Andrew S Crines discusses the first major televised interviews of the UK general election.
After months of negotiation, waiting, and poker-faces between Number 10 and the broadcasters, the #BattleforNumber10 begun with an interview with Jeremy Paxman and studio discussion with the leaders of the two main parties, David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Before the debate even begun there was some speculation that Miliband going second would be problematic for the Labour leader, with the fear that the viewer may switch off before he even had an opportunity to start speaking. However, the benefits of this risk were greater than the potential costs as it afforded Miliband with an opportunity to see the kind of mauling Cameron would be subjected to, thereby enabling him to do some last minute extra preparation.
Cameron’s interview with Paxman was, despite the interviewer having well known Tory sympathies, rather savage. The Prime Minister likes to be in control, and here he was being asked about issues which he’d rather not have to address. Cameron’s rhetoric tends to highlight successes such as the (limited) economic recovery and making a stand against the EU. However, here Cameron was asked about Foodbanks, the NHS and the expected rise in VAT, which caused him to squirm in his seat. However, this was followed by the more mellow studio audience, whose style of questioning rarely made the Tory leader appear uncomfortable. Indeed, the softness of the audience questions enabled Cameron to regain control.
Then it was Miliband’s turn. This was an unknown given Miliband’s reputation for communication isn’t exactly based on a string of successful orations. However, here Miliband managed to deal with a harder style of questions from the audience in a competent and direct manner. Indeed, the moderator (Kay Burley) also interjected more, ensuring Miliband was given a tougher time than the Tory leader. His rhetorical authenticity was based on how he believed the Coalition government has made life in the UK less fair. Rising poverty, declining living standards, and the uncertainty created over the EU afforded Miliband with an opportunity to communicate his socially responsible and investment-led alternative. Yet the main feature would be the Paxman interview, which he navigated in an (unexpectedly) effective manner. Indeed, Paxman found himself unable to crack Miliband, even when he used the double-barrelled questions over his brother.
More generally, going into these discussions both candidates had their own agendas. For Cameron he wanted to demonstrate that competence over chaos would be the best strategy. It was rather an ironic line given the chaos of the attempted coup against John Bercow earlier in the day. For Miliband he wanted to show why he wanted to be Prime Minister. In this he was successful. He wants to be Prime Minister because he wants to make Britain a more socially just country.
Despite this, the interviews did reveal something broader which we now lack in British political discourses. The leaders – especially David Cameron – were simply taken aback by Paxman’s style of interview. Both were unprepared, although Cameron was the least capable when being interviewed. Put simply we no longer have leaders who are capable of defending their record and constructing a narrative without resorting to the comfort of superficial points.
Paradoxically, this is because we have drifted more towards the ‘shock-jock’ style of interview which is based on a caricature of Paxman’s style. Rather, the long interview as practiced by such old school commentators as Brian Walden and Robin Day (amongst others) is no longer fashionable in British politics because headlines, spin, and ‘the message’ has been condensed to the point where the long interview is not in the interest of either politician or broadcaster. However, the absence of the long interview means we end up with political elites who can’t handle a difficult question without appearing to flounder. In turn this makes them look inept, and feeds the general sense of cynicism about politicians.
To address this issue the long interview needs to become a feature of British political discourses again. This is because it will i: give politicians the chance to demonstrate they have a credible, thought out strategy and ii: enable broadcasters keep a stronger check on political elites as required by civil society. The superficiality of headlines and spin is a highly reductive form of political debate, and what these Cameron and Miliband interviews reveal is a political class that is incapable of engaging in a tougher political environment.
Indeed, in an ideal world I would love to see Nigel Farage subjected to an hour-long interview by someone with the analytical skills of Brian Walden, given it is about developing arguments. A long interview also deconstructs in a way that superficiality is simply incapable of doing, and it is something which would improve the quality of our democracy in which being ‘a NorthLondon geek’ would be an irrelevance.
Andrew S Crines is a Research Fellow in Rhetoric and British Politics at the University of Leeds.