Stitched up

Giving an interview is an act of trust in someone else’s ability to represent you. And a good interviewer is one who accepts that they’re responsible for the way their subjects appear: not obliged to make them look good or bad, but to be accurate and fair.

hitler moustache

One of the things I learnt from the last big interview I did was the value of collaborating with the subject, and it’s a principle that I found reinforced by Dan Baum:

the ensuing back-and-forth usually helps me make the story better. I honestly can’t think of a time when somebody took the opportunity to take something back. What usually happens is, the source says something like, “You didn’t get me quite right here. What I was trying to say was this….” And that opens up a second interview — a deeper one, that often leads to even more interesting insights. I’ve had reporters throw up their hands in horror at the thought of allowing a source to amend a quote after the interview. But why not? Isn’t the point to portray people, and their ideas, accurately? I would never show a source my story before publication, but until I’ve processed them into copy, the notes from our interview feels to me like our joint property. I don’t want to play “gotcha” with sources; I want to understand and convey their ideas properly. I want them to read my stories and say, “He got me right,” even if they don’t come off well in the article.

(I can see exceptions to this. If the governor admits in an interview that he looted the pension fund to play the horses, I’m not going to let him take that back. But in the 16 years I’ve been offering to share interview notes with sources, something like that hasn’t happened to me.)

WordWork, “Type fast”

When I interviewed Graham Linehan, his go-over on the transcript was exactly was Baum describes – in a couple of places he restored what was lost in tone when the words were detached from his voice, in a couple of others he clarified the normal ambiguities of speech so they could survive the page. He didn’t remove or retract anything, but he was able to rephrase things in a way that would have been rankly dishonest if I’d done it myself.

That only works, of course, if you “don’t want to play ‘gotcha’ with sources”. If the “gotcha” is what you’re looking for, you’re going to have to try something else. Say, for example, you’re Brian Logan – you’ve pitched a feature about the new offenders of standup comedy, had it accepted and now you need to harvest a few good quotes to inject a hefty jolt of outrage into your reader. Ideally, you want it to read something like this:

This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues “that racists have a point”. […] One recent [podcast] episode aired Herring’s purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set. In another routine, he claims to support the BNP’s policy to deport all black people from the UK. Into the awkward laughter that greets this joke, he says: “Don’t go thinking I’m the new Bernard Manning. I’m being postmodern and ironic. I understand that what I’m saying is unacceptable.” Then he pauses. “But does that make me better than Manning, or much, much worse?” This is “playing around with things”, he tells me: “it’s the intent behind it that’s the important thing.” But is it?

The Guardian, “The new offenders of stand-up comedy”

Unlike Baum, Logan isn’t generous enough to let us in on his techniques for journalistic success. But Richard Herring can:

I did sense during the interview that Logan seemed uninterested or bored by a lot of what I was saying. I felt like he wasn’t listening to much of it, but hoped this was just the affected smugness and superiority that I have sensed in his reviews. He works for the Guardian and I felt I could talk in quite a lot of detail about what I do without fear that he would become sensationalist and take things out of context. I didn’t tape the conversation and I have done several long interviews recently and so can’t remember everything that I said, but I know that I was careful to explain myself and the context of some of my more contentious ideas. I was largely critical of offensive comedy, arguing that it takes a very experienced and thoughtful comedian to get away with it and that there must always be a point behind it. I briefly described the “maybe racists have a point” routine from the new show, but (as far as I remember) expressed concern that most of my show was, if anything, a bit of a throw back to the 1980s political and polemical comedy and was a bit right on. […]

I had a slight nagging sense of unease about it all. Just the distance and detachment that I had sensed, perhaps, though I thought he might pick up on me saying that after a certain point a comedian is not responsible for the stupidity of the audience – I had said that Al Murray was not necessarily at fault if his audience took him literally, but Al has said something similar himself.

The article came out today and I was, I have to say, pretty astounded by how it misrepresented what I had said and my material. Here it is.

Richard Herring, “Warming up” 27 July 2009

If Herring’s description of the interview is right – and what I’ve heard of the show suggests that the Guardian piece has framed him horribly – it sounds like the interviewer was sitting out the interview, waiting for the “gotcha”, possibly rather bored at having to listen to all the self-scrutinising stuff about a comic’s responsibilities when using offensve material. He got his moment, and he was able to push his facile little thesis that there’s a new reign of nasty in comedy.

And then, Herring got to unravel his interviewer’s methods publicly. And this is another, excellent and self-interested reason for journalists to follow Dan Baum’s advice: if your interview subject is a public figure, they’ll almost certainly have their own blog. If you stitch them up, they can let the people who’ll be most furious with you – their fans – know what you’ve done. If you’re not worried about the ethics of interviewing, you should at least be worried about what readers and colleagues think of your ethics.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

5 thoughts on “Stitched up

  1. I think there’s something missing from this analysis, which is the power differential between the interviewer and interviewee. This can vary quite considerably.

    In the example you cite, there’s the fact that the Guardian has far greater reach than Richard Herring’s blog. I read the Guardian article yesterday because I read the Guardian pretty much every day. I only chanced on Herring’s version of events via Twitter. I’d never heard of Herring prior to the Guardian article, and if it hadn’t been for chance the vaguely negative impression I gained of him from the article would have remained.

    But in the vast majority of journalistic encounters the power differential runs the other way. A typical journalist on a trade publication spends most of his or her life grappling with commercial interests. Most sources, press releases, interviews etc are with someone who’s richer and more powerful than the journalist — and someone who has something to sell.

    In these circumstances the collaborative process you outline here would be a recipe for killing off what little remains of editorial integrity and replacing it with yet more marketing hype and PR “messages”. It’s for this reason I think the collaborative interview should remain the exception rather than the rule.

  2. I’d say that the Baum quote takes account of that when he says you wouldn’t let the governor take back an admission of embezzlement. Offering the interviewee a pass on the manuscript lets the journo get details right, not the subject get the coverage on their own terms. And, practically, there are very few occasions where actually powerful people won’t be forearmed by PRs and protected after the fact by libel lawyers.

    But the fitting up of more-or-less regular people is distressingly common, from misrepresentations like this to case studies which betray their subjects. (See this example from the Mail.) And middling people will rarely get satisfaction, either from the weak PCC or from the expensive libel courts. In these cases, the publication is by far the more powerful partner in the interview.

  3. Good post Sarah and good response Bat (can’t believe you hadn’t previously heard of Richard Herring though). But it’s important to stress that the ‘collaboration’ is only ever about the transcript, not about the published article. The journalist should be free to offer whatever view they like of whatever the inerviewee has said, or what work they’ve produced; what they shouldn’t be free to do is maliciously, reductively and sensationalistically exploit happenstance remarks which can be made to look bad. Of course, it does matter who is being interviewed: if it’s Nick Griffin or someone else odious, then it might be a different matter – I say ‘might’ because even here it’s not clear that this method of seeking to catch people out actually achieves very much. In the end, the Humphrys/Paxman school of interviewing – sneering public school humiliation exercises – principally has the effect of putting the powerful on the ultra-defensive. And it’s worth remembering that there are commercial pressures both sides – it’s not just a case of journalistic integrity versus PR puffery. ‘Getting the gotcha’ is also a commercial imperative.

  4. I think you’re forgetting it isn’t just the writer who’s involved in producing the piece. Long after you have filed copy and ceased to have any control over it, subs can change/cut/distort your words (and I am not having a pop at subs – I am one), as can editors. Not only that, but some editors are determined that every story should have a gotcha and will insist on pulling that out and making it the focus.

    I don’t think it’s right to assume the writer is the one at fault here. They’re the scapegoat, with their name on the piece, and maybe they’re the one responsible, but you don’t know that until you’ve compared the original copy with the finished version.

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