Interviewing a politician (Case Study)

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Preparing for and conducting an interview with a politician

By Chris Doidge, April 2006

During the 2005 General Election, the news department decided to broaden its coverage of politics by trying to seek interviews with a number of politicians. Due to OFCOM's rules about balance and impartiality, we realised that if we were to interview one politician from a major party, we would in fact need to interview three!

Our first successful response came from RaW alumnus David Davis, who at the time was the Conservative Party's Home Affairs spokesman and a senior member of the party. We got the interview by first ringing his constituency phone number (available on his website), who put us through to Conservative Central Office. They liked the idea of an interview and put it to David himself. A couple of days later we heard that Mr Davis would give us an interview (over the phone) the following week.

This gave us plenty of time to research questions to put to him. Our interview would have three main sections:

  1. David's time at RaW
  2. The Conservative Party and students
  3. Recent controversies

Each section really had a different reason. The first was of interest to a lot of people within RaW, but would also allow Warwick students to identify with the interviewee. The second was probably the most obvious angle for us to take in a student news programme and the third was our attempt to get him to say something particularly memorable (i.e. 'give us a good sound-bite').

I played around with the order of the questions quite a lot. You want to try and give the interview a fairly linear narrative, so that one question relates somehow to the previous answer. For instance, you don't want to talk about issue 1, then issue 2 and then back to issue 1 all over again. You want to tackle each issue as it comes up, even if that means changing your order during the interview. It's really important to try and ad-lib some of the interview, so that you can respond to a point that your interviewee makes. For instance, you don't want them to say something really interesting and then move on to another point altogether. If your interviewee says something of note, then try and hammer that point, especially if you think they've gone 'off-message'.

One problem I had during this interview was that David's answers were quite long. Ideally I wanted short, snappy soundbites which I could use in a package or bulletin. The amount of time per question also affected how many questions I would be able to ask in total. Luckily I had a few questions that I was happy to let go, and David also gave me twice as long as I was expecting. Additionally, don't have too few questions! There's nothing worse than having to say after five minutes: "Right, I think that's everything I wanted to ask". If that does happen because your interviewee is giving short answers, then think up some more on the spot.

I think the interview went very well. David ended by saying he'd like to come and visit the station at some point, and so with this in mind we eventually arranged for him to come to Warwick during the Summer holidays. This didn't happen, although that turned out to be fortunate! He re-arranged his visit for October, deciding to launch his bid for the Conservative leadership with a visit to his old radio station.

We got a second chance to interview him, but not only that, he had loads of journalists with him! RaW was mentioned and shown in a number of places, notably Newsnight on BBC Two and on Radio 4. All of this because we'd sought him out for a phone interview six months earlier.

So, here's my top tips:

  • Preparation is vital. Have a 'narrative' and base your questions around it.
  • Be prepared to ad-lib. Throw in extra questions if a line of questioning proves fruitful.
  • Have too many questions and don't get upset about having to drop some of them. Better to have too many than not enough.
  • Be nice to your interviewee! They're probably doing you a favour. It's very risky to try and take the mick out of an interviewee for comedy value.
  • Don't be afraid of being ambitious. It is possible to interview anyone if you try hard enough.
  • Be aware of recent political issues and include questions about them. Try and get your interviewee to say something controversial and your interview might get noticed.
  • Build a relationship with your interviewee - you might be able to talk to them again in the future!
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