Sunday, 1 February 2015

Do audience sympathise with politicians when they are heavily interrupted?

Paul Donovan has a piece in the Sunday Times about the things that annoy Today listeners - things like "incorrect time checks; interrupting interviewees; crashing the pips; music; mumbling; talking too fast; endless plugs for other BBC programmes; and the atrocious quality of dodgy Skype lines."

He's a funny anecdote about former presenter Jack de Manio being given the studio clock “which he has so persistently misread over the last 13 years” as his retirement present by the then Radio 4 controller Tony Whitby. 

As a retired student of interruptions on Today I was especially interested in the bit about interruptions:
Interruptions anger listeners more than they do politicians. Peter Lilley, when in the cabinet in the 1990s, told me he was keenly aware that “the audience sympathise when you are a victim of hostile and interruptive interviewing, so it’s quite useful as long as you retain your cool”.
If interviewers never interject, you may get a three-minute monologue; if they constantly interject, as Evan Davis did when questioning Iain Duncan Smith last year, it invariably produces more heat than light, and is thus a wasted opportunity. It negates what listeners have a right to expect. MPs may welcome gladiatorial combat, as they are used to it in the Commons, but listeners prefer common courtesy.
I'll admit to not having given the Peter Lilley point much thought before. Is it true that listeners feel sorry for politicians who are relentlessly interrupted? 

Presumably, he's mainly referring to the neutrals and undecided voters in the listening audience. Partisan listeners - if comments on blogs or Twitter are anything to go by - are likely to react in purely partisan ways and think either (a) that he was hard-done-by/he was treated unfairly or (b) that he had what was coming to him/he was treated fairly (or too softly). 

Kirsty Wark's hostile and interruptive interview with Labour's Andy Burnham on Monday's Newsnight, for example, was widely praised by anti-Labour viewers [even on anti-BBC blogs] and condemned by pro-Labour viewers [especially on Twitter]. What any floating voters made of it, and whether they sympathised with Mr Burnham (pace Peter Lilley), it's hard to say and they don't tend to comment about such things on blogs or Twitter (as far as I can see). 

I'm curious to know how Mr Lilley knows that floating voters in the audience sympathise with politicians under hostile fire from interviewers. Might he not just have been getting sympathetic feedback from Conservative-supporting/leaning members of the listening public? 

[Not being a constituent of his it doesn't look, from his website, as if he wants questions from stray bloggers, so I'd better not waste his time by emailing him to find out!]

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