Newsnight interviewees underestimate Evan Davis at their peril

When watching Jeremy Paxman kebab some hapless interviewee on Newsnight, I often used to wonder what possessed people to say yes to an invitation to be interviewed by him.

Bridget Osborne: Media trainer and consultant for Bridget’s Broadcasting Company
Bridget Osborne: Media trainer and consultant for Bridget’s Broadcasting Company
The answer, of course, is that either their job description meant they couldn’t get out of it, or in the few minutes they were on the phone to the Newsnight producer, their ego momentarily outweighed their common sense.      
Some people relish going toe to toe with an intellectual bruiser, in the same way that men who thought they were in with a chance used to take on professional boxers at country fairs, to try to impress their girlfriends.    
Evan Davis has already received quite a bit of flak, even before he’s started.
When it was announced in the summer that he’d be taking over from Paxman on Newsnight, there were comments from punters like "Ugh, no thanks" and "I wish he’d stick to Dragons' Den, anything else is beyond him".    
But, having studied Davis' form for a while, if I were booked in for an interview, I wouldn’t be too cocksure.
Those on the receiving end of the questions may find themselves wrong-footed, and be on the ropes before they know it, if that’s not taking the boxing analogy too far.    
He doesn’t shy away from adversarial questioning where he thinks it’s justified, as he proved when he admonished George Osborne for not answering "a simple question" and "wasting our time giving us a non-answer", thus earning himself that Today programme badge of honour, an official complaint from Downing Street.
He just thinks that you get more out of people sometimes with a more thoughtful approach.
He completely floored Ed Balls one time on the budget deficit when he started by saying: "Let’s take as read what the Labour party stance on this is – it’s ‘X’. I want to start further down the argument and ask you about ‘Y’." 
‘X’ was the three-minute treatise Balls had prepared. ‘Y’ was the tricky bit he hoped they wouldn’t have time for.
He had too much respect for Davis' grasp of economics to dodge the question, and the result was a much more revealing interview.
When he asked Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers about the breakdown in talks on intractable issues like flags and parades, his question was: "Are you satisfied with the quality of leadership in Northern Ireland?", followed by: "Do you think if Nelson Mandela was a party to these talks that it would be in the position it is now?" and then: "Should you be involved in these talks?"  
These are not soft questions. 
There is a school of thought that the adversarial style of interviewing has made people in power so paralysed before a microphone that they have become so guarded and defensive as to render most political interviews totally unedifying.

Davis just believes that explaining, enlightening and discussing are as valid a purpose in journalism as exposing ineptitude or wrongdoing and that his job is to make an interview engaging and interesting without necessarily being aggressive and argumentative.    

His job is to bring a new style to Newsnight. As he puts it in his typically self-effacing way: "I think it would be a terrible mistake to take a programme with a first class Jeremy Paxman and replace him with a second rate Jeremy Paxman."
He doesn’t always get it right; his innovative style is, by its very nature, a bit hit and miss, but far from being lame I think it will be fresh and interesting, and that potential interviewees should not be complacent.
Bridget Osborne is a media trainer and consultant for Bridget’s Broadcasting Company

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in