The Thick of It

On Saturday I listened to BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions with a stopwatch.  It’s a rather fine stopwatch which I picked up in an antiques shop, a Swiss-made Chronosport, 7 jewels, with an expansive 30 second dial allowing for great accuracy.  I wanted to see if there was any substance in my suspicion that the Any Questions chairman, Jonathan Dimbleby, hogs the conversation.  So I simply timed his contribution – rather an anal, but an easy thing to do because the Chronosport has a stop-start facility, and all I had to do was click a button with a thumb every time Mr Dimbleby started and stopped; thus the process hardly interfered with my attention to the debate, which was almost entirely devoted to Brexit.

He spoke for 12 minutes and 32 seconds.  The programme lasts 45 minutes.  Let us assume for the sake of argument that the audience contribution – the questions asked and the audience applause – only took 28 seconds (they clearly took longer); then this leaves 32 minutes for the four invited guests on the panel.  They have 8 minutes each in which to make their points.  The chairman speaks for more than half as long again.  The chairman is supposed to be a facilitator who keeps his opinion to himself.  I venture to say, Any Questions has a problem.

Could long-windedness be a Dimbleby trait?  I don’t think so.  David Dimbleby who has broadcast his last TV Question Time after 25 years had a knack of interjecting succinctly and cogently, when he sensed a politician was attempting to pull the wool over our eyes.  Of course the Dimblebys’ father, Richard, was the doyen of the broadcaster commentating on great state occasions, and on television he evinced an instinctive sense that less was more.

I’m very interested in the art of the interview.  Every clinical medical practitioner is, first and foremost, an interviewer.  I say “first and foremost” quite deliberately, because far and away the most important component of the medical consultation is the taking of a medical history.  I spent my career in the field of undifferentiated medicine.  The general practitioner asks an open-ended question: how can I help you today?  The emergency physician might choose to be more succinct; the most powerful question in emergency medicine is quite simply this: What happened?

Having asked such a question, it is imperative that the interviewer then shut up.  All you need to do is sit back and listen.  As a matter of fact, if a doctor just sits back and listens, really listens, nine times out of ten he will be handed the diagnosis on a plate.  Fancy that.  He sits with his patient at the front door of the hospital.  Behind him there are haematology, biochemistry and microbiology laboratories, X-rays, and CTs and MRIs and ultrasound, catheter labs and gamma cameras and you name it.  Sometimes they can all be quite useful but not half so useful as an experienced clinician who just sits and listens.

You might suppose that the art of listening is somewhat passive.  Quite the contrary.  If the doctor is silent, it is because he has entered into a trance.  He has asked, “What happened?” and then he has unstintingly entered the patient’s realm of experience.  He steps into the patient’s shoes.  For a moment, he becomes the patient.  It is through this profound act of empathy that the doctor comes to understand the patient’s predicament.

One of the most memorable medical educational experiences I can remember was a seminar on interviewing techniques given by an Edinburgh consultant psychiatrist.  He played us extracts of interviews mostly from the BBC, and asked us to critique the technique of the interviewer.  The interviewers were all very different, some flamboyant, others self-effacing, some loquacious, others virtually monosyllabic; no one style was “right”, but what became clear was that what characterised the successful interviewer was the ability to listen.  Conversely, the bad interview was characterised by lack of close attention, premature interruption, miscomprehension, and failure to pick up on the unexpected.  The interviewer that sticks in my mind from that seminar was a man who I don’t suppose a younger generation will even have heard of: John Freeman.  He would interview TV personalities of his time such as Tony Hancock, Gilbert Harding, Adam Faith.  During the interview, he himself was virtually invisible.  Actually, if memory serves me right, that was literally true.  He remained off camera, only occasionally giving the interviewee a prompt, so that the interview almost became a monologue, during which the interviewee, often an intensely private individual, would be as surprised as everybody else to find himself baring his soul.

Who has that skill now?  Since the departure (at least from Radio 4) of Eddie Mair, precious few.  The current model of the political interview is that the interviewer is determined to extract a particular piece of information from the interviewee, and the interviewee is determined to stick to a script (probably under the direction of a spin doctor) and get a specific message across.  No wonder these conversations are so arid.  But you only need to think of the last cocktail party you attended and recall the bit of chat that really took off.  Last week at such an event in Aberdeen somebody told me an extraordinary saga.  I just did my John Freeman impersonation and disappeared into the furniture.

But our public discourse is dominated by confrontation.  Television seems to thrive on it, social media even more so.  PMQs, The Apprentice, Eastenders, Bodyguard… everything is fraught.  Political discourse has itself become the script of a soap opera.  You can’t tell the difference between Today in Parliament and The Thick of It.  When Mrs May confronted Mr Juncker last week maybe she modelled herself on Malcolm Tucker.

“You callin’ me ******* nebulous, Jim?”

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