Don’t misquote me — lessons in interviewing from Johann Hari and Ed Miliband

Two incidents this week revealed  quite useful lessons about responsible interviewing. The Independent’s star columnist Johann Hari was found to have been quoting interviewees from other sources, while passing the quotes off as his own interview. Here’s Johann Hari’s own explanation. And  Mark Lawson’s analysis of it all is definitely worth reading before you go further.

John Humphreys' shorthand notes (BBC)

Mr Hari’s technique meant he used accurate quotes, but not ones he’d always acquired himself. Strangely the opposite problem to one I’d been bothered by throughout my career mostly in broadcast interviewing — the number of print journos approximating quotes based on poor or even no notes. Big Newspaper interviewers were often the worst for having no shorthand. I noticed when a couple came up to Oxford to interview students like me.

Victim of a 1985 German tabloid stitch up (I'm standing to the right of The Dude, bowling)

I should say that I have good reason for my lifelong concern about accurate quoting. A misquoted interview I gave to the local Leverkusen newspaper  (admittedly in German while on an exchange course in North Rhine Westphalia while an  an A-level student)   made a front page scandal and upset the headmaster of the Gymnasium. The reporter had twisted my quotes about the difference between my private girls’ school and a mid 80s German state grammar with long haired literature teachers  into their own tabloid attack on supposedly lazy, disrespectful German students and their rubbish education system . It’s funny now, but it freaked me out then.

So I’ve always been sensitive about quoting people accurately and representatively, if you’re using only 1 bite out of a long interview. While TV fakery inspires much anger, in fact broadcast news can only underquote– using ludicrously short soundbites. But reliant as it is on showing/playing actual sound/picture of the actual person, it is genuine.  The biggest problem is not being able to use a long enough answer, that carries the full nuance of the point being made.

In TV in cutting down a programme interview, rather than just picking a clip for a report, it’s normal to watched back the whole interview and log the answers pretty fully, before picking the final clips. It gives you an awareness of what kind of interview you conducted, what were the most important themes and answers and what the interviewee might have expected you to take away from it. It’s a good discipline, even if you usually know which the good answers are and mark them at the time of the interview. When  I do print interviews with shorthand and no tape recorder, I have carried over the habit.

Meanwhile Labour Leader Ed Miliband gave a pool interview via ITV reporter Damon Green about the imminent public sector strike, in which he parroted off pretty much the same stock answer to every question. Damon Green’s blog on the experience is a recommended read, too. He asked good, simple questions and tried to get a more “human” answer than the only one Mr Miliband was prepared to give. Worth noting that if Mr Miliband had bothered to answer any one of them properly, he would have come across a lot better.

Ed Miliband’s  PR team had clearly worked out all the bits of the argument they wanted to make — “striking while talks are ongoing is wrong, parents are unhappy, but both sides are behaving irresponsibly”. (That’s my summary from hearing the same answer 6 times).  In a weird reversal of the usual problem, Mr Miliband gave exactly the kind of approximate all encompassing quote , that sounded like a precis of an actual quote, vaguely remembered by a print journalist with no shorthand and no tape recorder. He did not give an interview and if he didn’t want to give more than a single answer he should have said so. It’s a  terrible own goal, given the amount of control his PRs had tried to put on the conditions of filming and the content itself. While a pool interview usually results in only 1 clip being used, it’s not for the interviewee to decide which one. Attempts by politicians to control the whole process tends to backfire. It’s not usually done so ineptly, though.

So in short the lessons for good interviews are: Ask good questions. Answer the questions. And record and write them/use them fairly. If you quote from elsewhere, attribute it correctly. Err that’s it.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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