By Ben Cohen: Compared to the rest of the world, US politicians have a pretty easy life. Most of them are incredibly wealthy, don't actually do much work, and can avoid difficult questions by avoiding the people who ask them. Don't like what MSNBC is reporting on and think they might be mean to you? Just talk to Fox! President Bush simply refused to talk to the liberal media, and Sarah Palin didn't take questions from well, anyone.
While American political culture has developed safe enclaves for its politicians to hide in, Britain has followed a different path where attacking politicians has become not only a spectator sport, but a source of national pride. The public expects the media to hound politicians into a shameful early retirement, and the more uncomfortable they can make them feel in front of the public, the better.
In a vicious take down of the Conservative government, BBC's pit bull in chief Jeremy Paxman tore into Treasury secretary Chloe Smith over the government's spectacular u-turn on fuel tax, creating one of the most excruciating interviews in recent memory. The Conservative government had announced in May that they would raise fuel tax, then decided on Tuesday that they were scrapping it, much to the surprise of most of the members of the actual party. The reversal is one of many u-turns that now equal about one a week, and unfortunately Smith was sent into the lions den by her party to face a grilling from Paxman who refused to let up on her for a painful 8 minutes.
Check out the following exchange:
JP: When was the decision taken [to reverse the policy]?
CS: As I say it's been under consideration for some time …
JP: When was the decision taken?
CS: … the chancellor and the prime minister …
JP: … yes of course …
CS: … take these decisions between them.
JP: So when were you told, then?
CS: I've been involved in this for some time and …
JP: But you didn't take the decision, obviously, you said the chancellor and the prime minister did, so when were you told?
CS: We had a, uh, collective discussion of that, er, er, in due course and although I can't, you know, give you the sort of full gory …
JP: Well did it happen today?
CS: … details of the processes … I can't, I can't, I can't, sit here …
JP: You can't remember?
CS: … and tell you the ins and the outs, no, it's not appropriate for me to tell you the ins and the outs.
JP: Well, why isn't it appropriate? You're coming here to defend a change of policy and you can't even tell me when you were told what the change in policy was.
And that was Paxman taking it easy on her. The interview got progressively more painful to watch as Paxman refused to accept Smith's explanation. When it came to the numbers, it took a turn for the worse. "Its going to cost you say now about 550 million pounds in contrast with your figure on the 23rd of May which was about one and a half billion pounds," said Paxman scornfully. "What, you just got the sums wrong did you?"
Smith did her best to parry the questions, but Paxman was having none of it and refused to let her off the hook, particularly when it came to which department's budgets would be cut to make up for the lack of revenue:
P: Well just name me a few departments.
CS: No, I won't do that because …
JP: You don't know?
CS: … we'll be giving you the full details in the autumn statement …
JP: Are you waiting to be told that as well?
CS: No, because …
JP: You know do you? You know which departments have underspent?
CS: It is not possible to give you a full breakdown at this point because the figure is evolving somewhat, as per the data today, the data is available monthly in that particular instance.
JP: We are clear that what you are looking for now is 500-odd million pounds, you say that various government departments are underspending, although you are unable to tell us which ones. Presumably you do know but are choosing not to tell us. Is that correct?
CS: It's an aggregate figure. If you look at the data today it's an aggregate figure.
JP: Fine. You're choosing not to tell us which government departments have underspent.
Smith continued stoically, obviously aware that rising to Paxman's hectoring would make her look even sillier, but her responses were so poorly argued that she knew the game was up. "Do you ever think you are incompetent?" asked Paxman at the end of the interview. "I think it's valuable to help real people in this way," answered Smith meekly. "And I do think that is valued by people who drive." And that was about the best answer she gave.
Smith's woeful interview, while incredibly difficult to watch, is just the type of thing the public needs to see. Politicians work for the people, and they have a responsibility to answer questions truthfully. The media does a pretty good job in the UK, and American journalists could learn a thing or two about how to handle slippery politicians who want to answer their own questions, not the interviewers. In America, the media is sadly afraid of people in powerful positions. They want to interview them to boost ratings for their networks and further their careers. This isn't to say that it doesn't happen in the UK, but generally speaking it is the other way around - politicians are afraid of the media, and only do interviews because they would be regarded as irrelevant by the public if they didn't. It's a healthier culture that while sometimes unnecessarily nasty, creates a much more vibrant national debate where politicians are continually confronted with the truth and forced to answer for their actions.
Smith's interview is doing the rounds on the internet, and it will unfortunately live on as one of the most embarrassing performances ever. It's not hard to feel sorry for her, but Smith knew what she was getting into when she became a career politician, so to a certain extent, she deserved it.