18 August 2016

Journalists! Stop asking politicians stupid questions


While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been found wanting several times in the last year, it was not his old-fashioned, unelectable politics which frustrated me in yesterday’s hustings. Instead, my blood boiled when we saw Corbyn put on the spot over whether he had heard of Ant and Dec, and how many Olympic gold medals Sir Bradley Wiggins had won.

Speaking on Victoria LIVE with his rival Owen Smith, Corbyn stuttered over both questions. Victoria pointed out that he had tweeted the wrong number of Wiggins’ medals the day before, and hastily deleted it.

I, like most of the population, could not care less if the Leader of the Opposition runs his own Twitter page. Frankly, I am quite happy that most senior politicians spend their time doing far more useful things than tweeting some bland patriotic message to an Olympian, or making sure they know exactly which celebrities support their party.

Owen Smith, meanwhile, was given a string of similar questions, such as the result of a particular football match at Euro 2016, and whether he recognised Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. He seemed more composed with these bizarre questions, and I’m sure he is more in touch than Corbyn with popular culture. But honestly, who cares?

Perhaps the BBC is trying to widen its audience to engage young people; as the vomit-inducing phrase says: getting ‘down with the kids’? One would hope that they would give young people far more credit than that.

Yes, the public need to be able to get a feel for the personality of politicians. That is why off-the-cuff questions in press conferences and interviews are so important: to catch them off their guard, and avoid the standard well-rehearsed talking points. Meanwhile, getting a better understanding for politicians’ backgrounds can be a vital part of discerning what they care about in politics.

However, knowing which football team they support, or what spread they have on their toast in the morning, frankly insults the intelligence of the population. How, when opinion towards the political establishment is at its all time low, can politicians work to gain more respect when they are given such awful questions to answer? These people are in charge of a justice system, billions of pounds, the armed forces and nuclear weapons.

But the media itself is not always to blame. Frequently, politicians make embarrassing attempts to make themselves seem more personable. You only have to look so far as David Cameron to see how that can turn out: the former Prime Minister accidentally suggesting he was a West Ham fan during the 2015 election, when his scripted team was Aston Villa.

Theresa May seems to be above all this drivel, her relationship with her husband (until now at least) staying private, as it should be. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn makes no attempt to pretend to be ‘in touch’: this morning he would have wanted to tell Victoria Derbyshire to stop asking such unimportant questions, but that would create a news story out of nothing. Owen Smith, meanwhile, would not have wanted to waste precious minutes in a short leadership hustings talking about Wales’ performance in the Euros: he wanted every opportunity to demonstrate superior leadership credentials against the leader he is attempting to unseat.

Time should be spent rigorously analysing their ability to lead the Labour Party, which as things stand is doing a pitiful job at providing an opposition. The public deserves more from its journalists.

Jack Graham is a political commentator who specialises in American politics.