Incessant Hounding

Inigo Thomas

On the Today programme on Saturday morning, John Humphrys asked the then director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle, if he was going to resign. Entwistle replied, awkwardly, that he would plough on: he would find out how and why Newsnight had aired a segment repeating old, discredited allegations that a powerful Conservative figure from the 1980s and 1990s had abused children at a Welsh care home. Twelve hours later, Entwistle resigned.

The Telegraph has run two pieces today singing Humphrys's praises. But the incessant hounding and bullying of interviewees by Humphrys, among others, is one of the problems that led to the Newsnight fiasco; the treatment of subjects as if they're guilty before an interview has begun. Who hasn't switched off the radio when Humphrys, in full moral outrage mode, doesn't allow the person he's interviewing to finish a sentence? Who hasn't switched channels when Kirsty Wark or Jeremy Paxman level their disdain at the man or woman sitting opposite them? The self-righteousness of it all, as if intimidation and bullying are the only ways to probe and inquire.

Paxman said yesterday that cuts in the editorial budget are partly to blame. No doubt he's right about that; fact-checking is a slow, expensive and essential part of any news or current affairs programme. But the hounding of subjects on Today and on Newsnight – that's been going on for years.


  • 12 November 2012 at 4:37pm
    Bernard Porter says:
    Thanks - I’ve been waiting for someone to say that. I find Humphrys’ and Paxman’s ‘interviewing’ style appalling too – even when their villains are also mine. (Entwistle isn't.) The word for it is ‘arrogant’. It isn’t the way to get at the truth, and I suspect isn’t really intended to; only to provide drama. (I wonder whether this wasn’t also a motive behind the infamous Newsnight ‘Tory paedophile’ piece too: to get a ‘scoop’; albeit a rather dog-eared one. Especially after they’d just missed the Savile one.) I imagine they get it from the tabloids. When Paxman’s obituary is written it will be his bad-tempered goading that is remembered – John Nott flouncing out, for example – rather than for anything more valuable he’s achieved. I’ve been interviewed by Humphrys a couple of times, 'down the line' and gently, but then my blood obviously doesn’t smell as flavoursome as the politicians’. I’m sure he got more out of me. Older readers will remember really probing interviewers like John Freeman: always polite, but far more revelatory. James Naughtie is a bit like that – far better, sounding more intelligent, and the only reason I keep the Today programme on. Come back Jack de Manio.

    • 12 November 2012 at 5:00pm
      mototom says: @ Bernard Porter
      John Nott's flouncing was in response to the equanimous Robin Day's "here today gone tomorrow" Defence Secretary jibe. I think.

    • 12 November 2012 at 5:15pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ mototom
      Sorry, I should have checked. But I remember Robin Day was considered rather rude in his time. Perhaps he started it off.

  • 12 November 2012 at 6:25pm
    monthofsundays says:
    I would point out that the bullying style is not extended to all interviewees. Paxman, for example, seems positively incurious when the subject is not English, and a politician or a historian. His much trailed questioning of Bill Gates, years back, at a time when the US businessman owned Britain's IT syllabus besides anything else, was a total waste of time, as uninformative as a fireside chat with Parkinson but less entertaining. In fact Newsnight are rather interested in British politics and rather useless at a lot of everything else -- unless I missed their exclusives on the everchanging global media environment, international relations (beyond the US & Commonwealth countries, economics) or their bolder pieces on the Middle East since pre-Hutton. Otherwise ... they're brilliant.

  • 12 November 2012 at 6:35pm
    James Alexander says:
    Amen. And Martha Kearney in the same frame. The underlying problem is the misplaced high self-esteem of the BBC news service. In the present brouhaha we are hearing yet again (from their unrepentant selves) about the BBC's great journalism. Journalism is just what we don't need (we can hold our noses and buy a paper for that). We need quality public service broadcasting, which could and should be something altogether different. Do they know what 'root and branch' means?

  • 12 November 2012 at 6:47pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    I agree about Paxman, which is why this video is such a joy to watch:

    • 15 November 2012 at 6:32pm
      Donald Graham says: @ Harry Stopes
      Looked like a lively exchange to me, more entertaining than most. It reminded me of my father and his lifelong best friend discussing politics. Paxman wasn't the only arrogant one, he just has a more aggressive style. Evidently you don't like combat?

  • 12 November 2012 at 6:53pm
    CMcM says:
    "as if intimidation and bullying are the only ways to probe and inquire."

    Well, there are other ways - which is why Mason, Watts, Urban et al are so good.But they do investigative journalism, which is precisely what's expensive, so perhaps Paxo has a point.

  • 12 November 2012 at 9:12pm
    streetsj says:
    While I agree that hounding is unlikely to be revealing, when you have limited time a gentle approach simply won't work. The professional politicians will simply use the time to pummel home their prepared message.

    • 13 November 2012 at 1:23pm
      johnbax says: @ streetsj
      Is there any particular reason why politicians should be prevented from getting their message across? You seem to imply that this is a legitimate aim for an interviewer, but I don't see why. it's not football, after all, where stopping your opponent from playing is all part of the game. I agree totally with the original post, and had the same thought watching last nights Newsnight, and Emily Maitless on tenterhooks lest Alan Yentob succeed in finishing a sentence. It never seems to occur to these people that the audience might actually want to hear what the interviewee has to say. This adversarial culture is undoubtedly part of the problem. That, and bending the story just that little bit in order to, to coin a phrase, sex it up. That was Gilligan's problem, and Newsnight's.

    • 13 November 2012 at 4:39pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ johnbax
      Politicians often don't want any message but their own to get across. Just look at the weird video of Osborne where he repeated the same phrases four times regardless of the interviewer's question. As we've seen with Levenson and the protection of privacy, there are merits to both sides of this argument and unacceptable costs to the public if one side is allowed to prevail. Annoying questions would be welcomed in many countries.

  • 14 November 2012 at 9:39pm
    Mat Snow says:
    I stopped listening to Today after realising I had just wasted five minutes of my shrinking lifespan listening to Humphreys fruitlessly trying to bait a straight answer to a straight question out of John Prescott rather than the droning repetition of that morning's New Labour message to the nation. It's been Radio 3 for me ever since, and I'm the happier for it.

    Do such fatuous duels provide a public service, with the clock ticking before time-check, weather, headlines and sport, and no time to tease out any substance? Or is Today just zoo radio for posh people, Howard Stern for GPs and university administrators?

    It's the latter that flatters itself by thinking it's the former. And it's rubbish.

    What to do?

    You can't change the nature of politicians, so instead give them more time to be questioned in pre-recorded daytime interviews, so the 'message' can be edited out and the meaningful residue retained, and broadcast at drive-time.

    And what do you replace Today with? Headlines, journalistic analysis, soft news about garden birds etc, absolutely no instant reactions from pols, and an overarching mission to send the middle classes to work with their blood pressure bobbing along at safe levels.

    I'll still be sticking with Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Mozart, mind.

    • 15 November 2012 at 9:33am
      streetsj says: @ Mat Snow
      I'd always assumed it was "More-Peach".

      Tony Benn would never do a recorded interview, knowing that the editing process can change the whole thrust of what you said.

      On balance though I think, Mat, you hve the right answer. Neither is goign to change.

    • 15 November 2012 at 2:38pm
      Mat Snow says: @ streetsj
      Thanks to the interweb, the BBC can make an entire, unedited interview available online, with the edited best bits broadcast, thus keeping both Tony Benn and R4 listeners happy.

  • 15 November 2012 at 6:20pm
    Donald Graham says:
    Stupid, stupid, stupid. Incessant hounding and bullying is just about the only thing that makes British journalism slightly more interesting than other. Polite and considerate have no place in exposing these scoundrels.

  • 15 November 2012 at 6:59pm
    beast says:
    "Who hasn’t switched off the radio when Humphrys, in full moral outrage mode, doesn’t allow the person he’s interviewing to finish a sentence?"

    It may be irritating to listen to, but it's just a pantomime performance and certainly not real 'moral outrage'.

    The BBC works to a choreographed script with all political issues and persons, ensuring that real insight into power relations cannot be revealed - so it's all just blustering and interrupting to try and liven up what is otherwise pointless drivel.

    Most politicians simply don't answer questions anyway, so events like the memorable Paxman 14-times asking the same question can be entertaining.

    What these Today programme style interview are most certainly not, is bullying. Bullying requires that the bully is in a position of power over the victim, and proper nasty bullying is rarely performed as a public spectacle. It gets a lot of its power from the concealment of the threat. Humphreys might make a decent salary, but he is not in a position of power over the politicians he interrupts. That's why they don't mind doing these pointless interviews at 7am on Radio 4.

  • 15 November 2012 at 7:48pm
    Dfsut says:
    I found JH's line of questioning tedious and repetitive and had a tinge of unacceptable dislike in his tone. He may not like the interviewee but that is not acceptable. I was pleased that Entwhistle recovered towards the end of the interview and made acceptable comments about what needed to be done. By then, though, JH had got his headlines.

Read more