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Time for political leaders to have a more honest and open dialogue with us all

We are at a sea-change moment in British television where a group of determined women interviewers has stepped forward to call time on our mealy-mouthed political leaders.

Consider Mishal Husain’s clinical dissection of Nigel Farage on the Today programme, or Victoria Derbyshire nailing energy secretary Claire Coutinho on BBC Newsnight for quoting misleading tax numbers.

Last week Beth Rigby took down Rishi Sunak for a “catalogue of broken promises”, and roasted Sir Keir Starmer for his perfidious praise for Jeremy Corbyn.

Her Sky News colleague Sophy Ridge cornered Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer over Tory tax plans.

“These women are not afraid to call it out,” says Rob Burley, author of a book on political television interviewing, Why is this Lying Bastard Lying to Me?.

The fearlessness of their questioning has had some viewers asking where this kind of media grilling has been during the long and tumultuous years of Britain’s recent political history.

The answer, in part, is that it has always been there, but much of the public has turned away from the news. All these women are well established journalists.

It is also the case that, outside of an election campaign, news outlets have had far less opportunity to put the most powerful politicians on the spot at length.

Recent prime ministers, notably Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, tried to bypass broadcast media. The BBC has not had a long-form interview slot since it axed The Andrew Neil Show four years ago.

There was an expectation that Neil’s departure from the BBC might be bad for democracy by allowing party leaders to go unchallenged by persistent interrogation on live TV during this election campaign. That has not proved to be the case.

In addition to the women mentioned, Nick Robinson has proven a capable successor to Neil during his forensic 30-minute interviews of party leaders on the BBC’s Panorama.

He made Sunak squirm for failing in his “basic duty” of remaining at the D-Day commemorations, and questioned the PM’s loyalty to the NHS by reminding him: “You use private healthcare.”

Robinson and Rigby have reminded us that the long-form interview is far more illuminating than the tired slanging-match debate format, as held by ITV and hosted by Julie Etchingham.

New research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reveals a surge in news avoidance by the British public. Only 38 per cent are now “very interested” in the news, down from 70 per cent in 2015. In America, the fall is much less severe, from 67 per cent to 52 per cent.

Lead researcher Nic Newman says that “disillusionment with politics and political coverage” is an “incredibly important theme” in this trend. Angry TV debates are not helping. “People get frustrated with this sense that people are shouting each other,” he says.

Newman suggests that political podcasts are pointing the way to more considered debate.

Deep concerns remain about the long-term health of political coverage in Britain. We should worry that the refreshing and uncompromising nature of these recent interviews could be a result of the sense that the governing party is now a busted flush.

The charge made against those who make a living from political journalism is that they become afraid to criticise the policymakers who give them stories, resulting in an incumbency bias that favours the government of the day.

If the polls are correct, the scoop value of Tory politicians is about to vanish, so it is easier to put them on the rack. If Labour wins a Tony Blair-scale majority, it might think it can circumvent the media.

We could return to the high-handed Alastair Campbell era of Labour communications, when BBC News was almost destroyed over the Iraqi weapons dossier and 2004’s Hutton inquiry. Or things could be done differently.

“Labour have an opportunity to be more authentic because currently ‘authenticity’ is the preserve of the populists,” argues Burley.

“It would take a reset. They would have to have the courage to step away from the way that they would have been elected, by orthodox spin-doctoring and political comms, and go for something different, a more honest and open dialogue with the public.”

Labour will remain wary of the Tory press. But a sustained commitment from politicians and media outlets to doing long-form interviews with tough questioning, not just at election time, would help restore some trust to British politics and the way it is reported.

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