The Today presenter preferred to score political points rather than properly interrogate his intervieweesby Julian Baggini / February 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
After 32 years on BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme, Today, John Humphrys has told the Daily Mail that he is “assuming” he’ll leave the programme this year. Unfortunately, his legacy will be a style of interviewing that has made our news media less, not better equipped to give our politicians the scrutiny and interrogation a healthy democracy needs.
The media plays a vital role in holding those in positions of power and responsibility to account. One of the tools at its disposal is the interview, where leading players in public and civic life are interrogated. But the antagonistic, dismissive interviewing style which Humphrys has exemplified—“Humphing” as we might call it in (dis)honour of its most famous practitioner—encourages a form of point-scoring which fails to address the most important issues and instead turns the interview into a kind of debating contest.
Humphry’s recent interview with Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, was not, thankfully, vintage Humphrys, but it still exemplified the failings of his approach all too well. Part of the problem is the tone and manner, which transcripts alone cannot convey. Humphing involves a world-weary cynicism, with dismissive laughs and sighs of exasperated disbelief. “You know full well…” he told her in one characteristic hector. Most egregiously, he also let out an incredulous “Oh come on, you know that makes no sense…” when McEntee had made the perfectly sensible point that the referendum result was to leave the EU and it was the government that chose to interpret that as leaving the single market and customs union. All this encourages a sense of superiority in the interviewer and listener, irrespective of what the interviewee is actually saying.
Humphing also involves making accusatory assertions where there should be a question. For example, in the McEntee interview Humphrys said: “what you’re now saying, and it will sound a bit arrogant to a lot of people on this side of the Irish sea, is that you’ll have to go along with something that you voted to leave.”This begs the question as to whether staying in the customs union was what the referendum result meant (I won’t bore you further with the details of the Northern Irish backstop). It is also an accusation that the Irish are guilty of telling the UK it can’t have what it voted for. Adding the “it will sound a bit arrogant” clause was just a cheap ad hominem flourish.
One “skill” Humphrys did not display in the McEntee was point-scoring. A classic example of this was a vintage 2001 interview with Tony Blair which Humphrys framed around the then-prime minister’s aspiration, stated in opposition, to lead a government that was “purer than pure.” This was a cheap shot, since the remark was even at the time obviously hyperbolic. Blair immediately conceded that following the alleged failings of MP Keith Vaz his government had clearly not been snow white. But Humphrys persisted, later rejecting Blair’s claims to have upheld high standards by saying “that’s not the point, purer than pure…” But the real point is whether Blair’s government met high enough standards for the public to have trust in it. “Purer than pure” is only the point if the point is to score points, which Humphrys seemed to think it was.Point-scoring merely takes attention away from the real issues of importance that need to be discussed and towards whatever it is that enables one side to claim a victory.
Many defend Humphrys by saying interviewers have to play hardball. When we are dealing with politicians, surely we are dealing with people who are constantly striving to spin, dissemble, and evade. Anything less than dealing robustly with them is to let them off the hook.
But this objection assumes that Humphing is indeed a strong and robust style of questioning, when it’s really just aggressive and counterproductive posturing. If anything it lets interviewees off the hook with its blunt, blundering questions that lack sharpness and analytic precision.
One reason why Humphing is so ineffective is that when an interviewee senses that the interviewer is aggressively gunning for them, the defences come up, the drawbridge is raised, and it is even harder to get them to be honest and open. Every psychologist would tell you that strongly offensive questioning provokes a strongly defensive response, but Humphers are not generally interested in good empirical evidence, preferring to trust their gut instincts.
Humphrys’ final question to McEntee illustrated all too well the opportunity costs of bad interviewing. He asked that, since Britain was an important export market for Ireland, “there has to be argument, doesn’t there, that instead of Dublin telling this country that we have to stay in the single market… why doesn’t the Republic of Ireland leave the European Union and throw in their lot with this country?”
Well, no, there doesn’t have to be an argument, does there? This was a stupid question that was only ever going to elicit the obvious reply that the Republic of Ireland trades more with the rest of the EU (and countries the EU has made deals with) than it does with the UK. Humphrys chose a childish provocation over a question that could have resulted in a genuinely informative answer.
Humphrys has had his moments, such as his 2012 grilling of George Entwistle, the then BBC Director-General who resigned shortly afterwards, not coincidentally. Humphing does sometimes work, just as any bad tactic can sometimes result in victory. That doesn’t make it a good tactic.
The retirement of Humphrys will not see the end of Humphing. Nick Robinson has morphed into what could easily be mistaken for some kind of parody of his older colleague. The better Martha Kearney has shown some signs of going native since joining the programme, but is the source of some hope, as is the excellent Mishal Husain. For a more wholesale change for the better we will have to await an editor that sees through the “robust” myth and demands interviews that are smarter, not tougher, incisive not derisive.
This article draws on the essay “The Ethics of Interrogation” in the newly published Media Ethics, Free Speech, and the Requirements of Democracy edited by Carl Fox and Joe Saunders (Routledge).