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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On May 26, 2024

    By Karan Thapar

    Samir Shah, now Chairman of the BBC but once upon a time my first boss at London Weekend Television, taught me most of what I know about asking questions on television. Perhaps the most important lesson is to remember you’re doing so on behalf of the audience. That’s why your questions need to be pertinent and you need to persist till you get an answer or it’s patently clear you’re being resisted.


    So what do I want to hear when I listen to interviews of a prime minister? After all, if the questions are asked on my behalf, what would my questions be?


    First, I want to know what the PM considers his achievements. But I also want to find out how he responds to challenges, to exposes, to errors he’s made and tried to cover up. And I want the discussion to be conversational, not a one-sided monologue. So, yes, interruptions are not just to be expected but, at times, necessary.


    Second, an interview with a prime minister must not be a platform to attack his critics but, rather, an occasion where he’s made to respond to their valid criticisms. The verb ‘made’ is important. Left to himself, any PM would evade or avoid. It’s the interviewer’s job to ensure he doesn’t and is pressed to answer.


    Third, for the duration of the interview, the interviewer and the PM are equals. Only then can the interview hold him to account. So, the interviewer cannot call him ‘Sir’. To do so would place him on a pedestal. Also, the interviewer can’t be timid and deferential. He has to convince the audience he can ask tough questions.


    Fourth, the answers to the questions asked must address the subjects raised. A little bit of waffling is understandable but the PM cannot be permitted to go off on a complete tangent, speaking about issues that weren’t put to him and answering a question altogether different to what was asked. If that happens, a polite but forceful interruption is necessary. And if the PM continues to deflect, maybe more than once.


    Fifth, the interviewer needs a strategy. He’s not just asking questions for the sake of asking them. There has to be a clear purpose. Here’s an example of a question that must never be asked: ‘For sure you’ll win this time, but will you also win in 2029?’


    Now, depending on the character and personality of the concerned PM, there are certain ways of responding that an interviewer must be capable of. For instance, if a PM claims everything he does he does for the country and is, therefore, loudly beating a patriotic drum, point out that is true of all PMs. This doesn’t make him special.


    Or, if the interviewer questions the PM about something we all know he said or did but has now chosen to inexplicably deny, the interviewer must be in a position to quote from the particular occasion, specifying date, location and content. And, let’s be clear, this would be akin to challenging the PM. But that’s a legitimate part of what an interviewer must be prepared to do.


    Sometimes there are obvious questions that must be raised because they pertain to the particular PM being interviewed. They can’t be overlooked. For example, if the PM believes he’s a vehicle of God the interviewer must ask him, with a certain skepticism, how he knows this and is it a rational thing to say? Or, if a comic, who makes a living imitating the PM, is not allowed to contest against him, the interviewer must ask if he approves and persist even if it irritates or annoys the PM. And, of course, the interviewer must ask him why he always refers to himself in the third person. Is he being grand?


    Finally, I’m confident a fair-minded and honourable PM would agree with what I’ve written. Remember, he wants to use the interview to impress the audience. Not put them off. That’s something else Samir told me.

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