Why the media need to rediscover the lost art of the interview
I can’t be the only one who mourns the demise of the art of the interview when I watch what passes for one on our television channels. The questions are often longer – and frequently far more convoluted – than the answers. The interviewers tend to be so aggressive and overbearing that their subjects shut down completely rather than open up to them. Couple this with an appalling lack of research and a complete absence of curiosity and you are left with an exchange that may have a lot of sound and fury but which ultimately signifies nothing.
I was reminded of this yet again as I read the British journalist and ‘celebrity interviewer’ Lynn Barber’s new book, A Curious Career. Barber has been interviewing celebrities and writing them up (and sometimes stitching them up in the process) since the late 60s when she began working for Penthouse (yes, you read that right) magazine and after stints with the Sunday Express, Independent on Sunday, Observer and Vanity Fair, now writes for the Sunday Times. Her new book is a curious hybrid creature: part memoir, part riff on journalism, interspersed with some of her most famous interviews.
Half way through it, though, I began to wish desperately that some of our own ‘celebrity interviewers’, both on TV and in print, would read it for pointers. But just in case they don’t have either the time or the inclination, here are some of the golden rules of interviewing, in no particular order of importance, some of them gleaned from Barber, others just plain old common sense.
• An interview is always about the person being interviewed. It is not about the interviewer. The interviewer is only there to find out more about the interviewee, so that this information can then be passed on to the viewer/reader. So, keep the questions coming. Keep them short and sweet. And frame them to elicit the maximum information. If you are speaking more than your interviewee, then you have failed as an interviewer.
• It is the interviewee’s views that matter, not yours. We don’t need to know what your views are on the Indian economy, the Modi victory, or even the new rape laws. If you want to tell us about them, write an article about it. An interview is about the person sitting in front of you. Pay attention to him or her. And stop banging on about yourself and what you believe in.
• Do your research. You need to know everything there is to know about your subject that exists in the public domain. And it would help if you knew some stuff about him/her that is still unknown to the general public. So, talk to the potential interviewee’s friends, colleagues, family, neighbours, to get a handle on their personality. Forewarned is forearmed. And since we are already in cliché territory, knowledge is power.
• Found out everything there is to know about your interviewee? Now be a dear and forget about it. Don’t bang on about the same things that have been written about the subject for years on end. Everyone knows that Shah Rukh Khan was an outsider from Delhi when he made it big in Bollywood. Sachin Tendulkar’s relationship with his first coach, Achrekar Sir, is now the stuff of cricket legend. Manmohan Singh…no, scratch that, he would never ever give an interview. My point is that there’s nothing new and interesting about any of this. Try and find a fresh angle for your story. It is tough to do when the subject is a celebrity who has been written about for decades. But nobody said this was going to be easy.
• Listen. This cannot be emphasized enough. You need to listen to what your subject is saying. A good interview is akin to a freewheeling conversation in which one party talks and the other watches out for cues to take the conversation into more interesting directions. Have a set of printed questions with you by all means as some sort of security blanket. But don’t just rattle them off in sequence, ignoring what the interviewee is saying. Pick up on interesting bits, push further, tease out some more information. And you can only do that if you are listening.
• An interview is essentially an artificial construct. You are not there to become best friends with the interviewee. On the other hand, there is something undeniably intimate about sitting in a room with a stranger and getting to ask him/her questions about life, politics, religion, sex, marriage or family. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that you have to establish some sort of personal connect with the subject. Sure, go out for a drink, trawl the nightclubs, have dinner together, if it helps you establish a rapport with your subject. But never forget that this is a professional engagement, and you need a story at the end of it.
• And finally, a ‘celebrity interviewer’ is someone like Lynn Barber, an interviewer who talks to celebrities. In India, alas, a ‘celebrity interviewer’ is an interviewer who thinks that he/she is a celebrity.