THE hosts of ITV’s Good Morning Britain wasted their interview with Jennifer Arcuri. By focusing on her sex life, they ignored the crux of the issue and cheated the viewer. It was symptomatic of the poor journalistic practice that is increasingly prevalent in the media.
Time was, viewers could reasonably expect to finish watching a TV interview better informed. Questions would be asked, the guest would be given a chance to answer and then clarificatory comments would be pressed for where necessary and counter arguments proffered for response.
Many interviewers have done away with such tiresome restrictions. They prefer the thrill of demonising guests and trying to discredit what they have to say with cheap character attacks.
Jennifer Arcuri’s treatment on Good Morning Britain is the latest example of this. The ex-model and businesswoman has recently featured in the news amidst allegations of favourable treatment by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. Office meetings held at her Shoreditch apartment – which hosts, to the tabloids’ delight, a pole (dancing for the use of) – have fuelled speculation that she and the former Mayor engaged in more intimate relations.
With typical ex-tabloid editor enthusiasm, Piers Morgan repeatedly asked Arcuri if she had slept with Boris Johnson.
Her response was calm and calculated. It was no business of others, she emphasised, whether or not she had slept with Boris Johnson.
‘You don’t deny it then?’ pressed Morgan.
She repeated her earlier reply and added that it was irrelevant. The issue was whether she had been the recipient of favouritism. She said that she categorically had not. The only reason the press were pursuing saucier angles was her looks and previous career.
The whole interview smacked of bullying and slut-shaming. Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid focused on Arcuri’s sex life with increasing salacity, while insisting such questioning was pertinent to the case.
The public largely disagrees. A recent YouGov poll showed 62 per cent think any affair between Arcuri and Johnson is irrelevant.
Sleeping with Boris in itself proves nothing, just as maintaining purely platonic relations with him would not in itself vindicate the Prime Minister. The question is whether public money was misused. Interrogating a businesswoman about her private life is mere titillation, and a distraction from the issue of how Johnson spent taxpayers’ cash.
But what should we expect nowadays, when interviewers prefer peripheral distractions to substantive argument? It has become popular practice to focus on a guest’s apparent character flaws than to discuss important issues with them.
Take Andrew Marr’s bizarre interview of Nigel Farage earlier this year.
Farage was invited on to the show during the extraordinary rise of the Brexit Party, yet Marr chose to read off a crib sheet of things he hoped would cause his guest embarrassment. Did Farage still think we should privatise the NHS? How did he feel when he heard foreign languages spoken in England? Did he like Vladimir Putin? He took overt pains to focus on these trimmings rather than discuss the meat of the European elections.
When Jeremy Paxman invited Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter to discuss her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, he treated her with trademark condescension in place of critical discussion. Every question was prefixed with ‘Do you honestly believe . . .’ or ‘You say . . . do you wish to withdraw that?’ He made no attempt to critique any of the issues she had written about.
Media-savvy guests know how to handle such attacks. Nigel Farage made Andrew Marr look a fool when he pointed out the BBC were unable to address the pressing issues of the day and Marr pushed on in the same manner regardless. Ann Coulter shot down Jeremy Paxman with a withering ‘Let’s just assume I agree with everything I wrote in the book.’
On other occasions the interviewer triumphs and is applauded for ‘robust’ questioning. Ben Shapiro walked out of his interview with Andrew Neil after being subjected to a relentless character attack. Many cheered that the Right-wing commentator had finally been put in his place by a veteran reporter.
In both situations the viewer loses. We learnt nothing about the soundness of Coulter’s or Shapiro’s ideas because neither interviewer wished to talk about it. We learnt nothing about the credibility of the Brexit Party’s pledges because Marr chose not to discuss the EU elections. And we learnt nothing about any dodgy dealings in the London Mayor’s office because Piers Morgan was more interested in talking about a stripper pole.
Andrew Neil, George Galloway and Michael Portillo recently suggested the reasons for poor interview practice were the shorter interview format and lack of interviewer expertise (at 44:30 here.) It will always be the case that some arguments owe more to their advocate’s debating skill than to logical soundness. But the answer cannot be to ignore the argument itself in favour of attacking its proponent. Such a move is fallacious and asks viewer to judge an argument on the merits of the one who advances it, not on its own premises.
Happily, the internet is providing viewers with lengthy in-depth discussions of hot topics. Podcasts such as The Joe Rogan Experience do away with the time limits imposed by TV broadcasters and explore an issue more fully. Guests are encouraged to go into detail and elaborate on what they are saying. When deemed appropriate the host will challenge the guest and then sit back and give them time to respond. The interviewer will not always have the expertise fully to hold a guest to account, but at least the viewer can hear the idea fully articulated and make up his or her own mind. A far better use of time than that offered by mainstream broadcasters.