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Sir Robin Day’s “Code for Television Interviewers”

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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. 

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15 Comments:

  1. would be a good code of ethics if there were room for a woman to be an interviewer…

    • would be a good code of ethics if there were room for a woman to be an interviewer…

      Well yes, but you have to put it in historical context. When Day began interviewing in the 50’s there were no women interviewers and not for a very long time after that. And the language doesn’t help. We don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun other than “it”: “one” won’t do in this context and sounds posh: and “he or she” would be awkward. Perhaps we need to introduce “s/he” as a new word.

  2. “Wouldint it be lover-ley”. Hope I don’t sound sycophantic but I do believe that you Brian followed all 10 of the above in your years as interviewer.
    Currently the interviews seem to be perhaps constrained by time. 8 minute slots? There is an uneasy sense as a viewer (or listener) that the topic, especially political ones, are dropped or skimmed or that the interviewer, in trying to be pleasant appears instead to be obsequious. A pity that Sean doesn’t follow No 7?

    • “Wouldint it be lover-ley”.

      It would indeed by lover-ley. Of the 8 minutes most interviews last no longer than 5 and that’s often with opposing viewpoints. Only Q & A has any discursive interviews.

  3. Paul Henry is sometimes incredibly good but most of the time he seems to want his own issues sorted to his satisfaction.
    Mary Wilson is absolutely apalling with some people and her biterness and desire to cut people in half is so uninformative sometimes one would like her medicated, real shame because there is nothing else on at that time.
    Sean Plunkett is generally quite good.
    What gets me is that you make the effort to be informed and the interviewer kills that opportunity.
    As an aside Phil Goff can maintain a monotone of nothingness for 15 minutes without drawing breath which causes me to loose the will to live.

    • Paul Henry is sometimes incredibly good but most of the time he seems to want his own issues sorted to his satisfaction.

      What you say about the interviewer actually getting in the way of the information is absolutely correct. Most fail to realise that there are three people in an interview – the interviewer, the interviewee and the viewer/listener. We are capable of coming to our own conclusions about the interviewee without having it all spelled out for us by the interviewer.

  4. Say what you will about protocols when it comes to interviewing etiquette, but has there ever been a journo (“s/he”) able to demonstrate the
    wherewithal to wade through Winston Peters’ linguistic sludge? Especially, now that he’s re-emerging to blight the political landscape once again.
    Not only is this phoenix rising from the burning pyre (when we all thought he was truly cremated), but the flapping of the wings is sure to whip up a firestorm of red-hot embers, sending them straight into the face of many a hapless interviewer. Be afraid, be very afraid. (And hide that urn!).

    • Say what you will about protocols when it comes to interviewing etiquette, but has there ever been a journo (”s/he”) able to demonstrate the wherewithal to wade through Winston Peters’ linguistic sludge?

      Well said, Merv. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. (Can’t do the accents!)

  5. Just as an aside the most commonly used gender neutral pronouns used these days (especially in the blogosphere) are Zie/Sie and Hir. Covers all bases, but I must admit, can sound a little funny before you get used to them :)

  6. We don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun other than “it”: “one” won’t do in this context and sounds posh: and “he or she” would be awkward. Perhaps we need to introduce “s/he” as a new word.

    He could have used “they”, I suppose. It is a “Code for Television Interviewers” after all. He could reword the first point slightly to: “Television interviewers must do their duty as journalists, probing for facts and opinions.” and it’s easy from there.