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.