In Britain’s gotcha-clip election, only the shameless politician will survive

Tim Adams

Speaking at an event devoted to “healing the nation” at the beginning of this election campaign, Robbie Gibb, recently knighted for his role as Theresa May’s communications chief, briefly lost it with a fellow panellist. The head of Sky News, Christina Nicolotti Squires, was explaining the corrosive effect of anonymous briefings on political stories. Gibb agreed up to a point, but responded bluntly that such concerns were a sideshow in the changing relationship between politicians and the media. A far bigger problem, he claimed, lay in the effect of social platforms, particularly Twitter, on the strategy of political interviewers on radio and TV.

“Back in the day, the role of reporter and presenter was to act as an agent for viewers at home, wanting to know what’s going on,” Gibb argued. “What’s happening now is that the incentives are ‘retweets’ and ‘likes’, which totally distorts the type of interview which is done.”

The result, he said, was the manufactured “car-crash interview … the ‘I really showed it to them’ line”. The rewards for journalists from this approach, he maintained, came not from enlightening viewers and listeners, but in the vanity of “likes and hat-tips from other reporters”. Everything had become about extracting a “gotcha” clip in which the hapless MP floundered or was skewered, footage that could go triumphantly viral. Informed investigation or examination of the issues was secondary to such exchanges. Political interviewers, Gibb said, needed to “get back in their box”.

Gibb was in charge of BBC political output – responsible for everything from The Andrew Marr Show to the 2017 election coverage – before taking on the calamitous role of trying to get May’s tin-eared message over to parliament and the public. Leaving aside the fact that it requires some monumental chutzpah for him of all people to take issue with the culture of broadcast journalism, you can’t honestly watch the progress of the current campaign without seeing some truth in his analysis.

The most memorable moments of the grim political fortnight so far have almost all been triggered by short viral clips from broadcast interviews: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s shameful arrogance about the residents of Grenfell Tower in a conversation with LBC’s Nick Ferrari; 5 Live’s Emma Barnett letting Labour’s Jane Aitchison dangle in silence for 12.5 seconds (count them) while she deliberated whether it was reasonable for a fellow candidate to imagine “celebrating” the deaths of Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu; Sophy Ridge on Sky asking Jo Swinson to explain the misleading graphs on Lib Dem election leaflets; and pretty much every exchange with the prime minister.

Sophy Ridge of Sky confronted Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson with claims her party was using misleading campaign literature. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Previous campaigns have turned on disastrous media moments – Gordon Brown and “that bigoted woman”, Ed Miliband and his bacon sandwich – but they have generally appeared as accidental exclamation marks in the narrative of electioneering. This, by contrast, is coming to seem a campaign made up of nothing but meme-worthy gaffes and clangers, a live stream that is all heckle and no debate.

TV viewers and radio listeners have, apparently, long bought into the idea that it is in the aggressive interview that political presenters earn their sometimes eye-watering salaries. Twitter foregrounds that long-held vicarious desire for them to “go in hard” on our elected representatives, to catch them out, rather than to tease out genuine dilemmas or complications. Ever since Robin Day first mauled Harold Macmillan on TV in 1958, a ritualistic pattern has been established in which politicians attempt to convey only narrow pre-planned messages, and presenters dramatise the frustration of trying to trip them up. In this arena, as Tony Blair’s spin doctor Tim Allan once observed, “any communication by the politician on his or her terms is regarded [by the journalist and the viewer] as a failure.” Or as the BBC’s Evan Davis had it: “One of the purposes of what we do is to be seen to be pouring a bucket of custard over powerful people.”

Those custard moments have been amplified by dramatic changes in the way that we tend to receive political news. Previously, there was the sense that they might be the cathartic conclusion of a longer strategic conversation. Given the way that interview clips are now shared, however, the bucket and the custard stand alone. One of the most telling demographic changes of the last decade or so is the way in which younger people have switched off TV news. According to the most recent Ofcom report, the average British pensioner watches 33 minutes of real-time TV news a day, but this figure falls to just two minutes among people aged 16-24. These ratios of attention are broadly reversed when it comes to viral messaging.

For political campaigners, clipping interviews is easier than knocking doors. Labour’s highly organised Momentum group has what the organisation’s co-founder Emma Rees describes as a “distributed clipping team”, in which all media channels are monitored day and night by volunteers around the country. They wait to pounce on that precise moment when “a Labour MP has said something good, or a Tory MP has said something terrible” and get it trending. The Conservative party – bruised early on by its unethical edit of Keir Starmer being interviewed by Piers Morgan – is more likely to rely on foghorn sites such as Guido Fawkes and Breitbart to do its clip-attack work.

If the mechanics of this process are increasingly transparent, the effect is more difficult to measure. The viral interview clips that have made headlines in this campaign have mostly gained traction because they seem to illustrate a broader truth: Rees-Mogg’s patrician self-regard, in imagining himself escaping the inferno is which others perished, amplified a perception that the Tories were criminally out of touch; Aitchison’s 12.5 seconds of “dead air” served to dramatise Labour’s wider difficulty over allegations of antisemitism; Swinson’s dodgy graphs appeared to illuminate a degree of exaggerated ambition.

Andrew Marr, here interviewing Sajid Javid, admits he looks at the impact his shows have online. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC

Does this potential for great internet excitement change the way that interviewers approach their subjects, as Gibb argued? Andrew Marr recently suggested that he measured success in two ways when faced with a guarded politician. “I judge myself by the newspaper stories and the online stories that follow any particular programme,” he said.

“But secondly, at the same time, for the couple of million people watching the show, I really want them to be able to understand the person on the other side of conversation better.”

And does it change the way that politicians approach the media? Channel 4’s Cathy Newman took to Twitter last week to express dismay that the leading lights of the government and opposition no longer felt duty bound to submit themselves to questioning. The old Mephistophelean exchange on which political interviews are based – trading publicity for scrutiny – has also been disrupted by social media. The prime minister can trot out no end of homemade videos in which he brews cups of tea and answers questions no harder than the name of his favourite pop group, and trust that at least part of the electorate won’t notice the difference. The easiest way to minimise potential damage is to minimise the number of interviews which could produce damaging clips. And, when that fails, to keep any such interviews short.

Perhaps the most famous moment in the history of TV political interviewing came when David Frost extracted his mea culpa from Richard Nixon. That ultimate clippable moment was not the result of five-minute jugular-directed questioning, however, but long hours of attritional listening and insidious charm. Frost’s forensic researcher James Reston Jr reflected of that moment: “The first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, stretches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot.”

If news stations understand the force of that fact, then so do politicians and their strategists. The interview clips that have gone viral in the current campaign are not always the ones that illustrate the most urgent news item. On Thursday morning, it appeared for once that damaging facts might upend the government’s election argument, when the desperate figures for waiting times in NHS A&E departments were released. In response, Twitter found health secretary Matt Hancock making selfies in a West Country field where a health centre was apparently planned. Interview clips of Priti Patel, meanwhile, started trending, revealing her refusal to answer a question about whether the Conservatives would increase or decrease immigration numbers. The clip appeared to show the Home Secretary cornered by the journalist, prevaricating. But it also served, online, to switch the focus away from those headline NHS figures – and perhaps imply that most cynical of all current political equations, that waiting times in A&E were getting longer not because of cuts to services, but because of unchecked immigration.

MIchael Gove has been giving the impression that he isn’t taking media encounters entirely seriously. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Gove appears to be using this election campaign to test just that kind of “evolved” theory of news management. Consider that weird exchange with Andrew Neil on the subject of a second referendum just before campaigning began. In answer to Neil’s typically forthright questions, Gove adopted an unhinged patois, “dere ain’t gonna be no second referendum” that prompted several online observers to gleefully suggest he was stoned. The strange delivery not only guaranteed that the clip racked up views, but also carried the subtext from Gove that the interview format itself was bogus, comic, all a silly game. When Nick Robinson confronted Gove with a backtrack on a commitment to an inquiry into Islamophobia, also on Thursday, Gove maintained his innocence in a comparable jocular tone. If the interviewee can make the whole process appear contrived or trivial, then it loses its power to hurt.

The prime minister, of course, has built his entire career on this principle. He appears to have calculated in this campaign that the more clips there are of him describing building buses out of wine crates or stepping on shards of shattered cafetières, the less likely he is to be on the wrong end of the kind of brutal dismantling that Eddie Mair’s persistent questioning once delivered. On Friday, on the BBC Breakfast sofa, Johnson was apparently undone by a short, open question from Naga Munchetty about what made him “relatable” to the public. He waffled and mumbled in the same manner that he has been waffling and mumbling in response to brush-offs and fuck-offs from the flooded public in Yorkshire and the north Midlands, before attempting to dismiss the word “relatable” as absurd. Jeremy Vine leapt on to Twitter to congratulate his fellow BBC interrogator for her tactics. But was that disseminated clip of Johnson muttering about semantics the most damaging possible outcome of their exchange?

It would be encouraging to believe that such journalistic moments, magnified by social media, serve to change hearts and minds. The evidence, among polarised news feeds, is not compelling. Paradoxically, the politicians who have lately found themselves unwelcome in party and parliament are not those exposed by interview pratfall and subsequent Twitter outrage, but those who have attempted to trade in the nuttiness of logic and nuance. However forensic the interviewer, when the medium is geared to promote 30 seconds of theatrical slapstick the political winners are not likely to be those wrestling with the difficult truths, but those who are simply least embarrassable.

Sophy Ridge, Sky News

Morning anchor started the campaign by exposing Jo Swinson’s double-standards in some of the Lib Dems campaign claims. “The people that I look up to in the way they interview, are those who just listen very carefully to the answers and then home in on something that they know is a story,” she says.

Emily Maitlis, BBC

Earlier in the year, an eye-roll from Newsnight’s lead interrogator, as she listened to Barry Gardiner set out Labour’s Brexit policy, was acknowledged to “sum up the national mood”. She describes TV interviewing as “Messy. It gets things wrong. It is imperfect – sometimes laughably so – [but] sometimes you just nail it.”

Emma Barnett, BBC

Barnett described the 12.5 seconds in which she waited for an answer from Labour candidate for Pudsey Jane Aitchison about whether it would be appropriate to celebrate the death of Tony Blair as the longest pause of her career. Former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman identifies her as the interviewer he most admires.

Andrew Marr, BBC

The BBC had to apologise to home secretary Priti Patel after Marr accused her of laughing at him while he outlined business leaders’ concerns about Brexit. “I watch body language, sweat, eye movements. I’ll try smiley-gentle, nasty, repetitive ... almost anything to get a fresh or surprising answer,” he says.

Nick Ferrari, LBC

The Breakfast host is a cheerful scourge of woolly liberalism. His matey interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg, however, produced perhaps the most damaging quote of the campaign to date, when the minister suggested Grenfell Tower victims would have survived had they used “common sense” and ignored firefighters’ instructions.

Naga Munchetty, BBC

On Friday, the Breakfast presenter sat coolly alongside a squirming prime minister while asking him if he had ever used a mop before and why voters found it hard to relate to him. Fellow BBC broadcaster Jeremy Vine tweeted in admiration: “Great lesson for interviewers, this – the question so open, and so lethal.”