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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