Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Let’s give interviewers a break….

I have been writing books and articles for some years now.  In doing so you quickly get used to a few things.  The biggest of these is that (especially when commenting on politics) many people disagree with you.  It’s important to understand and accept that, you simply can’t convince everyone and they are just as likely to be right as you are.  That’s not to say every comment doesn’t hurt.  In the same way that someone praising an article gives you a real lift, someone dismissing it needs to be taken on board too.


Some people love a book and some people won’t like it at all.  That’s life.  A recent review of ‘Dynasties’ gave me pause for thought however on an entirely separate subject to the book itself.  John Burke in the Sunday Business Post criticised the book for not including more interviews and instead relying on established and known facts.  This is a fair point and one that is very much dependent on what you are looking for from a book.  At the outset I decided against interviews with politicians for a simple reason.  Aside from a little anecdote, some descriptions of personal feelings and some revisionism I was doubtful it would add to an understanding of the science behind a dynasty.  Lets face it, we know exactly what a politician will say about themselves don’t we?  We know exactly what an opponent will say about them.  We also know that politicians have had more than enough opportunity to lay out their views on issues down through the years.  In effect all you will uncover is a few nice anecdotes.  Admittedly that may add to the reading experience of someone not familiar with politics, but I don’t believe it adds to the argument only to leave the account as somewhat biased and their agreement to partake in interviews will usually come with a caveat that they have to see what is being said before it is published.


My approach was simple. Yes, it did rely on facts and thoughts that were out there.  Multitudes of interviews have already been done.  I wanted to establish the key points that we know from each of the families studied and assess where these cross and merge to form a pattern, because there, and only there, do we find genuine evidence of what a ‘Dynasty’ actually is as opposed to what someone wants us to believe it is either positive or negative. I also did no want to be beholding to anyone for a view expressed in the book. That brings me to the point of this blog, a defence of the interviewer.


Over the years I have defended politicians time and time again.  I always argue that people must remember they are human and ordinary people.  It is also easy to forget that the same can be said of interviewers.  There are two types of interview that generally take place.  The combatative one usually centred on a policy or decision and the aim is to give the politician a through going over and hopefully, if you are lucky catch them out on something.  This gives us no insight into the politician, it dehumanises them to a degree but it is necessary.  Time and again interviewers are criticised for not asking something or hitting hard enough, but the truth is that it is rare to actually catch the politician out.  It’s that one interview that can make your career when you do.  But the interviewer must always be careful not to bully or alienate people.  Unless handled very skilfully people begin to dismiss the questioning as just doing it for the sake of it rather than unsettling a politician and showing a definite line of inquiry.


As a result over the years supporters of political parties come to dislike figures in the media.  Fianna Fail has believed for generations that RTE is out to get them.  Ray Burke even tried to destroy the station.  This came from the fact that they believed every time an FF politician was put under pressure it was done because RTE didn’t want to let the FF view out.  In their view they were, and remain for many, utterly biased.  The funny thing is when you talk to supporters of other parties they believed just as firmly that RTE was just a mouthpiece for FF.  They called it ‘Pravda’.  Newstalk suggested there was no state run spin at the station but was then attacked as being pro-Fine Gael because it contained some ex-FG personnel in its ranks of presenters.  In truth most of these interviewers were well capable of giving FG just as hard a time.  Admittedly I have been given opportunities by Newstalk also, so I’m sure some would say I am biased, but then I don’t exactly come from an FG background so where does that leave the theory?


The fact is I would rather most interviewers be up front about a political opinion they hold, then at least you know where they stand.  Most people from a political background are more than capable of questioning their own side.  The problem is when they are hard on an opponent they are accused of bias and when they are hard on their own side its some kind of sour grapes.  They just can’t win.


The second type of interview is the personal one.  This is the one used for most books, documentaries and chat shows.  Politicians love it.  It’s the chance to show a different side, the human side, show the ‘real’ person.  Bertie Ahern did more of these interviews than possibly any politician in our history, yet do we really know him any better?


The problem with this interview is that while it provides a nice few moment’s light entertainment, it is designed to allow the politician show their better self.  To tell their story.  It is very necessary given the abuse they take but it will rarely provide us with any real insight because the politician is in control of the information.  The anecdotes of how they felt or what they did on a given day will never be negative stuff.  It will always be of how something hurt them, or how they helped someone.  We can be guaranteed it will never be that ‘I was in a really bad mood and pushed an old lady out of my way as I crossed the road because I’m really sick and tired of pensioners’.


Interviewers equally get criticised for not being tough enough in such interviews without people really understanding that it’s set up with a different purpose in mind.  It is easy to criticise interviewers and wonder why they didn’t ask something or what they didn’t just openly insult someone.  The fact is that the interviewer also threads a fine line.  While some people were thrilled by Miriam O’Callaghan’s questioning of Martin McGuinness others were infuriated and insulted by it.  Some were delighted by Pat Kenny’s approach to Sean Gallagher on the Front line; others felt his use of random live information from twitter was questionable.  The real truth was it was not so much the questions but how they were reacted to that caused the problems for the candidates.


I don’t think things will change.  I took part in the TV3 documentary  on Fianna Fail with Ursula Halligan.  I know they put a lot of effort into finding voices and trying to balance the show.  In the end some people felt it was propaganda for FF because it focused on some of their historic achievements and didn’t seek to hit back at people within FF who said they now saw things differently.  Others felt the programme was totally an FF bashing exercise that didn’t focus enough on the positives and instead cut out a few choice lines from interviews.  The harsh reality is that in the effort to find balance people will always disagree.  Television demands that time is of the essence.  Politicians are well aware of editing.  Don’t say something if you need another hour to explain what you meant.


Interviewing is a tough job, someone will always think you were too rough and some too lenient.  You will always be accused of bias by someone.  So I reckon we should give the interviewers a break too.


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