The author of a new book on the art of the political interview has ordained Mail columnist Andrew Neil the most terrifying inquisitor of his generation.
TV producer Rob Burley, who has worked with the biggest names in the field, including Jonathan Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman, Emily Maitlis and Andrew Marr, as well as Neil, says: ‘If he has any dirt on you, you’re f****d. He just knows everything.
Paxman might bloody you quite badly but I think I might be more likely to get away with it with Paxman than with Andrew.’
Here, Neil, 74, who has interviewed the last six British prime ministers for a wide range of broadcasters, from the BBC to Channel 4, gives a masterclass in probing the powerful and recalls his most memorable gladiatorial exchanges …
Though I’ve spent almost three decades interrogating politicians on television, my most famous interview is one that never happened — with then prime minister Boris Johnson during the 2019 general election campaign.
I had been designated by the BBC to do its half-hour, prime-time interviews of the main party leaders on BBC1. All of them duly obliged, as had been the British tradition for decades during elections.
Mail columnist Andrew Neil, 74, (pictured) has spent almost three decades interrogating politicians on television
All, that is, bar Johnson, whose people had assured us he was up for it but in the end wasn’t. His no-show didn’t stop him from winning the election by a near-landslide. But it made headlines round the world.
It also showed the importance of the long-form interview in testing the mettle of those who would govern us before a mass audience at a time on the TV schedules when there is usually no political programming. (Outside elections, BBC1 carries no prime-time politics shows, which might be thought strange for a broadcaster which dines out on its public-service credentials.)
Most politicians fear them but participate on the basis that they are an unavoidable and necessary part of the electoral process. Not Johnson, who calculated, probably rightly, that he had more to lose than gain.
The reason for that calculation goes back to a previous bruising TV encounter I’d had with him five months earlier during the Tory leadership campaign.
The contest was dominated by which Tory contender would best ‘get Brexit done’. Johnson had taken to claiming that even if Britain left the European Union without a deal we could still carry on trading as normal.
When he first started to make this unlikely claim, he was criticised, not for the first time, for a lack of detail. So he started referring to an obscure provision of a long-standing international trade treaty, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) — and, in particular, article 24, paragraph 5b.
Of course most folk had no idea what he was talking about. But that didn’t matter. It was designed to show he had a firm grasp of the detail and he regularly rolled it out with relish. But had he?
I had my doubts, and I’ve always seen it as the primary purpose of political interviewing to test if politicians know what they’re talking about. After all, they want to rule over us, to determine our taxes, where our money is spent, whether or not we go to war. I saw it as a vital part of my job to stop politicians bluffing their way to power unchallenged.
Neil interviewed Boris Johnson (right) at Albert Embankment, London, in 2019 while Johnson was Conservative Party leadership candidate
Of course, in the end, it is for the people, not me or any other broadcaster, to decide. But it is our job to make sure they are in possession of the facts before taking their decision.
When it came to my encounter with Johnson in July 2019, it was soon clear he wasn’t. When I raised the dangers of leaving the EU without a deal, he immediately resorted, as we had anticipated, to his article 24, paragraph 5b comfort blanket.
‘But how would you deal with paragraph 5c?’ I asked, somewhat innocently. This threw him. ‘I would reside entirely on 5b,’ he blustered. I repeated my question. He repeated his answer.
‘Do you know what’s in 5c?’ I inquired. Hesitation.
Then, with typical Johnsonian bluster, he confidently pointed his forefinger at me and blurted out: ‘No!’ Collapse of stout party.
There were some who claimed in the aftermath that this was just another ‘gotcha moment’ designed to show that the interviewer was better briefed than the politician. I disagree.
These days, too many interviewers, especially the second-rate variety, are indeed obsessed with irrelevant gotcha moments. But this had been carefully crafted to reveal our suspicion that Boris Johnson didn’t know what he was talking about on a matter of vital national interest.
The paragraph Johnson had trotted out did allow countries to cancel trade agreements yet continue to trade on the same basis for a while. The next paragraph I referred to contained the rather important caveat that such arrangements could only happen if both parties agreed.
Since, at the time, the EU was determined to give us a punishment beating for having had the temerity to leave, it was inconceivable it would allow us to do so and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Most politicians of the TV age, from Margaret Thatcher (right) to Gordon Brown to Boris Johnson, tend to answer questions you have not asked in interviews, according to Andrew Neil. Pictured: Brian Walden and Margaret Thatcher in 1984
Johnson was promoting a strategy which put tens of thousands of jobs at stake and risked crashing the economy. For that reason alone, his proposition deserved to be seriously tested. It was, on prime-time TV on the nation’s premier channel, and Johnson had failed the test. We heard little of 5b again.
Nor did I interview Johnson again. Team Johnson strung us along during the 2019 election campaign but, even as other party leaders agreed to be interviewed, the BBC was struggling to pin Johnson down.
Even when I made my ‘Martini offer’ (from an old drinks’ commercial) — any time, any place, anywhere — nothing concrete was forthcoming.
I concluded it was never going to happen. Johnson had once worked for me: I knew when he was ducking and diving.
The BBC valiantly said that if he would not be interviewed by me, he couldn’t do any other major interview on the BBC. That line was never going to hold. Andrew Marr, by whom Johnson had agreed to be interviewed, was understandably furious.
In the end, the BBC was let off the hook by the London Bridge terrorist attack, after which it rightly concluded it could not keep the PM off its airwaves.
The subsequent Marr-Johnson confrontation was, in Andrew’s own words, a ‘car crash’. His mistake was to think that he had to be seen to be ‘as aggressive as Andrew Neil’.
But my namesake, who has an effective interviewing style of his own, had misread my approach. I am not aggressive. Robust, persistent, forensic, armed with relevant facts (the product of copious research): I like to think I’m all of that. But aggressive or rude? Rarely.
I admit there were a few times in the past when, provoked by a politician’s failure to answer an important question, I was unnecessarily dismissive, angry or overbearing. I always regretted that and controlled it by developing a new rule: never ask the same question more than three times.
These days, too many interviewers, especially the second-rate variety, are indeed obsessed with irrelevant gotcha moments, writes Andrew Neil. Pictured: Gordon Brown
Jeremy Paxman secured his rightful place in the pantheon of great interviewers by asking then Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question 13 times.
But it was in unique circumstances and not a template for future interviews. Viewers are not stupid. They know when a politician is avoiding the question. It infuriates them more than an answer they don’t like. There is no need to over-egg it.
The art of political interviewing has been given renewed prominence by a revealing new book by Rob Burley called Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying To Me?.
Burley worked with me and many other more prestigious presenters at the BBC. His book is full of wonderful anecdotes and wisdom about the importance of holding politicians to account in a democracy through long- form interrogation.
The title comes from a question made popular by Paxman. I appreciate the sentiments behind it even if I don’t quite go along with it. In my experience, politicians rarely lie outright to their interrogators. These days, it’s too easy to be found out. But they do obfuscate, filibuster, run down the clock by answering questions you’ve not asked, make segues into irrelevances and tap dance round the truth.
Most politicians of the TV age, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown to Boris Johnson, have resorted to these subterfuges at one time or another. It is the job of the skilled interviewer to intervene and bring them back to the matter at hand.
Some viewers resent such interruptions and think it rude (and some rude interviewers do interrupt too much). But nothing is served by allowing politicians to set their own agenda in terrain on which they’re most comfortable. Otherwise you might as well hand the studio over to them to deliver a monologue of their choosing.
Burley contrasts Johnson’s shenanigans in late 2019 — culminating in him hiding in a fridge to avoid an interview with ITV — to the great Brian Walden’s interrogation of Thatcher in 1989, which contributed to her demise a year later.
Walden was a master of his craft, tough but studiously polite, incredibly well-briefed but always willing to let his guests have their say.
I learned a lot from him and the legendary Robin Day (perhaps the country’s first properly robust interviewer), as well as Paxman. His Thatcher interview is certainly one of the great moments of political broadcasting, all the more so because Walden was a friend and admirer of Thatcher’s.
TV producer Rob Burley, who has worked with the biggest names in the field, including Jonathan Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman, Emily Maitlis and Andrew Marr, as well as Neil, says: ‘If he has any dirt on you, you’re f****d. He just knows everything’
But I don’t quite share Burley’s view that it’s the greatest political interview of all times, our equivalent of the famous Frost-Nixon interviews in the 1970s.
That’s because rather than being his usual forensic, well-informed self, Walden was personal and even unpleasant, perhaps because his team was urging him to prove he wasn’t a patsy when it came to interviewing his political heroine.
He accused her of being ‘off her trolley’, which made the interview more pantomime than cross-examination, as Walden’s most senior producer later admitted.
By 1989, Thatcher was widely thought to be impossible to deal with, even by her closest allies. But the interview was demonstrating that without the need for the inquisitor to claim that she was off her trolley — words that wouldn’t even be acceptable today.
For the same reason, Eddie Mair accusing Johnson of being a ‘nasty piece of work’ was unnecessary. Mair, whose gentle but persistent and well-researched interviews are sadly missed on radio and TV these days, had already proved as much by his previous line of questioning.
The viewers could have been left in little doubt. He didn’t have to spell it out and make it his own opinion. The BBC loved his ‘nasty piece’. But that’s because its journalists overwhelmingly hate Johnson.
Not every interview has to be a confrontation — a fact that is too often forgotten by some interviewers. When I interviewed Keir Starmer when he was running for Labour leader in early 2020, I didn’t spend much time challenging his views. I wanted to establish exactly the platform on which he was running.
So over half on hour on BBC Two prime-time I had him lay out his agenda, which was overwhelmingly Corbynista, from large-scale nationalisation to abolishing university tuition fees.
I pressed him on how bankable his promises were. At one stage he insisted they were not just promises but pledges that would be in the next Labour manifesto.
The author of a new book on the art of the political interview has ordained Mail columnist Andrew Neil the most terrifying inquisitor of his generation
Of course he has since junked pretty much all of this Left-wing baggage, suggesting his self-styled ‘Mr Integrity’ schtick is not quite as convincing as he would have us believe.
The BBC regularly replays clips from this interview, which makes it all the more unfathomable that it has junked regular prime-time, long-form political interviews.
Sometimes the best questions are not even the product of diligent homework. When I interviewed Corbyn during the 2019 election campaign (at least he had the guts to turn up), that very morning the Chief Rabbi had spoken aloud about the anti-Semitism gripping parts of the Corbyn Labour Party.
I dropped a number of detailed policy questions for a simple one, asked gently but persistently: would he apologise to the British Jewish community for what had happened to Labour on his watch. He refused, somewhat churlishly. Many in the Labour Party think his campaign never recovered from that.
I suspect it was after this interview that Team Johnson decided not to proceed with me. Despite all their protestations to the contrary at the time, it became clear they’d decided that quite early on.
As we subsequently learned from his chief consigliere, Dominic Cummings, it was not a ‘hard decision’ to keep a ‘gaffe machine’ [Johnson] who was ‘clueless about policy and government’ away from me.
Which rather leaves unanswered why Cummings was campaigning to keep him in power.
In their duplicity, they might have killed off the leaders’ interviews come the next election. If no leader will agree to be interviewed until there is proof everyone else has signed up, they probably won’t take place at all. They will simply become too complicated to organise. The logistics will defeat the broadcasters.
That would be a great pity. The tough but fair and forensic interview has become an important part of our election process, a democratic test seen in few other major democracies.
America has lost the art of the robust interview: candidates for power now stick largely to friendly networks where they can be assured of an easy time.
In France, interviewers are embarrassingly deferential to the president. In Germany, there is no tradition of probing inquiry.
Britain was different — in a good way. Now, perhaps not so much. The BBC has already lost many of the experienced assets — in front of and, more important, behind camera — that allowed it to mount the Big Interview so successfully.
More and more, the parties are fielding their B and C-list teams for studio duty, which, for experienced interviewers, is rather like shooting fish in a barrel: not much fun, not much purpose and not in the least enlightening for the voter. It only encourages further cynicism in the political process.
The price of no scrutiny is all around us. Liz Truss was never subjected to proper interrogation on her ascent to 10 Downing Street, with disastrous consequences we’re still living with.
We should be proud of a broadcasting tradition that fearlessly holds to account the powerful and those who would aspire to power.
Broadcasting will be the poorer if we lose that tradition. More important, so will our democracy.