Vladimir Putin holds press conferences. Hassan Rouhani has a Twitter account. Robert Mugabe might reply to politely worded letters. You can ask these gentlemen things. But don’t try to follow up. That’s what lands you in jail in Russia, Iran or Zimbabwe. That’s where the club of world leaders willing to be properly open with their citizens gets way, way smaller. And that is where Britain can be justly proud of broadcasters still powerful enough to force politicians in the direction of openness, even if their natural instinct, or those of their spin doctors, is to run a mile from real interactions.
When the party leaders sit down this week with Andrew Neil for their primetime grillings, the initial questions he asks are pretty obvious. He will certainly ask Tim Fallon about his Brexit plans. He will ask Jeremy Corbyn about nuclear weapons and Theresa May about fixing the energy market and ‘dementia tax’. But the crunch comes after the initial questions are answered or batted away or evaded. Politicians look visibly queasy when you say – as the great Brian Walden used to during his Weekend World interviews back in the 1980s – “Ah, now that is a fascinating answer…” You don’t even need to say it. Relatively long interviews with highly informed and quick-witted interviewers are still, in my view, the best way to get to the essence of our politicians.
True, there was criticism of the Prime Minister’s decision not to debate face-to-face with other party leaders, and of Corbyn’s subsequent decision not to appear in that format if May was staying out. It’s also true that the appearances of Corbyn and May with live Question Time audiences in York on 2 June will be gripping and quite possibly headline-making. But if we are really interested in getting to the bottom of what these people really think and how consistent they are in that thinking, bring on the single interview.
And give it time. John Major tells the story of visiting the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin when Major had just become prime minister. Stuck for conversation during lunch, Major asked Yeltsin, “In a word, Boris, what is the state of your country?”
Yeltsin replied, “In a word: good!”
Major knew this was an idiotic answer: Russia at that stage was in desperate straits, its economy shot and Yeltsin only just hanging on.
So he turned back and tried again. “Boris, what is the longer version of that?”
Yeltsin’s reply: “Not good!”
Ah yes, the failure of the soundbite to tell anything approaching the truth. The need, in the age of social media attention spans (especially in this age), for time to be given to politics and informed political discussion. Hence the importance of these special programmes with their rather old-fashioned, unadorned format. Anything else is a distraction. Enough time for foolish soundbites to be exposed. And for coherent points to be made.
Of course the drama matters, and Andrew Neil is well aware of that. But so does preparation. The great master interviewers need to have the agility to respond – to play the game as they see it. But they need to have a plan as well. The late Nick Clarke, who presented The World at One on Radio 4 for many years with great distinction, once showed me his flow charts. Yes, flow charts. He mapped out his interviews: if this person replies in this way then I ask that, or if he goes here then I go there. It made my head spin but it worked – outstandingly – for Nick. And crucially he had the ability, like the New Zealand All Blacks, to break suddenly around the scrum – flow chart or team meeting be damned – and hurl himself towards the try line.
And get to the real answer: “Not good!”
The Andrew Neil Interviews are Monday to Friday on BBC1. Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4