What Americans Can Learn From British Journalism – The Atlantic

There is much to be learned about power and the press from the fact that former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson once evaded a reporter’s tough questions by hiding in an industrial fridge.

The reporter, Jonathan Swain of Good Morning Britain, ambushed Johnson at Modern Milkman dairy, where he was stopping for a folksy photo shoot in December 2019. For months, Johnson, a former journalist himself, had refused to be interviewed on prime-time breakfast television. If Johnson wouldn’t go to Good Morning Britain, then Good Morning Britain would go to him. Swain, broadcasting live to a national audience, surprised Johnson and asked him if he’d be willing to spare a few moments for an interview right then and there.

“I’ll be with you in a second,” Johnson said, hoping Swain would go away.

“I have an earpiece in my hands, ready to go,” Swain offered.

Johnson then proceeded into an industrial refrigerator to wait it out.

“He’s gone into the fridge,” the host Piers Morgan helpfully noted as Johnson hunkered down behind an enormous metal door.

It was political theater at its finest. But it was also indicative of the adversarial spirit of Britain’s television media, which show little deference to authority. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss was toppled after just 49 days in power, a demise accelerated because she was humiliated in a series of “car crash” interviews, a standard term in British politics for when a politician is taken to task live on air. In one of the most memorable Boris Johnson interviews, the journalist Eddie Mair set the stage with objective facts about Johnson’s past misdeeds, then asked him the following question: “Making up quotes, lying to your party leader, wanting to be part of someone being physically assaulted: You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?” Johnson sputtered and tried to change the subject, but the damage was done.

Here in the United States, by contrast, our leaders have plenty to answer for, but with few exceptions, American TV-news hosts lob softball questions at politicians rather than play hardball. When the politician is evasive, the interviewer too often moves on, letting the politician slither away. Ron DeSantis managed, for nearly three years, to evade giving a straight answer to the simple question as to who won the 2020 presidential election: He finally acknowledged, only last month, that Donald Trump lost. Unlike Boris Johnson, Trump has never had to hide in a fridge.

Last week, however, MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan did something unusual in American TV news. In a now-viral interview with the slick Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, Hasan decided to just keep asking the same questions until he got an answer. Ramaswamy was caught off guard, no doubt because the style of questioning was so different from what he had previously experienced on the campaign trail.

I’ve lived in Britain for 12 years, and in that time, I’ve come to realize that there is an enormous gulf between British and American broadcast political interviews. British journalism tends to approach broadcast interviews from a skeptical premise of, to quote the late British journalist Louis Heren, “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

By contrast, American broadcast political interviewing too often defers to power, is allergic to aggressive pushback, fails to follow up, and treats questions that expose a politician’s ignorance of basic facts as though they were a violation of social norms. Why, for example, has no American television interviewer ever asked Trump to locate Afghanistan on a map? A decade ago in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf lamented the breezy questions from 60 Minutes to President Barack Obama. But the issue became even more obvious in the face of Trump’s firehose of lies, whose output frequently went undisputed, particularly on fawning right-wing media outlets. Maria Bartiromo, a pro-Trump sycophant on Fox News, grilled Trump in May 2020 by asking him, “I’ve never seen anybody take a punch and then get right back up and keep punching. I mean, where does this resilience come from?” In a similarly “tough” 2020 interview with Sean Hannity, Trump was asked to name any of his priorities for a second term. When he failed to name even a single one, Hannity just moved on.

But even outside the propaganda of the pro-Trump mediaverse, journalists in the mainstream American TV press can be ineffective at holding power to account on air. In one high-profile case from 2019, Chuck Todd, then the host of Meet the Press, faced significant criticism for letting President Trump spend much of the interview repeating blatant lies and falsehoods mostly unchallenged.

Consider the interview that drew the most political blood during the Trump era. It was conducted by Jonathan Swan (not to be confused with Jonathan Swain of Boris Johnson–fridge fame). Swan, an Australian journalist who was working for Axios, interviewed Trump during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. What Swan did—which few have done so successfully before or since with Trump—was follow up, counter with facts, and refuse to move on after Trump’s throwaway lines.

“There are those who say you can test [for COVID] too much,” Trump claimed.

“Who says that?” Swan asked.

“Just read the manuals, read the books.”

“Manuals? What books?” Swan asked, perplexed.

“When I took over, we didn’t even have a [COVID] test,” Trump later boasted.

“Why would you have a test? The virus didn’t exist.”

Swan’s interview went viral because it broke from the standard American interview script—a script that Trump has mastered. Swan didn’t just ask Trump for his opinions but instead followed up with facts when Trump trotted out vapid, meaningless lines. As Swan’s face showed his complete puzzlement, his interview captured what many of those watching were thinking: What in the world is Trump talking about? (Swan’s expressions quickly became a popular internet meme.)

But Swan is, notably, not American, and had cut his teeth as a reporter in Canberra, not Washington. In fact, two of the most effective adversarial journalists in contemporary American media are CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and MSNBC’s Hasan, both of whom are British. Amanpour worked her way up within CNN, but Hasan trained in Britain’s aggressive press culture, and both established their career far outside the D.C. Beltway.


As Rob Burley explains in his new book, Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying to Me?, British political interviewing wasn’t always so adversarial, and politicians didn’t always lie or deflect. They had no need to: Up through the late 1950s, British media interviews were little more than broadcast press releases, and accountability was regarded as a job for Parliament, not the press. Prime Minister’s Questions, a bizarre spectacle that takes place every Wednesday when Parliament is in session, is a televised political jousting match, where elected officials challenge, debate, and make fun of one another, and try to score political points by cutting their rivals down to size, in many cases set to that very British soundtrack of jeers and harrumphing. (It’s an extraordinary contrast to American governance by C-SPAN, in which American elected officials are usually delivering their speeches to cameras but in a completely empty chamber.)

The British journalist Robin Day changed the culture of British political broadcast interviewing in 1958 when he broke from journalistic convention to ask the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, polite but pointed questions. The norm of reporters’ deferring to powerful men shattered, and politicians in Westminster began to accept being grilled not just in Parliament but also on the airwaves.

Then, in 1997, Jeremy Paxman, at the time the host of BBC Newsnight, set a new standard for combative interviews. Paxman has long been a household name in Britain, known for an attack-dog style of journalism that struck fear into every politician he ever interviewed. In the 1997 interview, the politician Michael Howard refused to answer Paxman’s yes-or-no question about whether he had threatened a senior civil servant, but Paxman refused to back down. He asked the question 12 times in a row, spanning a minute and a half of deliciously uncomfortable television as Howard squirmed, hoping that Paxman would do what most interviewers do: move on. Paxman didn’t, and the result is now regarded as perhaps the most famous British political interview of all time.

British political media have produced a pantheon of adversarial legends—Paxman, Brian Walden, Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis, and Beth Rigby, to name a few—figures who are renowned for dissecting their political guests, exposing lies and hypocrisy with surgical precision. (The Maitlis interview with Prince Andrew, in 2019, sealed the royal’s fate as a modern pariah).

The Today program on BBC Radio 4 sets the British political agenda more than any comparable American show—and its “10 past eight” interview slot is often a ritual morning dressing-down of whichever government minister dares to go on it. Why would politicians subject themselves to this? Surely few relish the thought of being interrupted, cajoled, and contradicted live on air. But politicians who hope to rise have to meet the public, and the BBC stations dominate news coverage: From 2010 to 2020, 57 to 65 percent of Britons got their TV news from BBC One. Likewise, BBC radio stations have six times the news-market share of their nearest competitor.

“There is nowhere for politicians to hide,” Justin Webb, one of the main hosts of BBC Radio 4’s Today program, told me. “They can’t just go to a place where they talk to their own people.” Webb, who worked for the BBC in Washington during the presidency of George W. Bush, noted that the dynamics are completely different in the United States, where Republicans gravitate toward Fox News and Democrats more frequently appear on MSNBC. This way, some can just avoid tough questions altogether.

In Washington, politicians can penalize outlets that are too harsh by refusing to appear on their networks again—hence the concern about “access journalism,” in which interviewers avoid crossing invisible lines of deference to maintain cordial relationships with politicians whose presence raises their network’s ratings and revenue. In one instance, the head of CNN even directly intervened to remove references to a sexual-abuse case Trump had lost in court from the chyron banner scrolling underneath the live video feed, lest it would upset Trump before he appeared on the network.

In Britain, by contrast, politicians who won’t subject themselves to cross-examination from a hostile press can be subjected to ridicule. Boris Johnson skipped a debate about climate change, so the TV channel hosting the discussion kept his lectern in place but put a melting block of ice on it to represent his absence. When he skipped a preelection interview on the BBC, they broadcast a monologue with the host, Andrew Neil, about the importance of answering questions—next to a conspicuously empty chair for the truant Johnson. When Trump skipped the first GOP debate last month, there was no empty lectern to highlight his absence.

The BBC, unlike most American broadcast-news networks, is nonprofit and does not break for commercials the way American news programs do. Reporters therefore have more time and space to follow up and press for answers, Webb said. Hasan of MSNBC acknowledges that added constraint on American cable news: “There’s definitely a pressure with ad breaks to keep interviews tight,” he told me. Prerecording interviews can help get around this problem, but doing so is not always viable. Still, Hasan suggests that the time constraints can become an excuse for pulling punches: “The number of times I’ve seen an interviewer have someone on the ropes and then say, ‘That’s all we have time for,’ or, ‘Moving on’—the phrase moving on is poison to me. It’s poison to a TV interview.”

But before Americans rush to import Jeremy Paxman and Emily Maitlis, be warned: Relentless adversarial journalism can have undesirable consequences. Politicians become cagey, always trying to sniff out an ulterior motive to even the most innocuous line of questioning. Even worse, to survive in British politics, government ministers must undergo rigorous media training, in which they learn how to be suitably slippery, never to become entangled in a gotcha moment by Webb or his colleagues. Tough questions sometimes yield few answers. Paxman’s notorious interview is a case in point: Even after 12 tries, his political prey still didn’t answer the question. Plenty of heat, yes, but how much light?

Politics may even suffer a chilling effect, as the more the field becomes defined by dangerous jousting matches between reporters and politicians, the fewer normal people will want to enter it. The profession could continue to appeal to the graduates of the Oxford Union debating societies, where adversarial witticisms are the currency of elite social capital, but turn off ordinary people who can think of more pleasant ways to enact change without risking national mortification. (Of course, even without the threat of constant adversarial interviews, most Americans find the prospect of entering politics repulsive, and few U.S. politicians give straight answers.)

Nonetheless, American broadcast interviewing needs more well-prepared follow-ups, more challenges from journalists who have done their homework, and, yes, more gotcha questions and fewer “what do you think of” opinion questions. We used to be able to take for granted that politicians knew basic facts about the world they were trying to help govern. That’s no longer the case. So, when politicians don’t know basic facts, exposing a dangerous ignorance is in the public interest. Doing so is not rude; it’s journalism. When Vivek Ramaswamy says that he would subject young voters to a civics test before allowing them to vote, for example, why not ask him some questions live on air to see if he could pass a civics test himself?

The Trump era made clear that the American model of broadcast political interviewing isn’t fit for purpose. It could benefit from a few British-style upgrades. And maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if, every so often, our most evasive American politicians had to cower in a freezer if they wanted to escape a journalist who’s willing to hound them until they actually answer the question.

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