I’ve written here in the past on the topic of interviews, and how locking horns with awkward indie musicians was infinitely more enjoyable than swapped platitudes with media-trained pop puppets – even if they do make your life easier for you.
Earlier this month in my new role as culture editor on the Huffington Post UK, I got to explore for the first time where politicians fall on this spectrum.
Notoriously evasive but (generally) well-educated figures, would my first experience quizzing an MP (unless you count once moaning about litter to the Labour MP for Woolwich Arsenal on the street) be a fascinating intellectual battle or, like Paxman, would I find my frown deepening like a coastal shelf with every vacuous answer?
David Lammy has been MP for Tottenham since 2000, but came to the attention of many people across the country for the first time when he appeared on the news in the immediate aftermath of the August riots. Stood on top of the broken glass and burned out cars of his constituency, he made a passionate speech that contrasted sharply with David Cameron’s reluctance to end his holiday and confront what had happened on the streets of England.
Sitting in a random meeting room in Westminster, I was there to interview him about ‘Out Of The Ashes’, his book on the riots. The resulting video, from which you can decide for yourself how sincere or straightforward an interviewee he proved to be, is above.
As ever the more insightful moments occurred when the camera wasn’t rolling. When David walked in my cameraman and I were still fiddling with the set up. I’d just knocked a glass of water over. Moreover, my boyish face, as ever, would have immediately led him to think they’d sent the work experience kid (“Culture Editor of the Huffington Post? Wow that’s quite an achievement for a teenager” I was told by a elderly poet the other week).
All of this registered with Lammy, but he barely flinched. Where many people in power carry an air of self-importance, he was relaxed and friendly despite appearing uncertain who I was representing (in America, politicians fear the Huffington Post – in the UK we’re still the curious upstarts).
When I told him I’d met him before at Newcastle University when he was touring in his role as Education Minister in the last government, he took an admirable punt on (probably) pretending to remember me, even accurately guessing what course I had done.
Once the interview was under way (with us forced to sit approximately 5 inches closer together than felt strictly appropriate), he was effortlessly gregarious, meeting difficult questions with a compliment (“that’s a great question…”) and varying his enunciation – all products of good media training.
Afterwards he said he enjoyed the interview and felt sure I’d go far (perhaps all the way to puberty?). But none of this felt forced. The problem with most politicians is that they have the expertise or knowledge, but are as charming as a belch. Lammy has a different quality that made speaking to him neither difficult nor like co-writing a press release.
On this evidence, interviewing politicians is easy without being particularly false. Maybe Lammy is just an exception. Or maybe I should have ditched cultural journalism and went down the politics route after all.