Media and Data Minister John Whittingdale has defended Piers Morgan’s aggressive political interview technique during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ministers boycotted Morgan’s ITV programme Good Morning Britain for 200 days until mid-November after he was outspoken in his on-air criticism of the Government’s handling of the crisis.
Some 3,200 people complained to Ofcom about two April interviews with Care Minister Helen Whately while a further 600 complained after Morgan grilled Health Secretary Matt Hancock. The regulator decided not to investigate.
Whittingdale said: “I don’t object to an aggressive interview style, I think if you’re in public life you have to accept that.
“I think somebody like Piers Morgan has been very challenging in terms of some of his interviews in the last few months. I think he is perfectly entitled to adopt that critical attitude.”
Morgan was in the running to be named Journalist of the Year at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards earlier this month.
Whittingdale added: “Where I do worry is that in some cases it appears that the interviewer is more keen to trip the interviewee up often by bringing up something which is not the main issue of the day, but to resurrect some question regarding some past behaviour in the hope of getting some embarrassment out of the guest.
“I don’t think interviewers should set out to make their interviewees look bad. They should, on the other hand, probe and test the opinions that are being given to them.”
Speaking at a virtual Royal Television Society event hosted by ITV News at Ten’s Tom Bradby, Whittingdale said he missed long-form political interviews which have become rare.
He pointed to the BBC’s Andrew Marr as an example of a “very good interviewer” who does not have “that long to quiz his guests”.
He said: “Personally, I lament the loss of the really in-depth, long political interview. In the 80s, to give one example, Brian Walden’s show Weekend World, which lasted for a full hour, he would devote the entire of that hour to a single interview.”
“We don’t have that kind of in-depth interview any longer,” he went on. “Even during an election campaign you wouldn’t get as long an interview as that, and normally it’s just a few minutes… I do think we lack something as a result of that.”
It was a similar sentiment to one shared earlier this year by the now-former BBC director-general Tony Hall, who said he was a “great believer in the long-form political interview where you can explore at length, not in soundbites, the real policy decisions that politicians are making”.
Whittingdale suggested that “one of the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis and the Prime Minister’s direct briefings is a shift in the way in which governments present which is perhaps a step towards the American way”.
He noted the appointment of former ITV News national editor Allegra Stratton as a public face of the Government giving daily press conferences, which are expected to start in January.
Bradby said it would be “fascinating” to see how his former colleague handles her new role “and whether it becomes a British version of the West Wing”.