without the need to subject themselves to the dangers of an interview. And if it is self-serving, even ‘cowardly’, to choose social media over a television interview as a means of reaching the electorate, isn’t there even a moral justification for that too? After all, most politicians genuinely believe that what they espouse is in the country’s interests and that what their opponents believe is very much against the country’s interests, so their first duty is to get elected and to exploit whatever means are available to do so.

The question, then, is not perhaps whether politicians have recently become cynics and cowards primarily interested in what’s in it for them rather than in the broader welfare of democracy. It’s whether the brave new world of social media and the challenges it poses to traditional broadcasting and political interviewing mean we are losing something that democracy vitally needs.

Dorothy Byrne put it this way: ‘In the difficult period we are entering, we need the truth and we need proper scrutiny of all our major politicians. Television is a bulwark of our democracy and those who undermine its role are undermining democracy.’

I suspect you can guess what my own views might be on this subject, but this is your forum. Tell us what you think.

Let us know.