I recently re-read Sir Robin Day’s autobiography, Grand Inquisitor. Robin Day, who died nine years ago, was the doyen of political interviewers in Britain for more than 40 years. Rejecting the idea that interviewers should be deferential to those in power, he was the first to put probing questions to his subjects on behalf of the viewers and listeners. His autobiography includes this Code for Television Interviewers, which I recommend as required reading to Paul Henry, John Campbell, Mike Hosking, Sean Plunkett, Larry Williams, Mary Wilson and one or two others of our interviewing glitterati. In particular they might like to pay attention to items 7 to 10.
Sir Robin Day’s Code for Television Interviewers
1. The television interviewer must do his duty as a journalist, probing for facts and opinions.
2. He should set his own prejudices aside and put questions which reflect various opinions, disregarding probable accusations of bias.
3. He should not allow himself to be overawed in the presence of a powerful person.
4. He should not compromise the honesty of the interview by omitting awkward topics or by rigging questions in advance.
5. He should resist any inclination in those employing him to soften or rig an interview, so as to secure a “prestige” appearance or to please authority; if, after making his protest, the interviewer feels he cannot honestly accept the arrangements, he should withdraw.
6. He should not submit his questions in advance, but it is reasonable to state the main areas of questioning. If he submits specific questions beforehand, he is powerless to put any supplementary questions which may be vitally needed to clarify or challenge an answer.
7. He should give fair opportunity to answer questions, subject to the time-limits imposed by television.
8. He should never take advantage of his professional experience to trap or embarrass someone unused to television appearances.
9. He should press his questions firmly and persistently, but not tediously, offensively, or merely in order to sound tough.
10. He should remember that a television interviewer is not employed as a debater, prosecutor, inquisitor, psychiatrist or third-degree expert, but as a journalist seeking information on behalf of the public.