The art of the interview

Now that I have permanent residence in the UK, and am slightly harder to get rid of, I am going to say something that will alienate me from everyone in the country.

I really don’t like John Humphrys. Jeremy Paxman neither. I don’t know them personally, of course, but it’s a rare morning that I don’t end up snapping “shut up and let the poor man/woman answer the question” and the doyen of British radio journalism. I can’t watch Newsnight much any more because gets me so riled up I can’t sleep.

I don’t know why it is that belligerent questioning is rated so highly here, but it seems to be. When Paxman bullied Michael Howard for eight minutes on national television in 2003, asking the same question over and over and over, people seem to have hailed him as some kind of saviour of journalism. I just find it unwatchable.

Aside from being tedious, the questioning does nothing to inform us as to what happened, and Paxman never gets an (our) answer. It’s pure theatre, designed to show the viewer how much more powerful and important Paxman is than Howard, not to find out what really happened, or what it means for the public.

John Humphrys is not much better, but he is less visible on YouTube. I can’t find a recording, but this interview with David Miliband is typical – aggressive, opinionated, and doing nothing so much as cementing our pre-existing prejudices about whatever is being discussed. He can be respectful, but all too often he isn’t, especially when the interviewee is nobody famous or powerful.

When Paxman and Humphrys get together, the results are as you would expect, and as tedious as watching your grown siblings squabble over a holiday meal for the umpteenth time in as many years. It’s old, it’s tired, and there is nothing new you’re going to learn. Pass the mashed potatoes, please.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The best interviews are the ones the viewer –  and the interviewee – are barely aware of. Louis Theroux is a master of the subtle interview: at first, you think he’s just some bumbling fool, loping along and asking benign questions, but then you realise the other person is confessing to appalling things, while Theroux just blinks and encourages them in his mild manner. He picks some of the most unpleasant subjects, and manages to make them both repellant, and somehow understandable. That he, representing the BBC, of all organisations, can get the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church to speak to him, is remarkable, that they agreed to do it a second time is even more so, and that we came away from  those encounters both knowing more about the church and what makes them tick and feeling no more sympathetic to their ideas than we ever were is testament to his invisible skill. That mix of empathy and clarity is remarkable, and I have never come away from the Today show or Newsnight with anything approaching it.

Theroux spends a lot of time with some fairly repellant people, and an observer might wonder what his own beliefs are. This doesn’t seem to matter to him, or at least, he has enough faith in his own film-making and his own ideas that it seems to not be a concern. He trusts himself, and us, to see past the interviewer to the subject, and the answer, and the result is both compelling, and informative.

Part of this is Theroux’s manner – he is so quiet, so myopic looking, and so hesitant in speech that people seem to want to help him out, tell him all the details. He is so unthreatening that people forget he represents one of the most powerful media organisations in the world, one that is massively influential of public opinion. But what it really is is lack of visible ego. When Humphrys interviews Taji Mustafa, he is at great pains to ensure that we understand his position, that we never forget that Humphrys is the liberal voice of reason in this debate.

Theroux, on the other hand, appears more concerned with listening to his subject than what his audience would think of him.

Of course, Theroux doesn’t work live, and he doesn’t work with people who have been trained to hog the limelight while avoiding the questions. It’s a completely different kind of journalism, but one that I think more traditional news could spend some time studying. If the job of journalism is to explain the world to us, then I personally think that Theroux is doing a much better job than any one of the famous faces and voices that clog the airwaves.


On Oscar Pistorius and social media journalism

Natal Witness front page
Natal Witness front page

I have spent most of the past week obsessively watching the bail hearing of Oscar Pistorius unfold on Twitter. I’m not proud of this.I’m not a big celebrity trial, sports follower, scand

almonger kind of journalist. I like the initial gory details as much as anyone, I guess, but wallowing in the details of blood spatter and cricket bats soon gets a bit too personal for me, and I keep imagining what was going through her mind, and his, and well, it’s just horrible, and regardless of the actual trial outcome, lives have been ruined, and nobody wins in this case.

On the other hand, as a journalist, a South African, and a follower of social media, this story has everything. I know the places involved: the police station where Pistorius was held was built on the old playground of my primary school; I know some of the people: I taught at least two of the journalists prominent in covering the trial, Barry Bateman and Karyn Maugham; I understand some of the issues involved in violence in South Africa, and in violence against women. And of course, it’s all playing out on Twitter and social media, so this is clearly relevant to my interests.

I gave a lecture on Thursday on the trial coverage, and why it is so much more explicit than would be permitted in the UK (or Canada). The short version comes down to the lack of a jury, meaning that publication likely to influence the outcome of the trial is a much higher benchmark to reach (after all, what judge is going to rule that his fellow judge is susceptible to having his legal expertise corrupted by press coverage?), and the stronger constitutional right to freedom of expression. Of course, there’s still libel to consider (especially in the UK), and it seems probable that the various sources of information are within the police service, and possibly being compensated for being a source, which is a whole separate issue.

But what really interests me is how specific a skill covering a trial (or hearing) on Twitter is, as is following it. Some of the journalists present clearly understand what is needed to keep the readers up to date, and understand how to write concise updates that both explain what has happened, and keep the reader engaged in the story. It clearly requires intense concentration, and speed – it’s not like the proceedings stop for the journalists to update their feeds. Recognising a good point to summarise, a good quote as it goes past, composing the post, sending and keeping an ear out for next point seems like a unique new media skill, and for the best journalists, at the end of the day, the feed still reads as a summary narrative of events. As someone who cannot watch TV and tweet about it without getting hopelessly behind, I am in awe of this skill, and want to know more about it: how it is done, how to teach students to do it, how to develop it better.

How long does a book take?

The book (Knight, M.  and Cook, C., 2013, Social Media for Journalists: Principles and Practice, London: Sage.) is still not done. It’s kind of done in the way Zeno’s arrow has kind of hit its target. It’s incrementally done. The amount of not done it is is becoming exponentially smaller every time the publisher sends it back to us. It’s still the incredible boomerang book, though.

It’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. It just takes forever, and because I was done some time ago, I keep missing things and having them bounce back from the ever patient commissioning editor.

And then, today, I saw this:

from the amazing Hyperbole and a Half webcomic blog genius thing. Thank you, Allie.  And this sums it up perfectly, although academic books take even longer. Three babies, in fact. Or most of one one school kid. Seriously, my co-author was pregnant when we first pitched this thing, and her daughter is walking, talking and generally being a kid.

Of course, she talks back less than the book is doing now.

The Newsroom

So, I’ve seen the first episode of The Newsroom – Aaron Sorkin’s reboot of the West Wing, essentially.I really want to like it. I do. I loved the West Wing, loved the fantasy of smart people who actually get to run the world (or part of it), of serious conversations, and fast-paced lives. The Newsroom is more of the same, but in an environment I know much better – a newsroom.

But still…

First of all, there are the women (and so far only the women) who veer erratically from brilliant and in control to incompetent mess (always predicated by emotional stuff) in a matter of seconds. It’s belittling and infuriating, and in the second episode we got to see both women on the show doing exactly that. Plus, there’s a woman with a PhD in economics and the only thing she’s interested in is whether Will cheated on Mackenzie. Sure. So far, I don’t believe the show actually passes the Bechdel test, since I can’t recall Maggie and Mackenzie actually ever talking about anything other than her relationship, and Sloane and Mackenzie moved very quickly from work to relationships. Oh, and can I talk about names? Three women on the show: two ballbreakers with men’s names, and one little girl who tries to dump her diminutive nickname for a serious one, and fails. Blech again.
And the Indian guy’s the IT specialist/blogger. How rare and original.

Hate hate hate the Charlie Skinner as alcoholic thing (I can’t call it a plot point, because it’s not, yet). Alcoholism is the journalists’ disease and lots of them succumb, but very very few ever make it to the head of news of a major network, not while drinking. It doesn’t work that way now, and I doubt it ever did. I’ve worked with, and for, a number of drunks, and the only one in a senior position was part of a political triumvirate placed at the SABC by the ANC who remained there for reasons which have NOTHING to do with the job (and he’s now on “special leave”). Alcoholics don’t rise to senior positions and stay there because drinking is incompatible with doing the job. Charlie is shown drinking, but never drunk, and that is telling. It’s simply not possible to have one character portray alcoholism and doing a senior management job realistically. As it is, Sorkin’s opted for telling us he’s a drunk rather than showing us, and it’s just a cheap nod to prejudice about journalists (oooh, a show about a newsroom, one of them must be an alcoholic, we need at least two black people, an Indian and a few women – call central casting).

But now we come to the hollow hollow heart of the show. The idea that Mackenzie and Will want to create the kind of news they (or Aaron Sorkin) imagine Edward R Murrow made. This is breathtakingly dishonest. In the USA, the news has always been commercial, always been ratings-driven, and the idea that any channel would allow the kinds of changes they are proposing is so far-fetched that the whole show becomes as fantastical as Game of Thrones.
There is no way Mackenzie (and possibly Will, depending on whether he has producer status as well as anchor) would NOT be dragged into ratings meetings at least once a week, and the data would be sent out to them in any case. The whole fantasy of if you build it, they will come, is lovely, but completely misguided. The West Wing worked because Bartlett was President, and could do what he wanted, within the bounds of the political structure. I suspect the Newsroom won’t work because Will and Mackenzie are much much smaller cogs in a massive mechanism, and can’t act like free agents.

The whole myth that if you make smart news, people will watch is rubbish, and although the critique of the current state of American broadcast news is pithy, the solution is not going to be simply “hire an American who sounds British and let her run things”, believe me. It’s not even whether people will watch, it’s whether advertisers believe they will, and in a climate where more and more channels and media are scrambling for fewer and fewer advertising clients, the station managers would never wait to find out. After the first show, advertisers would be leaving in droves, and that would be it.

The corporate nature of news, the reliance on advertising revenue, the fact that the whole medium’s raison d’etre is the making of profit for the shareholders, none of this can be ignored, or glossed over. The fact that Mackenzie speaks with a British accent, despite being American (and how American – Sorkin makes sure we know she’s as American as Apple Pie and twice as patriotic),  is telling: she represents both the BBC and its publicly-funded, intelligent news that is not beholden to financial interests (or the fantasy thereof), although Sorkin can’t say as much, because to imply to an American audience that other people do news better than they Americans would ensure that he never ate lunch in Hollywood again. So, she sounds British (although WTF? I have NEVER met an embassy brat who didn’t sound like their parents, and in any case, her father would never have been Ambassador for her entire childhood – that’s not how ambassadorships work), and she’s been in Afghanistan, which explains why she appears to not know how to work technology (again, WTF? there is nobody more reliant on technology than a foreign correspondent, and therefore nobody who knows more about technology), and so she gets to be the foreigner who explains to the natives how it’s really done (see approximately one third of the movies ever made). Except, she wouldn’t. Because, see above re: corporate nature of news.

And also, because she was a correspondent, not an EP, and they are completely different jobs.(Now starts the technical nitpicking) Sure, people go from one to the other, but not that fast (and not to a panel show), and after years in the field she would have had no idea what she was doing in the gallery, who all those people are, or even much of the jargon. The  point at which I realised that a) she knows how to use a Blackberry (a device that outside of the US is only used by teenagers, and never in war zones, since RIM hasn’t bothered to make them work in places without sufficient population density), but can’t avoid sending an email to all staff, twice, in one episode; and b) she knows how to run a panel news show (at least I think it’s a panel discussion, it’s not at all clear what the show is, exactly), and how to run the gallery, what an SOT is, how to create and manage a rundown, during one, despite apparently never having done it before, that I realised she really is the equivalent of Dorothy flying in on a tornado to teach the munchkins how to overthrow the wizard.

On the other hand, she is pretty kickass, and despite talking about taking Maggie shopping and girl bonding over bad boyfriends, I don’t think the show is going to have her weeping into tubs of Haagen-Dasz over Will, and for that, one must be grateful. So, I’ll keep watching and recording, and will probably use chunks in lectures next year. It’s still good, just not perfect.

Book excerpt

More from the book:

One of the main criticisms of amateur journalism from the mainstream media is that it is biased. This bias, whether perceived or real, forms much of the debate around amateur journalism sites, at least in the way it is presented in professional journalism contexts. There are considerable questions as to whether this matters at all to either the audience or the advertisers. Certainly, some of the most popular blogs, forums and information sites on the Internet are informed by very clear political aims and points of view (from all parts of the spectrum), and if anything, the readership is more loyal than that of more middle-of-the-road sites. It is apparent that despite the stated need of communities for unbiased information provided to the audience in a neutral space (a key tenet of democratisation, as reiterated in documents from the American Constitution to the UN Charter of Rights and Freedoms), the desire of people is for news and information that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. The popularity of news organisations that hold specific and unabashed political views, from Fox News in the USA to the more extreme of the British tabloids, shows that giving the people what they want often means giving them biased and prejudicial information.

BBC complaints

The following is the text of a complaint I made to the BBC today, in response to last night’s edition of Newsnight.

I am not opposed to airing the full range of political beliefs extant in the UK, and in principle, not opposed to the EDL being given an opportunity to respond to wide-spread allegations of their connection to Anders Breivik, but these kinds of issues must be handled carefully, something the BBC completely failed to do last night.

To start with, the opening package repeatedly expressed surprise that the attacks in Norway were not the work of Islamic extremists – as though far-right-wing terrorism was still an unheard-of phenomenon, but then Jeremy Paxman completely lost control of the interview. Lennon was effectively given ten minutes to spout his own theories about the attack, blaming Muslims and immigration for provoking the attack and ending with a threat that similar would happen in the UK if things didn’t change. Paxman only responded to that some moments later, with a weak and ineffectual “is that a threat”?

Aside from Paxman’s incompetence as an interviewer in this instance, which would be grounds for dismissal for someone not considered a luminary of the BBC (and you should re-examine his luminescence in the light of this interview), there is the issue of having someone from the EDL on unopposed, with no countervailing voice, no analysis, no context. The final effect gives the appearance that the BBC in some way condones the EDL’s position, which is unacceptable.

The BBC should apologise for this fiasco, and issue a statement doing so. It should also consider some form of redress, some attempt to correct the extremely skewed position which was given last night.

The complaint was submitted here:

The interview can be seen here, for a limited time:

From what I am writing now:

“This, of course, locates social media firmly within the realm of activism, as opposed to the simpler (or simplistic) idea of the news as ‘objectively’ reporting the facts. It is possibly this that creates the schism between some journalists and social media: fear of being coerced into taking sides, rather than simply being misled.”
After all, foreign correspondents have willingly and gratefully been misled by the authorities for as long as there have been foreign correspondents. Fear of being lied to by someone on Twitter is so much greater than fear of being lied to by some tinpot dictator’s flunkies. Why on earth is this the case?
This is, of course, just an aside in something much larger, but very interesting, no?