‘I say,’ began Pertie, with the air of someone who has an important question to ask, “How should television interviewers address their guests? Our lot do so in a variety of different ways. It all seems a bit of a mess. Is there a well-established convention they’re overlooking?”
This was an odd question and certainly not one I was expecting. But it’s also a very relevant one. It gets to the core of a problem that runs through our television interviews and which has irked me for quite a while. So, today, let me share my reply.
If there is a convention, it’s for interviewers to treat their guests as equals, not as superiors, who they defer to, or as friends, who they are chummy with. And there’s a simple reason for this. It creates the impression you are on the same level. It also reassures the viewer of balance and objectivity. After all, how you address someone determines how you treat them. So it’s a terrible mistake for an interviewer to call a guest ‘Sir’. In America it may be a common and pretty meaningless term of speech but in the rest of the English speaking world – and that very definitely includes India – it’s a sign of deference. When you call a person ‘Sir’ you place him on a pedestal and, therefore, above yourself. This means the interviewer has accepted a subordinate role. It, therefore, follows that you cannot toughly question someone who you have acknowledged as a superior. Consequently, both objectivity and balance are undermined.
The opposite happens when the interviewer decides to call his guest by his first name. Of course, I’m talking about current affairs interviews of the HARDtalk variety rather than chat show conversations. The latter are very different. But in the former case when an interviewer calls his guest Arun or Ravi, Sita or Kapil he is establishing a link of friendship that has two profound consequences. First, the audience finds it hard to believe he will be tough with a chum. Second, though perhaps only subliminally, it suggests the two are together and the audience is separate and apart. It creates a barrier that distances and, at times, even excludes the audience. Once again, objectivity and balance are undermined.
In either case, the proper way of addressing your guest is, for example, Mr Jaitley or finance minister or, even, Arun Jaitley. This is both respectful and neutral. It doesn’t reflect either deference or familiarity. Equally importantly, it doesn’t preclude tough questioning or firm interruptions.
Sadly, many current affairs television interviewers in India blithely disregard these sensible conventions. Perhaps they aren’t even aware they exist or the reason for observing them. But, alas, there are times when they go even further. They don’t just use reverential titles or familiar first names but, occasionally, nick names and terms of endearment. So, Mamata Banerjee is often called Didi! But she’s not the interviewer’s sister nor is it proper for the former to seek such a relationship with her during a formal interview. It simply shatters the illusion of equality or the need for objectivity.
“But does anyone know of, leave aside observe, these codes?” Pertie suddenly asked. Till then he’d been uncharacteristically silent. “Aren’t they a bit olde-worlde for today?”
Possibly but they still make a lot of sense. Yet in an age when journalists either wish to be familiar with politicians or bend at the knee sensible practices are usually the first casualty.