Books on interviewing . . . experiments in teaching . . . video interviews
in threes . . . the famous house-fire story . . . Proficiency
Test trickery . . . the recurring faults . . . the
politician problem . . . reels of flickering history . . .
All the books about interviewing, piled up with great care, would tower above the average house. Some of the earliest formal guidance emanated from Alec Newman, the genial deputy director of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, and appeared in a 94-page booklet entitled ‘Teaching Practical Journalism’ in the early 1960s. In a crisp six-page chapter, Alec managed to say pretty well everything that could be said on the subject. And his brief treatise formed the basis of a two-and-a-half-hour session on a block-release course in Wolverhampton in 1965 - ‘Interviewing techniques with demonstrations and practical work’, said the programme.
The advice is detailed, cheerily down-to-earth and essentially wholesome. The average person, he says, perhaps interviewed only once or twice in a lifetime, will for ever remember the experience ‘with, we hope, pleasure or at least without bitterness.’ In a stern warning about putting words into the mouths of ‘difficult or inarticulate interviewees,’ he says: ‘This style of reporting is unfair, inaccurate and dangerous. Don’t do it’. And urging trainees to be ‘sympathetic and understanding’ when reporting tragic events, he writes: ‘I’ve covered hundreds of deaths and several multiple tragedies and never yet felt I was intruding. People sometimes don’t want to talk at first but a good reporter can usually win them over with no unpleasantness whatsoever’.
It obviously seemed a good idea at the time to produce the script of a mock interview during which some nitwit reporter bombarded a brand-new widow with heartless, clumsy questions. ‘I just can’t talk about it,’ says Mrs Smith. But the reporter isn’t easily put off. ‘Surely the police have told you what happened to your husband?’ he says. ‘We don’t know - the police won’t tell us anything about it. The factory won’t talk either. There must be something fishy about it if they want to keep quiet.’ The interview ends, not surprisingly, with what Mr Newman would call unpleasantness. Mrs Smith: ‘I’ve had enough, I tell you. Go away; please go away’. (Slams door). Note, incidentally, the carefully-placed semi-colon between ‘Go away’ and ‘please go away’. That sort of detail mattered in the 60s. Mr Newman suggested that lecturers should record this dreadful duologue and play it back in the classroom so that the faults could be discussed. And there were, he added, a limited number of tapes available giving examples of badly-handled interviewees that could be borrowed on application to NCTJ headquarters in London.
It is easy to snigger today. Note, for example, that the Wolverhampton block-release syllabus had the lads doing an ambitious two-and-a-half hours of ‘subbing, marking-up copy, intros, headlines and practical work’ on Thursday afternoon while for the girls there was ‘a fashion show at Wallis’s.’ But these, as I have said, were pioneering times and everything was experimental. Five years later, when I came on the scene, some of the barmiest of the experiments had no doubt already been abandoned, but there was still a long way to go in the quest for training techniques that actually worked.
Our early efforts on the interviewing front, I must confess, were barely an advance on Mr Newman’s, except that I abandoned the idea of recording deliberately lousy interviews after a few lamentably unsuccessful sessions during which students simply fell about in merriment. Cries of ridicule and hoots of laughter greeted the blundering, offensive, cloth-eared reporter on the tape, and it was obvious that no-one was actually learning anything. Demonstrations by lecturers were not much better - the keenest of students nods off within a minute or two if required to sit silently and concentrate on the progress of a staged interview between two people in a classroom. Tape-recorders were unwieldy items in the 70s, but the arrival of a genuinely portable machine - about as big as a hefty hard-back book - led to a refinement in our interviewing sessions. With the machine on the table between them, and no-one else in the room, two students conducted an interview which was later assessed by a lecturer who could identify clumsy, misleading questions or notable omissions and present them - at a later session - for discussion. That got rid of the soporific sessions at the end of which students had to be shaken awake and reminded it was time to go home, but there remained one big weakness - it was difficult to stage a ‘hard news’ interview (unless, by some happy chance, one of the students had been caught up in a recent bank robbery) and the conversations were usually more along the lines of ‘What did you do in the holidays?’ or ‘What started you off collecting butterflies?’
It suddenly occurred to me - belatedly, you might think, having read thus far - that the best way to run an exercise with measurable results would be to have three trainees tackle a complex interview separately, with the same well-briefed person answering the questions in each case. Comparison of the performances would reveal precisely why things went wrong - or, better still, why they went right. Errors, omissions and confusion would be easy to spot, as would the deft questioning that led the interviewee to reveal all. (Staged interviews of this sort have long been a key element of formal NCTJ tests, the difference being that the emphasis is on the written copy that results, not on how the questioning is carried out.) Three seemed the right number of participants. Results from two people, apart from being less than conclusive, could lead to ill-natured argument born of embarrassment, and the use of any more than three would lead to unnecessarily long-winded analysis.
Then came the real leap forward - the arrival of black-and-white closed-circuit television, in the form of a Sony reel-to-reel video recorder, one large TV set, one camera and one tripod. Such gear, in slimmer and slicker form, is everywhere nowadays, but this was such a novelty at the time that the Principal invited staff-members who thought it might be useful to assemble in the gym and see it demonstrated by a visiting salesman. A handful of lecturers turned up and we pointed the big bulky camera at one another and sniggered as our grinning faces appeared on the screen. Some thought ‘Mmm, yes, it might be useful’ - but I was thrilled beyond measure. This was the answer! To the salesman’s obvious delight, I urged the Principal to write a cheque without delay. The study of interview techniques would be revolutionised, I told him. He said he would think about it, and I was left on pins as this magic gadgetry was loaded back into a van and disappeared. But it reappeared a few weeks later and there are countless working journalists today who remember plodding through fire, flood and fraud interviews under the glassy gaze of that big black camera.
Even then, this most fundamental teaching aid was not allocated to the journalism section. It was entrusted to the technicians and it had to be signed out and signed back in again. I had to book the cripplingly-heavy equipment in advance and, at the appointed hour, collect it and deliver it to the appropriate classroom. There were then no dedicated journalism areas so the destination depended on where a room was available, and occasionally two flights of stairs were involved. (I had a hernia operation in the 1980s - perhaps I should have sued). The arrival of a lift in 1974, as part of a major college extension, helped a lot. The technicians fixed the monitor and the recorder permanently to a trolley and I could roam the corridors proudly with our mobile hi-tec interviewing outfit. The success of the new equipment more than made up for the logistical hassle. For a start, the students enjoyed the work - video cameras are ten a penny nowadays, but in the 70s and 80s it was still a novelty to appear on-screen. I always launched the interview sessions with a little light-hearted panning around the room (technical expressions such as ‘panning’ were falling naturally from my lips within days) so that the class would feel at ease. When, after an explanatory preamble, I asked for three volunteers, there was usually an immediate show of hands.
A well-oiled procedure was soon established. With the rest of the group dismissed to the library (or sometimes to the pub down the road, I suspect) the volunteers came in one at a time to interview me in my capacity of local newsagent, police officer, pools winner or whatever character the situation demanded. It was essential that the circumstances were believable and that there was no make-it-up-on-the-spot waffle, so I devised eight or nine complicated tales and memorised them thoroughly. This little collection, used randomly as new groups of students came and went, lasted me for some years, and I can remember most of the details to this day. So can many of those who did the interviews - I used to get letters, months and years later, from former students who had just tackled stories that echoed my own set-piece ‘scenarios’ (that’s what they call them nowadays). There was no preparation time. As the students sat down to face me they were briefed in about thirty seconds - there had been a fire, a flood or a crash and they had just arrived on the scene and were facing some appropriate spokesman. The three interviews occupied roughly an hour, and later that week, when the whole group assembled to watch the performances, there was a buzz of excitement.
The interview that sticks most clearly in my mind was the first I ever prepared. It was the story of a late-night house fire, based loosely on a real news item I had imaginatively embellished to give the questioners plenty to get their teeth into. I became Andrew Jackson for the occasion, and the reporter, who had found me poking disconsolately around among the embers, interviewed me as I sat on a low garden wall (which cleverly got round the fact that I was actually sitting in a chair in a classroom). This ‘scenario’, repeated many times with different students over the years, never failed to throw up striking variations in performance. Same circumstances, same interviewee, but almost always grave omissions and conflicting conclusions. It was entertaining stuff, certainly - but the serious bit was noting why Alice had become confused, why Jim had failed to find out something that Fred had discovered seemingly by chance, and why Fred had got himself hopelessly tangled up in a part of the story that had flowed smoothly for Alice and Jim.
Consider the facts: Having gone to bed at about 10.30pm, Andrew Jackson wakes up suddenly at 11.30pm when his 14-year-old son Simon bursts into the bedroom shouting ‘Fire, fire!’ . There is a smell of smoke and a crackling sound. Andrew hears Simon shouting ‘Julie, Julie - fire!’ to his 16-year-old sister. He springs out of bed and turns to shake his wife Anne, who is a heavy sleeper. Six-month-old daughter Jane is in a cot on his wife’s side of the bed, and Andrew picks her up and wraps her in a blanket. His wife is still asleep and, with the baby in his arms, he has to jog her with his foot to arouse her. By this time there is a lot of smoke and a flicker of flame, and the wooden staircase is suddenly ablaze. The bedroom window is now the only means of escape. A few spectators are in the street by this time, and neighbour Alan Parker is on the lawn below. Seeing Andrew at the open window, he shouts ‘Quick - throw Jane down to me’. Andrew leans out as far as possible and does so. The baby is safe. Anne leaves next, going backwards out of the window and resting her feet briefly on a ledge before dropping into the arms of two other rescuers. The fire has now swept into the bedroom and Andrew, who sleeps naked, has no time to lose. He wraps a blanket round himself in a token attempt to defend his modesty and drops safely to the lawn. As he lands he is aware of the arrival of a fire engine and he wonders vaguely who has raised the alarm. To his relief, he sees Simon and Julie among the crowd that has gathered. Flames have now burst through the roof and the whole house is soon ablaze. An ambulance arrives and the family are examined but pronounced unharmed. They spend the night at the Parkers’ home, three doors away. They are still there this morning as Andrew pokes around in the still-smouldering ruins of his house.
I have here deliberately omitted a few of the prepared facts. Sessions such as these are worth doing only if they operate on an ‘ask and it shall be given unto you’ basis . . .and any experienced journalist reading these words will have two or three questions in mind already. (All will be revealed later in this chapter!) Not all the above details would necessarily find their way into the reporter’s notebook, but even a crisp two-par account, if it is to be accurate, demands that there is a clear picture in the interviewer’s head. I have heard many a reporter, engaged in this interview, say ‘Did you all get out safely?’ The answer, naturally, is along the lines of ‘Yes, we were very lucky. No-one was hurt’. The result is a bland tale that opens with A family of five escaped unhurt from a blazing house last night, whereas the opposition paper, blessed with a young reporter of higher wattage, says A six-month-old baby girl was dropped to safety from the upstairs window of a blazing house last night . . . and carries a photograph of the hero of the hour. (The reader may scoff, but in the real-life incident that originally led to this exercise, the man who caught the baby was a local goalkeeper. I never dared to include this little gem even in my somewhat-embroidered ‘scenario’ for fear of the jeers that would certainly have erupted.)
I recently heard a radio item about a house fire and it ended with All five occupants of the house were rescued. Perhaps they were - but cynicism born of a thousand interviews causes me to have my doubts. Were they ‘rescued’, I wonder? All of them? Or did they simply get out in time? Were three rescued while two others escaped? This being radio, the item was necessarily sketchy. Perhaps if I’d later seen the story in a newspaper I’d have got a clearer picture. Or would I?
But back to that fire. Student A, hearing how Mr Jackson was jolted awake by his son’s noisy arrival in the bedroom, says: ‘I imagine you got out as quickly as you could, didn’t you?’. That doesn’t get him very far unless Mr Jackson happens to be the chatty sort who insists on describing his exit in minute detail without prompting. The bloke has narrowly escaped death and has had no sleep, and he’s much more likely to say ‘Yes, we bloody well did’. Student B gets a more helpful response, partly by chance, when he asks: ‘Did you rush downstairs right away then?’, because Mr Jackson naturally says something like: ‘No, the stairs were blazing by this time’ and Student B would be a complete nitwit, at that point, not to say: ‘What did you do then?’
For the purposes of this illustration, it is Student C who hits the jackpot by asking: ‘Tell me exactly what happened when you woke and found the place on fire’. Mr Jackson really has very little option but to describe how he leapt out of bed, attended to the baby, woke his wife and so on - provided that Student C gently prods him along and doesn’t interrupt. In many a promising interview, at the dramatic point where Mrs Jackson is tumbling sleepily out of bed in panic, the reporter ruins everything by asking ‘How old is your wife, by the way? Does she go out to work?’ Momentum has been lost and the reporter, fumbling around for a further question, finds himself catapulted to the far end of the story with questions such as ‘Are you insured?’ and ‘Where are you going to sleep tonight?’ He returns to the office and is dismayed when the news editor says: ‘Somebody says they all had to jump for their lives - is that right?’ The reporter doesn’t know. . . though he does know the woman is twenty-eight and used to work at Tesco.
All this illustrates both the importance of asking rather than guessing and the need to take the story chronologically, interrupting as little as possible. The ‘guessing’ bit is astonishingly common, considering that the reporter is there to ask what happened rather than suggest a script of his own and invite the interviewee’s confirmation or denial. In the case of Andrew Jackson’s fire, I have heard inventive reporters come up with every possible speculation as to what he did when he woke up - Did you phone the fire brigade? . . . Did you knot sheets together? . . . Did you think you were perhaps dreaming? . . . Did you bang on the wall to alert the neighbours? Some, making the story up as they go along, have asked Was there a ladder in the room, y’know, from decorating, that you used for your escape? And then, clearly with decorating still in mind - Was there anything particularly inflammable in the house, like cans of paint, that you were frightened might make it worse?
A simple ‘What did you do then?’ would have sufficed in all but the last of those examples - the ‘cans of paint’ enquiry could just possibly have paid off later, as loose ends were being tidied up. Note, incidentally, that all the questions above could have been answered by a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, which in itself identifies them as weak. All the books about interviewing rightly advise against such questions. They rarely lead anywhere at all.
Some readers may think I’m exaggerating about the guessing game, but I’m not. The worst example that ever came my way was perpetrated by an excessively zealous young man while he was simply trying to establish my first name. I told him my initial was J (a lot of people simply give an initial) and expected him to ask ‘What’s the J for?’ But he didn’t have that sort of mind. ‘John?’ he asked. Two can play at that game, so I simply said no. ‘Jim?’ he said. I denied it. ‘Er . . . Jeremy?’ he suggested. Wrong again. He began to look flustered, and I half expected him to produce a book of common English names from his pocket. He took it on the chin, though, when everyone collapsed with laughter during the video playback. ‘I should have just asked what the J stood for, shouldn’t I?’ he said, as if he had been vouchsafed a vision from on high. (The same young man, hearing that my fictional daughter had narrowly escaped being knocked down by a speeding car, said ‘Really? Was she on her way to school - or was she coming home in the evening - does she come home for lunch . . ?’ To his credit, he immediately saw, on playback, that his twenty-two-word triple-guess question should really have been ‘When?’)
The NCTJ Proficiency Test used to produce most enjoyable examples of this sort of thing. I say ‘used to’, because I have taken part in some recent test days and get the impression that today’s candidates have much handed to them on a plate and that there are fewer planted clues that need to be spotted and followed up.
Some candidates, having heard mischievous claims that the NCTJ was out to trip them up, became quite paranoid in the early days. One test interview was with a newly-appointed soccer manager, and a widely-circulated rumour alleged that he had been sitting with one leg tucked beneath him. Candidates who had not glanced under the table and spotted that this sportsman had only one leg had definitely failed, said the rumour - to the dismay of those who had taken the test and noticed nothing amiss. But the architects of the test interviews did not stoop to actual deceit of this order. Candidates who found later that there were glaring holes in their stories invariably alleged that they were victims of trickery, but in most cases the explanation was that they had not been listening properly. In one NCTJ test, the interviewee was a vicar whose church hall had been vandalised and - luckily for visiting reporters - he was keen to get the details off his chest. The candidates’ capacity for listening properly was deliberately tested by an apparently casual remark that the interviewees were instructed to use ‘at an appropriate moment’. Thus it came to pass that, up and down the country at various test centres, a few dozen vicars were choosing their moment to sigh and say ‘It wouldn’t be so bad if the vandalism had been confined to the church hall’. The correct response to that fat hint (and I’m sure the reader will be ahead of me here) is something like ‘Why, what else has happened?’, ‘How d’you mean, Vicar?’ or, at the very least, a raising of the eyebrows and a questioning grunt. A distressing proportion of candidates simply muttered a sympathetic ‘Mmm, yea’ and then asked the vicar how old he was and if he happened to own a dog. Those who did respond to the parson’s subtle prompt had bounty heaped upon them - the vandals had poured syrup in the font, smashed the legs off the organist’s stool and committed other wickednesses that, though despicable, made a cracking good story. A colleague of mine sought to improve upon even this colourful tale by having the vicar wear campaign medals, the idea being that any candidate who failed to spot that this gentle cleric was actually a war hero would be heavily penalised. I thought that was going too far.
I had been a working journalist for nearly twenty years, but I learned a great deal myself from these video sessions. Most people, I noticed, asked two or three questions at once along the lines of ‘What will you do next, Mr Smith - will you report the matter to the police or will you take the law into your own hands?’ Those three are at least related, but sometimes shots seemed to be fired at random - ‘How long have you lived round here, Mr Smith . . . how old are you by the way . . . are you married?’ Spray someone with questions in that way and you usually get an answer to the last one - which means that you forget to return to the first one and never do find out how long Mr Smith has been around. I also learned that what we say is often not quite what we mean, in which case we get an answer to a question we don’t even realise that we’ve asked and the seeds of confusion are sown. I remember a pools-winner interview during which it crossed the reporter’s mind that the subject could possibly have won other competitions in the past, which would give the story an extra bite. But his question came out as ‘Are you a lucky chap, Mr Johnson?’. . . and Mr Johnson, who carried his share of life’s woes, said ‘No, not really.’ But another interviewer in the same session asked the question directly: ‘Have you ever won anything before, Mr Johnson?’, and was rewarded by: ‘Only once - I won a car in a travel-magazine competition exactly three years ago.’ The first questioner, annoyed at his failure to learn about the car, said ‘I asked him about other wins - he should have told me.’ But, as the video showed, he had not asked him about other wins. He had asked if he thought he was ‘a lucky man’ and had received an honest answer.
Our emphasis, as will be apparent from all this, was on news interviews during which facts had to be established - but interviewing politicians and others who grind axes of one sort or another is an infuriatingly different matter. Here, experience is the only teacher. As we all know, politicians on radio and television routinely avoid answering straight questions. I remember Jeremy Paxman, interviewing Tony Blair on the eve of the 2001 general election, asking: ‘Is it possible, do you think, for one party to have too big a majority?’ Mr Blair replied crossly that he refused to speculate on the election outcome. Paxman said he wasn’t asking him to do so. He repeated his actual question, a discussion-point gem that deserved an answer, several times but it got him nowhere. Wary of snares that might await them in the simplest of questions, all politicians launch out instead into what they want to say. Some ex-journalists, indeed, have done a neat poacher-turned-gamekeeper trick and now teach this very skill to people in the public eye. No-one can blame them.
In a journalism-training environment, one great advantage of using video is that no-one can cheat. Reporters sometimes need to be cunning in their dealings with the public, but there’s no conning your way out of it if you have just made a total pig’s ear of an interview and the evidence is there on tape until the lecturer is kind enough to erase it. The swaggering fellow from a large evening paper who gets himself tied up in knots can be humbled by a seemingly timid chap from the Little Tissington Gazette who glides smoothly through a complicated tale and manages to pick up all the juicy bits along the way.
Speaking of juicy bits - I earlier withheld some of the detail about Andrew Jackson’s fire, to give the reader the satisfaction of thinking up a few questions of his or her own. What caused the fire, for example? Answer - according to the fire brigade, a lump of coal fell from the open fire in the living room and smouldered on a rug, which soon burst into flames. Better still - how did young Simon, tucked up in bed, know there was a fire downstairs? Answer - his pet parrot was squawking loudly on its perch in the living room, as well it might. (No - it was not shouting ‘Fire!’. The question has often been asked.) Several bright-spark interviewers have asked a final question clearly designed to uncover a flaw in the story. ‘If you jumped out with only a blanket round you,’ they say, ‘how come you are fully dressed now?’ Answer - the clothes have been borrowed from hero-of-the-hour Alan Parker (remember him?) with whom the Jacksons have spent the night. Those who did badly in these sessions would mutter something about not needing to know all that anyway, as they would only be writing two or three pars. But that wasn’t the point, as I suspect they privately understood.
What became known far and wide as ‘the parrot story’ was only one of a collection of mini-dramas with which Richmond students tussled over the years. (A couple of years after leaving college, one young man sent me a story he had written about a pub fire at which the alarm was raised by a parrot that lived on the bar.) There was the flood caused not by a rising river but by a burst in a colossal water-main under a garden, the cinema that had to shut down in mid-film when vandalism got out of hand, the safari-park outing during which a monkey leapt into a car and attacked a baby, and three or four more in the same action-packed vein.
I can still remember all the details. Better still, I can see one or two of them again if I feel inclined - because when the giant Sony video-recorder became obsolete I rescued it from the rubbish-skip and staggered home with it. I took a pile of old reels as well. Some of the flickering black-and-white images have stood the test of time, and the audio output is as good as new. I shove the once-familiar heavy lever over to the right. ‘Oh, hello, Mr Jackson,’ says a voice from the past. ‘I’m sorry to hear about the fire. Can you tell me what happened . . ?’