Richard North, 02/12/2019  
 


There have been diverse views about the Marr interview of Johnson yesterday. But, on reading the transcript carefully, I have to say that it didn't convey anything that we didn't already know or might have guessed.

If you enjoy the sport, then that is all very well, but those who came to the programme with the aim of coming away better informed about Johnson's policies and intentions would have been disappointed. And, in that sense, it was a complete waste of everybody's time.

With that, one must really question the purpose of these political interviews. Either they are for entertainment or for information. But, what is increasingly evident is that they can't provide both.

That much even emerged from the Marr interview when, at one point he wanted to change the subject to what he called Johnson's "overarching financial problem". When Johnson, kept talking, Marr interjected with the comment: "I'm sorry, you just keeping going on and on and on. You're chuntering. I need to ask you about the money". 

Without even blinking, Johnson responded: "You’re chuntering; you're interrupting, if I may say so", then to add, "People might be interested in my answer as well as your question. But go on".

To an extent, Johnson had a point. People tune in to watch political interviews to learn what the politicians have to say. In the grander scheme of things, the identity of the interviewer is irrelevant.

What matters are the questions and they only matter if they elicit answers which, in turn, provide information. If the end point isn't information then the interview is just entertainment – nothing more. And, for that, I would sooner watch Netflix.

While one might seek to improve on the standard of the interview, or go to another interviewer – the famous Andrew Neil, for instance – one can also take the view that the interview is perhaps the least reliable way of extracting information from politicians.

In terms of defining the genre, what we are looking at is oral evidence and that, in itself, is usually the least reliable form of evidence that we can obtain. If we're really seeking information, then there have to be better ways.

Of course, when it comes to general elections, we all have the party manifestos to which we can refer. However, since most of these are vague and largely aspirational, even forensic analysis can only take us so far.

But what could be fun – and doesn't seem to have been tried – is then to submit written questions on key aspects of the manifestos to the respective parties, and then to ask for written answers.

Nothing, however, can make up for the inadequacies of the questions asked, as we see in the Marr show. Johnson makes several references to his famous catch-phrase, claiming that he will "get Brexit done" – or words to that effect, but Marr doesn't follow through.

It would have been so easy to turn round and set out a structured series of questions, seeking to learn from Johnson, initially how Brexit can be "done" when the withdrawal agreement is but the first stage in what we know to be a long process.

From there, it would be incredibly useful to ask, specifically, what sort of trade agreement Johnson was planning to negotiate with the EU, seeking precise details as to the negotiating objectives and expected outcomes.

The end point of such a line of questioning should be able to establish from the prime minister in office exactly what the UK negotiators might expect to achieve by the end of December 2020. And, fortified with that information, one could then try to establish what the consequences might be (advantages and disadvantages) to business and more generally to the nation.

All we got from Marr yesterday, though, was an ill-judged question on Northern Ireland and Brexit – leaving the main issues hanging. Marr thus asked: "On Brexit will there be tariffs and checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland into Great Britain?"

Predictably, Johnson answered, "Absolutely not. Absolutely not" – a phrasing he seems to rather like – evoking a response from Marr, who said: "That's not what your Brexit secretary says and he's looked at the law, as he said there will have to be checks".

Yet, that is not what Stephen Barclay has said. The point that he actually made, in the Commons on 24 October was that, in effect, checks would apply to "goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland" which are destined for the European Union. There would, he said, "be minimal targeted interventions", the current euphemism for border checks. There would be no checks on goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

In other words, Marr got it the wrong way round, leading to a fatuous exchange which produced nothing of interest simply because he was asking the wrong question. In fact, if there was a question to ask, it was whether Barclay was being economical with the truth as the revised protocol sets out in detail a series of required "interventions" which are very far from minimal.

Through the inadequacies of Marr, therefore, Johnson easily escaped the hook, without ever getting impaled on it – another example of the notorious incompetence of this man, who is really not up to the job.

And this is something the media itself can't seem to deal with. Predictably, the Guardian was in full flow about the interview, having Jane Martinson complain of Johnson "filibustering his way out of any answers as though he were a poor contestant on Just A Minute".

In Martinson's eyes, "Marr tried his best but even describing Johnson's refusal to stop talking over him or answering the questions as 'chuntering', rather than 'lying", felt wrong".

The Guardian itself is willing to concede that the BBC has been undermined by "its own gaffes", but its theme is that "Tory bullying is corroding public trust in journalism". It just cannot seem to acknowledge the awfulness of Marr and his utter incompetence in framing or asking the right questions.

Elsewhere yesterday, though, there was the "seven-way ITV debate" – more of the same "infotainment" that I didn't even bother watching. There are only two possibilities for prime minister to emerge from this election – either Johnson or Corbyn, and it is the former who looks to be the likely victor.

If there is any chance of hitting the ground running with effective scrutiny, it is essential that we have a very clear idea of what each of these two candidates is preparing to do, should they assume the office of prime minister. At this stage in the proceedings, what the rest think is irrelevant.

So far, weeks into the campaign, with only ten days left to the vote, we are no further forward than when we started. If anyone is looking for the real reasons why public trust in journalism is "corroding", it is quite simply that the media has been unable to deliver the goods.

One expects politicians to wriggle and prevaricate – that's what they do. But if the media has one job, it is to bring to the public the real intentions of those who seek elected public office, then to enable them to be brought to account when (or if) they fail to deliver.

And, for all that, tonight, we have to be braced for "fresh revelations" about Prince Andrew as BBC Panorama prepares to air an interview with "sex slave" Virginia Roberts who claims she slept with the royal as a teenager.

Frankly, the height of a general election campaign is not the time to run this programme. It can wait – we have more pressing matters to deal with, of greater long-term significance. But such is the media incontinence that they will drop everything to chase after this distraction. Again, politicians will escape unscathed.

That leaves us with only one certainty: democracy cannot survive if we have a dysfunctional media. It is a small wonder, therefore, that our politics have collapsed on the pavement and are in desperate need of CPR.






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