The art of the political interview

BY VIKRAM JOHRI| IN Media Practice | 20/09/2014
Teasing something genuinely new out of a politician is a rare skill all over the world.
VIKRAM JOHRI looks at how Indian journalists are faring and finds the results so so. PIX: Natwar Singh

In the clips of the famous interview that David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977, there is a scene in which Frost goads the former American President to apologise for his involvement in Watergate. He tells him calmly, “I think the American people would like to hear it,” and when he says this, a smile crosses Nixon’s face. It is not a smile of sarcasm. It is the smile of a person who is capitulating, but is happy to do so, as if a weight is lifting from his chest. Nixon did go on to rue his role in the scandal, and the interview became a landmark in journalism. 

The clip is available on YouTube and makes for fascinating viewing. The political interview, says Ian Katz, editor of the BBC’s Newsnight programme, “is a transaction that must yield something useful for both sides – and, especially, the audience”. 

Few political interviews reach this standard. Politicians either rehash known positions or digress when asked to make pointed remarks. The interviewer, unless he has the skills of a Frost, can come across as either too aggressive or too yielding. As for the audience, they are none the wiser at the end of it all. 

Since democracies are the only systems where the political interview thrives, it is pertinent to ask how the beast is faring in India. The scene in India, from recent evidence, leaves a lot to be desired. Journalists are known to hobnob with politicians with alarming regularity, raising the question of their integrity. 

Senior journalists who are supposed to show the mirror to those in power cannot do so unless they maintain a wall between politicians and themselves. Even David Frost was a British journalist and had had no truck with the Americans when he got Nixon to make those confessions. 

The timing of the interview is equally important. In the heat of the moment, when the politician is under the scanner or, more likely, is trying to save his skin, he is unlikely to offer much of value. Frost met Nixon years after Watergate and hindsight may have prompted Nixon to look to his legacy rather than his immediate interests. 

Ditto for Natwar Singh’s born-again status as media darling in the wake of the publication of his book, One Life is not Enough. There is, however, one crucial difference between the Frost-Nixon and Natwar episodes when it comes to the media’s handling. 

The Natwar Singh interview was like a film on reel that was played again and again, except on different channels. That Singh was penning a book about his time in the Congress was fairly well-known in media circles. Even so, no media outlet thought it fit to discuss the matter with him before his book came out. That might have qualified as something. 

In the event, Singh waxed leisurely on his falling out with Sonia Gandhi and said not one thing that was not already in the book. He had been out of power for nearly 10 years, so was clearly enjoying the spotlight. But it was the media that came back looking like the fool. 

The one-on-one political interview assumes special significance in today’s culture of primetime panels assembled, one assumes hastily, by channel organisers. These are often reduced to shouting matches between the participants. Some channels are known to put together a mini-team of participants, as it were, with everyone jostling for space to put across the party line. With the primetime space having become so crowded (in both ways), the political interview can be one way for both the interviewer and interview to reach out to the audience. 

After former CAG Vinod Rai accused former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel of wrongdoing with regard to the purchase of aircraft for Air India, Arnab Goswami of Times Now interviewed both of them separately for his show “Frankly Speaking”. 

While Rai alleged that he had been “nudged” by officials in the civil aviation ministry to drop references to Patel, Patel himself referred to the report the former CAG had placed before Parliament on the issue, which of course, had not mentioned him. The two gentlemen seemed to be adopting irreconcilable positions and it was one man’s word against another’s. Goswami, in his characteristic style, tried to pin down Patel, but Patel refused to budge. 

Examples of interviews that serve no purpose save present a platform to a politician are aplenty. India TV's Rajat Sharma's interview with Narendra Modi was telecast weeks before Modi became Prime Minister. It is clear from the questions asked and the reaction of the audience that the show was scripted to the last word. 

Sharma seemed deeply in awe of Modi, cutting him much slack. There was no mention of anything that might make the presumptive Prime Minister uncomfortable. Questions turned out to be laughably puerile. 

Sample one: "Important leaders of our country -- Sonia, Chidambaram, Sharad -- they are all worried that wherever they go, they get to hear 'Abkibaar, Modi Sarkar.'" Nearly all the questions referred to what other leaders had said about Modi. There was no question on what Modi's plan of governance would be. Sharma’s body language bordered on the servile. One got the sense that even the audience was biased. Chants of “Harhar Modi” rent the air. It was like a rock concert, not a mock-adalat

Contrast this with the interview Goswami conducted with Modi on his show "Frankly Speaking". Goswami maintained a stern face and asked questions that, at one point, prompted Modi to react with unease. "You cannot interrogate me," Modi said. This was also the reaction of MNS chief Raj Thackeray when Goswami asked him pointed questions on his anti-north Indian rhetoric.  

In both cases, Goswami did not budge but one could see the helplessness writ on his face. Goswami has built for himself the persona of a journalist who cares deeply for the cause he is promoting. His signature assertion: “The nation wants to know…” is meant to amplify this impression. To then have leaders like Modi and Thackeray not bend to his questioning and adopt a stance of aggression must doubtless hurt. 

It also does little to enlighten the audience. In terms of content, neither Sharma’s show nor Goswami’s helped the viewer much. If Modi came across as smug on the former, on Goswami's show he came across, alternately, as belligerent and placatory. We learnt little about the persona behind the to-be prime minister besides what was already known. This was a shame because since taking over as Prime Minister, Modi and his Cabinet have been deliberate about shunning the media. 

One wishes one had better things to say about Goswami's interview with the other major candidate in this year's elections but Rahul Gandhi's appearance on the show proved to be a stupendous dud. One expected him to be more forthcoming than Modi, given that Modi has always had a chip on his shoulder with regard to the media's treatment of him, which goes back to the Gujarat riots of 2002. 

Rahul was indeed more open to Goswami's volleys but so ill-prepared was he on the policy front or in articulating his own vision that the interview tanked badly. 

Sometimes the point of the interview itself is lost on the viewer. When Amar Singh met Mulayam Singh Yadav in Lucknow last month, presumably to drum up support for his Rajya Sabha seat, Amish Devgan sat him down for an interview on Zee News. This was a primetime telecast and Devgan did not think it fit to tell the viewer why he had chosen a political has-been for the interview. 

The backdrop of the interview was the hitherto strained relationship between Yadav and Singh, which Devgan brought up again and again, only for the conversation to be diverted by Singh. We learnt that Singh ate paranthas at the Yadav household, that he has no problems with Azam Khan, that his relationship with Yadav had been spoiled by “agents”, that Amitabh Bachchan does not get along with his wife, and so on. It was so gossipy and out of place that one wondered what the channel heads were thinking running something like that. 

True, it would not be entirely appropriate to blame the interviewer for the failure of the political interview. The political culture in our country, as against, say, in the US, is much too deferential towards those in power. Politicians arguably still derive much of their legitimacy from a mai-baap mentality. To have to face an enquiring questioner can bring out the worst in them. This is perhaps one reason Goswami’s interviews have not made for more educative viewing.

Besides, the polity itself has fractured right down the middle. The transcript of Sharma’s interview with Modi on the India TV website was hailed by Modi bhakts. Conversely, much venom was spewed in Goswami’s direction. Thanks to the proliferation of Internet Hindus, an important space for debate that can prompt channels and news outlets to heed the voice of the news consumer has been taken over by needless rancour. In this climate, for unbiased observers to make up their mind calls for superhuman levels of intuition.

(Vikram Johri is a Bangalore-based writer. He tweets at @VohariJikram)

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