Today presenter Nick Robinson has been reflecting on the political interview. He contrasts his interviews with scientists about Covid with those with politicians about policy, and thinks that it is the politicians’ fault that he never gets very far with them. It seems not to have crossed his mind that it might be his. Perhaps Plato (d. 348 bc) can help.
Plato’s dialogues are the first examples the West has of extended discussions between interested parties on big topics — what we mean by justice, knowledge, goodness and so on. Socrates is at the centre of most of them, and is presented as a most delightful interlocutor — kindly, encouraging, gently ironic, rarely (one senses) even raising his voice, let alone hectoring his fellows. His key characteristic is his ability to engage them in the topic even though he spends most of the time showing that what they think about it is misguided.
He does this by listening carefully to what they say and getting them to see for themselves, under questioning, that they need to think again — which they proceed to do, to everyone’s benefit. As he says to one participant: ‘I am questioning you not out of personal animosity but simply to help the discussion to progress coherently. That will prevent us from getting into the habit of guessing at one another’s views and anticipating what might be said, instead of allowing you to develop your own argument as you wish from your own assumptions.’
Plato’s dialogues are, of course, a set-up, but one with a purpose: to show just how problematic the big questions are, yet how, under Socrates’ guidance, even if no conclusions are reached, everyone ends up understanding more clearly the true nature of the issues at hand. But Nick Robinson’s abrupt, confrontational approach, while it may sound so excitingly gritty, will never draw his interviewee into productive or enlightening responses, let alone dialogue.
Any fool can ask ‘tough’ questions. It takes real skill, however, to elicit significant and revealing answers. It is a skill in which Nick is singularly deficient. He just wants to ‘win’. Thereby, listeners lose.