14 May 2019

Is more gotcha journalism really what people want?


Imagine that you happened to find yourself standing next to a famous politician, journalist or cultural commentator. What sort of question might you put to them?

Perhaps you’d ask them to elaborate on something that they’d said? Or if you were feeling particularly bold, you might even ask them to justify themselves?

Of course, few of us ever find ourselves in that situation. And if you did, you may well be too polite to put them on the spot.

This is why we have political interviewers to do the job for us; Andrew Marr or Sophie Ridge on Sunday mornings. Andrew Neil and others almost every other day of the week. The job of those that put questions of politicians for a living is to hold them to account on our behalf. The trouble is that the kind of questions political interviewers often put to public figures are all about trying to catch them out, rather than enlighten the rest of us as to what they believe and why.

Two programmes over the past few days have brought this problems of “gotcha” journalism to the fore. On Sunday, Andrew Marr had Nigel Farage in the hot seat. A few days before, Andrew Neil got to question American cultural commentator, Ben Shapiro.

Instead of asking questions that might enable viewers to come to a considered view about either person, Marr and Neil proceeded to fire a series of prepared questions at them clearly designed to try to wrong foot and embarrass.

“And a good thing too,” you might say. “The job of interviewers should be to put public figures on the spot”.

Absolutely. But the spot on which Marr and Neil tried to put their interviewees on was well wide of the mark.

If most ordinary people had a chance to put a question to Farage, I reckon it might be to do with the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations or the state of our democracy. What did Marr decide to challenge Farage on instead? Things he might or might not believe about president Putin or gun control.

UK audiences might be unfamiliar with Shapiro, so one might have expected a series of questions that would enable him to inform the viewers a little about his world view – with follow up questions to challenge it. Instead, he was confronted with a tweet he had sent out in 2011.

Yes, Shapiro was guilty of losing his temper.  But what does it say about his interlocutor that he set out to goad him?

Perhaps Marr and Neil thought that they were being clever and cunning by not asking the obvious. But what they did lead with sounded to me like one long effort to insinuate and smear.

That either man might have some opinions that aren’t mainstream among UK media circles is hardly interesting or surprising. It requires extraordinary self-absorption on the part of the BBC production team to imagine otherwise.

Each interview managed to say more about the outlook and preconceptions of those that work at the BBC than they did about those that they were supposed to be interviewing. This is just one of the reasons why audiences are increasingly tuning out of BBC current affairs output.

This matters because it’s about much more than poor interview technique or intellectually lazy journalism. What we witnessed is part of wider failure of the established media to come to terms with the process of digital disruption underway.

Both Farage and Shapiro are, in their different ways, part of a digital reformation that is transforming the way politics is done and opinions are formed. Farage appears to be on the verge of breaking open this country’s two-party cartel in politics. Shaprio and others are starting to redefine current affairs broadcasting in America.

Yet when they had these two extraordinary figures in their studios, what did the BBC try to do? They set out to try to make them look ridiculous.

I suspect that it is the disruptors that will have the last laugh.

Digital has democratised broadcast distribution, and allows ordinary people to own the means of media production. The priesthood of pundits working for the BBC and other broadcasters are losing their ability to decide what opinions get hear and what is and is not an acceptable point of view.

In America, a new wave of YouTube-based commentators like Shapiro are starting to attract weekly audiences that run into the millions. Young listeners are tuning out of radio and into podcasts. Perhaps most surprising of all given what we are often told about the short attention span of the young, programmes like the Ben Shapiro show are often long-form – allowing lengthy, in depth, and remarkably erudite discussions.

Unlike Marr or Neil, with their quick fire questions, full of innuendo and designed to wrong foot, these new online broadcasters sit in their studios have clearly made an effort to understand the person they are cross questioning. There’s an earnestness in the exchanges, and a clear appreciation of the fact that the audience wants to be enlightened, not been virtue signalled to.

It’s not only politics that’s in the process of being upended. Political punditry, too, is about to undergo a radical change for the better. Like all cartels, the established broadcasters don’t yet realise it. Like MPs, one day soon they will wake up to it.

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Douglas Carswell is a former MP and the author of 'Rebel'.