One of the interesting things about the fallout from this hacking scandal is that it’s made a lot of people re-examine issues of integrity in the press.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Guardian has (rightly) accused the other papers of being crass about Amy Winehouse, The Times‘s readers reacted with outrage after it published the Facebook updates of the as-yet-uncharged suspect in the hospital poisonings case, and in another post the paper complained about the giant amount of bulls*** that goes into the interview process. Overall, what people want is fairness and honesty.
The point about interviews was interesting: these days, particularly with “celebrities”, the settings are too controlled and sanitised. The closest I ever personally came to it was with Ogre back in 1996, where all the hacks were sent in one by one for 20-minute chats in which he gave the same responses to each of us. I don’t blame him: our questions were lazy and he must have got very bored doing so many in a row. It was a lot like that scene in America’s Sweethearts where Catherine Zeta Jones and John Cusack get so hacked off with the treadmill of inanity that they just start making stuff up. And, in fairness, Ogre did give us a lot in terms of honesty; it was just the surreality of reading the same quotes verbatim in two or three different magazines.
When it comes to Hollywood stars, they go further and sit with their PR agents in the room, giving lists of forbidden topics and walking out if they don’t like the line of questioning. It means that you never, ever get to see the real person, which defeats the entire point of doing in the interview in the first place. You have to wonder how it got to this.
Think about how people view each other in the workplace. You want to get to know the people around you in a basic way, and the more you know about them, the more it impacts on how you view what they do. You learn who is dating or related to whom, what eccentric hobbies they have, which of your colleagues ran a marathon, which one used to run a cheese shop, etc. etc. Some of that information is practically useful and other bits just add flavour to the dynamics and stop the place feeling so sterile. When one co-worker brings in a baby picture of your other co-worker, it’s cute. When they bring his foreskin into the office in a jar, it’s just weird. (It happened.)
That’s really how I view interviews – they add flavour to the “product” – album, film, whatever. It’s natural to want to know about them, in terms of both the physical and mental creative process. What techniques they use impact on that, and what they were thinking at the time also impacts on that. Knowing about both gives it a context. Yes, it’s not essential to know that – and there are many bands and actors it’s never even occurred to me to be curious about – but I still avidly watch the “making of” documentaries that come on the DVD and that shows me what to look out for. Many years back, I was friends with a circus crew and knew how every trick was performed, but knowing where all the trap doors were made it more rather than less amazing.
The hardest part of interviewing someone isn’t asking the questions, but sorting the answers. Certainly with my later interviews, I’ve been careful not to be like the lady with the foreskin in the jar: there are just some things you don’t need to know. I was once puzzled over the identity of one online correspondent and mentioned it to someone I was talking to, and within 20 minutes they’d pulled up broad information about where he lived, details of his last three ebay auctions and posts on some obscure forum about a car he was interested in buying. Even I was a bit freaked out by that – it’s far too easy to find out more than we ever need to about someone else and as careful as we need to be not to overshare, we should also set our own limits about how far we’ll let our curiosity take us. There are tell-all biographies I refuse to read because I ultimately just do not need to know all that.
That’s why I don’t have a problem with people getting their PR agent to check over the interview before it goes to print, because I want it to be accurate and I want it to be fair. It’s unavoidable these days, anyway, given that the process is generally different to how it was 20 years ago. Example: when I did this interview for a video game site, I sent off the questions via email to the marketing rep who passed them over to the subjects, who then answered and the email came back via the same publicist – so obviously anything contentious would have been filtered out. That didn’t bother me, because I wasn’t trying to be Jeremy Paxman. The readers and I just wanted to find about the mental and physical processes that went into making the games, which included learning a little more about the people who made them. Learning what I did on that occasion changed the way I viewed some of the things in the game, showed me what to look out for, and added a new dimension to my enjoyment of the product.
I think you can tell with the interviews I do that there’s a fondness there. Even before I ask any questions, I’ve generally read up quite a bit on the people I’ll be talking to and figured out that I like them, which influences how I write it up afterwards. Like with this old interview with dEUS. I did it when I was 19 or so, and though there’s nothing malicious in there, if I was typing this up now I’d have whipped out the references to ecstasy and the bit about Morphine. That’s not because I’m a toadying suck-up, but I’d just rather not get people into trouble. (It’s so historical now it’s not worth worrying about.) I think people would be surprised these days when they see how much I cut out – and that’s before anyone gets to check things over – because there’s just so much information and a lot of it is irrelevant if not downright damaging.
I’ve been the interviewer and I’ve been the interviewee. I’ve been the one printing up stupid things people have said while drunk, and I’ve been the one saying stupid things while drunk. I’ve been the one getting friends to check over my answers before I send them off in case I sound like an idiot, and I’ve been the one getting people to check my questions. Both sides of that are pretty terrifying, especially when you’re the subject, because you feel so terribly exposed. It doesn’t matter how you answer, you’ll wake up a few days later and think how you should have said it better. When you’re on the other side of the table, you’ll kick yourself for asking such a stupid question.
There’s the danger of being like Patrick in Almost Famous, who lets the band walk all over him when they don’t actually seem to like him very much, and allow your piece to be whittled away to that seven-minute-Hollywood-celebrity sanitised piece of garbage that doesn’t give any real insight into the character of the person you’re interviewing – at which point it becomes a worthless waste of time for all concerned.
On the other hand …
Yesterday, I was chatting with one of my Collapse Board colleagues about Courtney Love, and she mentioned the Vanity Fair interview, which I’d never read. I looked it up, and felt even sicker than usual.
The first thing that struck me was the tone it establishes: catty remarks about makeup, vicious swipes about clothing. She even outright calls Courtney “awful”. Then it went on to deliver a painstakingly thorough character assassination through brief observation, rumour, hearsay and just plain making-it-up. In spite of it all, I liked the Courtney I was reading about, and developed a distinct aversion to the interviewer.
Perhaps that’s why interviewees have become more defensive – because they’re all worried about being stitched up like that. I think it takes a contract of sorts on all sides: from the interviewer to be kind and respectful, from the interviewee to be open and honest and reasonable, and from the reader not to lap up cruel and harmful gossip. I think we all have to expect better, and that expectation really starts with ourselves.