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Tony Benn to interview the inquisitors

Tony Benn is a rare politician who can hold an audience enthralled for an hour and more. Later this week he will be on Channel 4 Interviewing the Interviewers and asking Paxman, Snow, Robinson and Humphrys why they are so aggressive.

It will undoubtedly be an entertaining programme but I have long been thought the slow and relaxed news interviews Benn wants that would bore broadcast audiences and leave the viewers and listeners confused. Scheduling just does not allow what he wishes.

Today Benn writes a plug for the programme in Guardian Media in which he says: “I believe my interviews with the four illustrate an alternative method which relaxes the interviewee and draws out the important information without the theatricals we have all come to expect.”

That sounds to me more like a print interview. One of tasks when teaching journalism these days is get students away from the idea that all interviewing follows the Humphrys model.

Broadcast news interviewing is by its nature asking a series of direct questions but print interviewing is often more of a conversation. Yet students arrive having only seen broadcast interviews and having nothing else to guide them.

Print interviewing is usually more about relaxing the subject, building a rapport and gently guiding the conversation until you get something the politician or business leader did not intend to say.

Sometimes you will back off from a thorny area, move on to something else, come back to it, change the subject and return again to the question to which you really want an answer.

When you get the answer you want you stay poker-faced, and gently dig a little deeper or move on to something else. It is a technique which simply would not work on radio or TV news: there will be digressions and no sign when the crucial point of the interview is reached.

The danger for the journalist is that you can be accused of trickery. Politicians should be experienced enough to be aware of what they are saying but with others it is sometimes necessary to confirm that the subject really meant what they said.

We need a variety of interviewing techniques to get some of the truth and I look forward to watching Interviewing the Interviewers is on Channel 4 on Saturday, Aug 12, at 7pm.

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