Southwold Ways With Words Literature Festival - Review of Peter Hennessy: ‘Interviews to Make You Think’

PUBLISHED: 17:00 14 November 2016

Ways with Words Festival 2016 in Southwold. Talk with historian, author and broadcaster Peter Hennessy. Picture by Chris Ure

Ways with Words Festival 2016 in Southwold. Talk with historian, author and broadcaster Peter Hennessy. Picture by Chris Ure

Chris Ure

In an engaging and interesting talk, historian, author and broadcaster Peter Hennessy spoke of the enormous changes that he has witnessed in the art of political interviewing over many decades, from the more subtle style of the nineteen fifties to the ‘combat’ style of today.

He said that the turning point came in 1958 when Robin Day interviewed Harold Macmillan on the programme Tell the People. In those days Macmillan, as Prime Minister, actually came to the studio, something that would rarely happen today.

That was followed by the John Freeman’s ‘Face to Face’ series which he said ‘set the gold standard for interviewing’. He said that young journalists today should learn that important lesson of ‘courtesy being used as a weapon’.

He believes that this series was only equalled by the later Dr Anthony Clare interviews: ‘In the Psychiatrists Chair’, which he described as both ‘sharp and subtle’.

He traced the changing styles of political interviews saying that today many political presenters are simply focussed on getting the news headline for the next day, rather than getting something deeper from the interview.

He said that he is ‘not a fan of that style of unrelenting conflict’ and that in the early days there would be an attempt to get under the surface, by relating to the shared formative years of the interviewer and interviewee.

Melvyn Bragg called it ‘generational kinship’, whereas today it is a ‘pacemaking style, where they go into combat, which is how the interviewers become personalities in their own right’.

He blamed it on the relentless hunger for 24-hour news coverage, which results in a permanent state of rebuttal, utilising political tactics and special advisors, so that there are always pre-prepared answers and little spontaneity. He called it the Blue Peter response - something that had been prepared earlier. Speaking of Brexit, he said part of the problem is that ‘England is an extended family that doesn’t know each other any more’.

After the war, people knew and understood each other, but now there is a growing political class and an ever increasing establishment, which creates separation. He praised literary festivals saying that they are now the only source for a free exchange of political views, because political hustings are all heavily stage managed.

Throughout his talk, he spoke about the importance of ‘hearing the sounds of the people’ saying that despite Britain being traditionally internationalist in its thinking, the Referendum became a lightening conductor for the country’s multiple anxiety.

He concluded by saying that he does not want Scotland to leave the UK and that he will die British, given that the only alternative seems to be becoming part of something called RUK (Rest of the UK), which doesn’t appeal to him at all!

Chris Ure

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