The interview changes the dynamics of political talk. It is mediated, most obviously in the sense that it is broadcast on tv or radio or both, but just as importantly in that it is conducted by an interviewer on behalf of an audience. Where the politician must appear knowledgeable and persuasive, the journalist must appear neutral and adversarial. The interview is an interaction between two parties, and both are doing politics. It’s no longer all about the politician, but about what the interviewer might encourage or challenge the politician to say.
The interview has come to replace the broadcast speech or the straight talk to camera which is now rare, seeming dated and to belong to a politics of monologic authority rather than democratic challenge and engagement. Its intended audience might be the general public, but is invariably also a more limited stratum of political colleagues and opponents, both professional politicians and party workers, as well as civil service, business and other sectional interests according to topic.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to do well, and the more so because it is in some sense an unnatural, artificial kind of talk. If there is a sense in which the interviewer is asking questions on the audience’s behalf, this means, by the same token, that he or she is no more than a proxy recipient of the interviewee’s answers, which are intended primarily for the audience or public. And the further implication of this is that the interviewer avoids what would otherwise be polite and conventional acknowledgements of what an interviewee has said – the frequent ‘aha’, ‘yes’, ‘mmm’, ‘OK’ and ‘right’ utterances with which normal conversation is usually interspersed. ‘Interviewers act to elicit talk through their questions, but they refrain from acting as the recipients of such talk. In so doing, they allow the elicited talk to be understood as produced, not for them, but for the audience who is listening in’.
Performances of this kind, like successful speeches, don’t happen easily or naturally, without preparation. Much work is done backstage by media specialists, by those who write speeches and soundbites, of course, but also the press secretaries and spin doctors who manage the briefing process, and others who advise on aspects of a politician-performer’s image, including his or her hair, clothing, make-up and voice. The interview itself will be predicated on hard-headed negotiation between political and media teams about who should appear, where, when, with whom and on what terms: whether in the studio or in a politician’s own office, for example, and perhaps including just how chairs and tables should be arranged. Crucial interviews will be specifically and separately rehearsed by both political and media teams, practising posing and responding to questions, and/or various means of evading them.
For the interview is an exercise in ‘impression management’. On one hand, the politician must perform a particular sort of distinction by demonstrating exceptional kinds of knowledge, judgement or authority, but on the other also a degree of identity with his or her audience, a persona expressed in a mode of speech or affect with whom that audience might identify. This impression is delivered as if from the front stage, the putatively complete and transparent world of public affairs, while being continually threatened by the journalist’s probing of the back stage, alluding to the implications, seeking to expose the ramifications of whatever has been said or not said. Politicians must seem to assert the public interest and deny their own self-interest; journalists seek to develop a drama or story of self-interest sought, realized or thwarted.
In doing so, journalists as much as politicians dispose of a high degree of institutional authority: what the politician derives from her elected status and/or ministerial or other organizational authority, the journalist holds by virtue of working for a prominent media outlet. Indeed, the rise of the interview as a journalistic practice or social form is in part an effect of the developing occupational identity and authority of the newspaper reporter in the early twentieth century.
In this context, the purpose of the interview is less the discovery of truth than the demonstration of plurality, if not antagonism. The interview generates and mobilises different points of view, different representations and accounts of what is the case and what should be done; it makes for assertions and denials of agency; it is, in short, a struggle over the definition of the situation.
The press conference
The press conference is a one-to-many rather than one-to-one exchange. Press conferences are of two kinds: those held by prominent politicians, perhaps as a matter of routine, but often to make an announcement, and those held by two national leaders to report on a meeting they’ve had. The press conference is more significant in the US – though used with varying frequency by different Presidents – because they have no other institutional platform for communicating directly to the public, such as other leaders have in parliament.
The press conference allows the politician to speak on his or her own territory, that of the press room, surrounded by his or her own staff, as well as the insignia and other accoutrements of office, rather than in the more neutral venue of the broadcasting studio. Because questions come from many quarters, it is less likely that it will follow any order or sequence, though different journalists might offer sustained probing on a specific issue. Politicians themselves select questioners, and often show a degree of familiarity with the press corps by using journalist’s names. For her part, the journalist seeks to position herself in relation to the politician and in relation to her peers by asking more or less challenging questions.
Joint press conferences are addressed to the press and publics of both countries. Just as a summit or meeting will have been subject to careful negotiation by respective political staffs, so will the announcement and reporting of its progress or otherwise. This sort of press conference usually entails very limited interaction between its two protagonists, though each is both a speaker and a member of the other’s audience. Its interest lies in its being a meta-communication, a communication about a communication, in which what is at stake is how the original communication (the meeting) is to be understood, that is how the new situation it generates is to be defined.
The discussion programme
The discussion programme is a standard feature of current affairs television, in which a panel of politicians and other public figures responds to questions from an invited audience, moderated by a chair. Its typical late-evening scheduling marks a transition from the closed discourse of daytime news reporting, through the more extended treatment of an issue in early-evening studio interviews, to a more general and wide-ranging discussion of opinion, principle and context. The discussion programme seeks not only to hold the representative to account, as do other interrogative forms of communication, but also to mobilise and engage a public. That said, it risks reproducing a sense of politics conducted by the few and watched by the many, presenting a spectacle like other forms or sport or entertainment, in which actors or players perform in front of a crowd.
It has an interesting specific dynamic, in that the audience is both gathered in the studio and watching at home; those watching at home are taking cues from the studio audience, as well as from the panellists and the host. Members of the studio audience ask questions, though they have very limited interaction with panellists, their exchanges usually mediated by the moderator, who may repeat and/or provide context for a question; questions and questioners, of course, are pre-selected by programme managers. The role of the audience is something like that of a jury, and lies in assessing the truth and weight of what has been said by others. Australia’s Q&A displays a Twitter feed in real time along the bottom of the screen; comments made in this way are visible to viewers at home but not to anyone in the studio. They comprise another form of meta-text, usually making observation and passing comment on the studio exchange, often anonymously.
A further variant on this form is the politician’s ‘celebrity’ appearance on entertainment and other talk shows with little if any direct concern with politics. Such appearances offer the opportunity to ground his or her identity in the everyday, to become human, to buttress the representative’s claims not to just to make representations but to be representative.
In this way, a single media event is an occasion for hybrid, multi-level communication, demonstrating the plural or ‘patchwork character of contemporary mediated political language’.
A newer form of mediated talk is the electronic message, which is like others a hybrid: it carries the one to-many dynamic of the speech, the brevity of the passing comment; it has the fixity of the document and the reproducibility of its electronic medium.
In fact, messaging apps like Twitter comprise many one-to-one communications conducted simultaneously, and the affordances of the technology do interesting things to our sense of agency, authorship and identity. We read smartscreens individually, even if often in the presence of others, and in contrast to television, which we might watch in the company of others. We tweet not from our hearts and minds but from an account, from something separate from ourselves which carries not a name but a handle, by which we may or may not recognise each other as integral human beings. Tweets cite and refer to actors and agencies not by their names but by their handles, seeming to render individuals, offices and agencies somehow equivalent. The twittersphere is a plurality, not of individuals, but of accounts.
We send messages to share information, to report on what’s going on, to make announcements, to offer opinion and pass comment. The tweet is often an aside, an offstage remark, a communication made in the margins of another meeting or event. It seems to let us in on the thoughts of others, or to where the action is. Like other forms of speech, it situates us in relation to what is being said; it seeks a particular definition of the situation: the Twitter account is used to construct and develop a position and a persona: it provides ‘a posed view of the backstage’, as Diraj Murthy puts it.
Twitter provides a view, not just in the sense that it is situated and partial, but in that it is also often visual: it is a visual as well as verbal form. Its messages invariably carry images, mostly photographs for which they serve as captions. The image is invoked, called on to speak: it says ‘This happened’, ‘I was there’, and most simply, ‘Look!’
Depute leader tells conference
The scene is laid out before us. We’re toward the back of the hall, in dim light, looking over the backs of heads like ours, which are all looking the same way. Our field of vision is dominated by two screens, one behind the stage and one to the right of it, presumably mirrored by another to the left. The top left of the frame catches flare from the overhead lights, giving the photograph a rough authenticity. The screens show head-and-chest images of a man, against an abstract blue background.
On a stage, below the larger screen, a group sits behind a panel desk. To their left is a single standing figure, gesturing with arms and hands. Almost all members of the group look the same way, to the left and slightly in front of them. Opposite them, between the audience and the stage, stands a row of men standing with cameras, all focused, now slightly upward, on the same position.
The group is seated in two ranked rows, so that each of them can see and be seen. They seem to watch and listen: knowing that the audience is watching them watch and listen, they behave in a manner appropriate to the situation; they are performing or modelling attention.
The speaker stands alone at a lectern, separate from others on the stage, and from the audience. This separation seems to afford him authority, at least for as long as he speaks.
Nothing much is happening, other than that someone is speaking and others are listening. This is the logic of the image and the event it portrays: the conference, the hall, the stage, the screens, the cameras, the lights, the audience, the leaders and officials, the signer, the lectern and now the photograph and the tweet to which it belongs are all there because someone speaks.