Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader candidate, raised an interesting question of what is tabloid journalism’ while being interviewing by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News recently. The comment reaches to the heart of political interviewing: who has the right to set questions and what constitutes appropriate answers?
Corbyn is asked by Guru-Murthy (Int) why he had called Hamas and Hezbollah ‘friends’ in a recent speech.
Int: why did you call Hamas and Hezbollah your friends?
The interview can be heard here: external site
Corbyn (Pol) very quickly becomes visibly frustrated and insists on being allowed to finish his point. The interviewer claims he is ignoring the question (a well know technique used by interviewers to try and force politicians to answer the question directly).
Pol: to be able to [discuss Int: [well you said xx Hamas Pol: [can I- can I fi- can- CAN YOU ALLOW ME TO FINISH? (.) Int: er well Pol: DO YOU MIND? Int: yeh but I asked you a question and you’re [ignoring it Pol: [no no I’m not ignoring the question if you'd give me a minute I’ll answer it
The bracket symbol [ here indicates overlap between the two speakers which usually indicates attempts to take and control the floor. Normally the interviewer has certain rights to control the floor but here the politician attempts to reverse this.
Later on the politician again insists of finishing his point. The interviewer retorts that he can only finish if it is not a ‘long answer’, a sign perhaps that the interviewer does not want to get involved in a wider discussion on the Middle East but wants to focus simply on the semantics of the word ‘friends’.
Pol: CAN I FINISH? (.) [I’ve al Int: [are they your friends or not Pol: can I finish? (.) I’ve also [met Int: [well er you can’t if it’s a [long long answer Pol: [no look
Towards the end, the politician accuses the interviewer of ‘tabloid journalism’. The interviewer refutes this.
Pol: well thanks for the tabloid journalism Int: to ans- (.) that’s not tabloid journalism Pol: yes it is Int: that’s that’s putting your own words [back to you and saying Pol: [yeh it’s TABLOID journalism where you're evading you are evading asking me to give an opportunity to discuss [the wider= Int: [well Pol: =issue of the middle east Int: well you no Pol: cos all you're [interested in Int: [actually what I was gonna ask [you next= Pol: [all you're interested is what the Sun said Int: =was something more important (.) Int: no [I was gonna ask you something Pol: [it’s tabloid journalism and you know it (.) Int: well it’s absolutely not ...
So we have an interviewer who has asked about the semantics of the word ‘friends’ and a politician who insists on discussing the wider issue of the Middle East. Who gets to set the agenda in these interviews: interviewer or interviewee? Is it tabloid journalism to insists that politicians define and circumscribe the referents they use? The word ‘friends’ can mean many things. How far should we go in pulling up politicians in the words they use? Does ‘friends’ have a different meaning for a tabloid journalist and a broadsheet journalist?
These questions go to the heart of political discourse and perhaps will never be resolved but one maxim I have developed to understand political interviewing is the following:
You can ask me any question you wish but I have the right to answer in any way I see fit
Conversation is a two-way process. Interviewers have the right to pose questions as they see fit. But interviewees also have the right to answer them in the way they see fit. Sometimes it is the tension between these two frames that produces the most interesting aspect of political discourse.