A couple of blogs ago I was berating the Today Programme for, amongst other perceived sins, asking the wrong sort of questions to get people to open up and actually say something interesting rather than, robot like, stick to the party line.
I didn’t name any good questioners. Yet, almost in front of my eyes was a journalist who does this very well on radio. I missed him because until he moved stations he was just part of the BBC furniture. I refer to Eddie Mair, now on LBC, available across the world on digital radio, although it used to be just available in London. LBC has rebranded itself slightly awkwardly in my opinion as “Leading Britain’s Conversation” from its previous incarnation as London Broadcasting Company.
Eddie Mair is on in the evening replacing Iain Dale, another very good broadcaster. Part of his new programme overlaps with PM his previous BBC programme. PM is struggling with his departure despite having a group of presenters who used to stand in from time to time.
But like most of us who have changed job it takes a little while to fully settle in. Eddie Mair is no exception, he’s finding his feet with the phone in aspects of the programme but like with PM, where he won a Sony Award for innovation, has some great ideas – he’s introduced the classic serial, for example, where Jeremy Paxman reads one sentence of “A tale of Two Cities” each weeknight. Mair joked that he would have to do several thousand programmes before LBC could sack him if his audience really liked the book.
But to return to questions. Eddie Mair will ask simple questions like “can you give me an example” when a caller or interviewee is wildly generalizing. He will ask “what makes you say that” when someone is making unfounded assumptions, and “can you tell me more” especially when a caller isn’t giving any details. He’s gentler with callers than with politicians on whom he can be very tough if he thinks they are being evasive. He once asked one “why will anyone believe you this time” and famously summed up some Boris Johnston answers with the comment dressed up as a question “you are a nasty piece of work aren’t you”.
I don’t advocate any of those pointed questions. However when receiving a presentation some of the gentler, more open questions (in the original sense of requiring more than a yes or no answer, rather than one unanswered which is how many use it today) will elicit greater understanding and that is what questioning is for, isn’t it?