Beth Rigby's diary: Why I'm trying to revive the long-form interview

The oldest form of broadcasting is coming back into vogue, says Sky's political editor
May 12, 2022

One of the best things about having a new(ish) interview show on Sky News is being able to swap Hansard and government white papers and instead study guests’ briefs or read their books. Currently on my bedside table is Fiona Hill’s There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, which recounts Hill’s journey from a working-class background in Bishop Auckland, Durham to the White House, where she served as the top Russia expert to three US presidents, before winning international acclaim for her testimony in Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings.  

From such an ordinary start to such an extraordinary position, hers is a story sadly too rare. But one part that is strangely familiar to me is the book’s title: There is Nothing for You Here. It’s the warning her father Alf, an ex-miner, issued to his daughter, urging her to leave the northeast, then in the grips of post-industrial decline, to find a better life. It reminded me of a story my late mum Edith told me about her dad Bill, a bricklayer from Wigan. At the pub one Friday night, some of the men were goading him about why he was bothering to send his three daughters to grammar school given they’d only get married and go on to have kids. My grandad Bill replied: “because I don’t want them marrying lads like thine.” All three went on to college and had successful careers, while two of the sisters—my mum Edith, and Glenys—moved south, which was a source of both sorrow and pride for my grandad. My mum went on to become a headteacher, and her school sign hangs proudly on my kitchen wall. She was a remarkable woman too.

Another brilliant thing about the interview show is the pleasure (and the pain) of trying to revive the long-form interview as a form of inquiry to generate light rather than the heat, the white-hot heat, that seems constantly aflame in a social media world populated by clickbait. In a universe of noise, indignation and even fury, trying to step back from the fray and construct interviews that tell a story—with a beginning, a middle and an end—has been intellectually enjoyable and rewarding.  

Before we launched the show in March this year, my programme editor David Mapstone and I talked a lot about how we wanted to frame our interviews. Was it to be the Brian Walden method or the Jeremy Paxman one? Paxman’s approach was based on the old journalistic maxim, “ask yourself, why is this bastard lying to me?” but Walden—with whom David worked—used to construct a vast script, like a fantasy game book, with options and routes of enquiry. Walden based his technique on the proposition: “let’s imagine this person is telling the truth. What follows from that?”

The stifling heat made for a red-faced PM. Not the look you’re going for when answering questions on Partygate

In an era of scepticism tipping into cynicism, we decided that Walden’s approach might be just the tonic our viewers need—a combination of sincere curiosity and precision preparation. For all the noise and babble in our non-stop world of current affairs and news, the oldest form of broadcasting—the long-form interview—is coming back into vogue. Podcasts pushing long conversations between people are springing up every day, as are TV interview shows, be it Andrew Neil coming back on Channel 4, Piers Morgan on Talk TV or our own endeavour. People crave real conversation and insight. There’s a reason why experts such as Fiona Hill are back in favour and there’s never been a better time to watch interviews, or to make them—although I do reserve a little of the Paxman spirit for when I prepare for battle wearing my political editor hat.  

Wearing that political editor hat, armed with sunscreen and an automatic fan (my producer Mollie thinks of absolutely everything), we recently went on a 48-hour whistle-stop trip to India with the prime minister. Boris Johnson was in very good spirits when he came down to chat to assembled hacks on the plane about his hopes for a UK-India trade deal. But the bonhomie didn’t last long. Not even a day into the trip, his MPs rebelled over the government’s attempt to delay a parliamentary investigation into the PM and Partygate. The rebellion, shortly before he had to face the cameras for the broadcaster interview round, couldn’t have come at a worse moment and made for unfortunate optics. While the backdrop of the Akshardham temple couldn’t have been more breath-taking, the stifling humid heat made for a red-faced and sweating PM. Not the look you’re going for when answering questions over whether you had misled parliament. I should have lent him that fan.

Hours after I touched down at Stansted on Saturday at dawn, I was off again, this time heading to the cinema with my daughter and NINE (my caps) of her friends for her 10th birthday party (I hasten to add the party was organised before I was informed about the India trip). They watched Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, and I had a lovely sleep. That’s what you call multitasking.