On the importance of melancholy [in political journalism]…

“Cheeky” Piers Morgan’s acerbic interviewing style misses only one of the qualities recommended by Ken Tynan (and lauded in the leader page of the Guardian on Monday). It was light, certainly. Stinging yes. Insolent, without a doubt. But the part he left out of his interrogation of that paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, was melancholy.

I have to admit that when I first read Tynan’s recipe for good review writing (in Monday’s leader, as it happens), it was that word which puzzled me most. It implies gloominess, and depression. But as the online dictionary also defines it as “sober thoughtfulness; pensiveness”, I think, I dimly begin to understand.

Good journalism thrives on good questions; yet tone may matter more than we are inclined to think. It’s certainly not as easy as it looks from long perspective in ‘the gods’ (or the comment zone). Take Guido’s recent attack on the alleged timidity of Westminster lobby journalists on Newsnight.

He soberly won the first pre-recorded round with Paxman, then clearly lost the studio battle (and his cool) with that old Guardian slugger, Michael White: his original thesis was subsequently submerged in a weltering counterattack that focused on his own work.

The very same day in Northern Ireland we had our own much smaller bust up over what questions can or cannot legitimately be asked by journalists. The BBC’s chief political correspondent, Mark Devenport, asked a question about the future of the IRA’s Army Council that provoked an interesting response from Gerry Adams:

“Journalists have the right and the responsibility and the duty to ask questions.. you don’t have the right to ask stupid questions”

I’m no fan of an aggressive questioning style (and Devenport is certainly not in that mould). But when a respondent (be they politician or journalist) fails to answer a direct question he or she should probably allow the audience to draw their own conclusions from weak or non existent answers. And then move on.

However, the discussion that followed on Hearts and Minds last week (Slugger understands that Sinn Fein declined to take part, less they be misconstrued as adopting an anti media stance), moved on to the problem thrown up by our all inclusive form of government. Without an opposition, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

But if questions are rightly the provenance of the journalist and not the politician, are we not asking for big trouble if, as Noel Thompson suggests towards the end of that discussion, the media is then left to provide the political opposition?

Meanwhile a touch of melancholia might, at the very least, sharpens the wit of both interviewer and interviewee. And, not least, give the audience a fairer chance to see who is trying to pull the wool over whose eyes.

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  • mickhall

    You raise some very interesting points Mick which I have been pondering since I watched the Guido’s confrontation with Paxman and White that you mentioned. Myself whilst I agree Guido was thrown off balance in the live on air segment, far from losing the confrontation Paxman and White all but handed him the result by their arrogance.

    Guido was claiming the media-politician coverage is all but a stitch up and White and Paxman’s attitude in ganging up against him all but proved it. I long ago concluded that confrontational questing of the type Paxman goes in for is more about the questioners ego than winkling an answer from the politician, when he/they ask a question over and over again is real playground stuff, it is obvious no politico worth his salt is going to blink first and Paxman knows it.

    I feel Guido wiped the floor with Paxo on the empty chair question, yes the public should be told when a party refuses to send
    anyone forward to be interviewed, but when doing so the programs presenter certainly should not read out a press release from the absent party in the process.

    Indeed if the politicos refuse to play ball and there is a spare chair in the building, the programs editor should invite another member of the opposition to fill it, that would soon put a stop to this nonsense.

    For me Adams statement was worrying as with no opposition at Stormont worthy of the name, it will not be long before the governing parties will gang up with each other to confront the media.

  • IMHO, it would be foolish for the local media to take the opposition mantle upon itself. Apart from anything else they are bound to lose focus.

    The political game coming up is going to require much closer attention to the small wheels of government, particularly to the debate in committees where what scrutiny we have been gifted under SAA (or GFA 2.0) is supposed to provide us with stronger legislation.

    It is a place none of us has been before. Questions were relatively easy before and the grand narrative often trite and easy to write. But if journalists are tempted to become players, like some in the London Beeb have been, at times, they run the risk of letting errant politicians move their dodgy furniture out the back door, whilst they blatter pointlessly at the front.

  • seanzmct

    The crucial aspect of Adams’ remark is that he regards and presents himself as the sole arbiter of what is or what is not a “stupid question” .

    The question was actually sensible enough ie “What need for an Army Council?”. Adams’ response reveals again the sheer self-regarding arrogance of a communal sectarian gang-lord who is addicted to getting things his own way.

    The press must not allow itself to be brow-beaten and censored by such authoritarian gabshites.

  • Sean,

    There is no need for such an ad hominem response. And I am sure there is no question of anyone being censored, at this stage at least.

    At the same time, there should be some debate around the lines that civic journalism can usefully take beyond simply Processing™ the peace.

  • mickhall

    But if journalists are tempted to become players, like some in the London Beeb have been, at times, they run the risk of letting errant politicians move their dodgy furniture out the back door, whilst they blatter pointlessly at the front.

    Posted by Mick

    Surly what you describe above is exactly what occurs today. Plus I do not wish to be rude but how can you have civic journalism within a society where the ownership of the Media is in the hands of corporations who advocate gross exploitation as a useful and productive was for a society to organize itself.

    OK, by all means have civic journalism and even civic policing as your end game, but suggest it is possible with the current system is simply covering up the fault-line within the type of capitalist system we are enduring at the present.

  • seanzmct

    Mick, I understand the restrictions on abusive ad hominem attacks on fellow contributors to Slugger. However, why should those in power like Adams and Paisley be cotton-wooled from critical scrutiny of their behaviour past and present? They are good value for robust journalistic and blog criticism. After all they have the blood of innocents on their hands. I am not going to be caught up in the rush to sanctify these political retards for finally wising up.