By Muyiwa Adetiba
Like many Nigerians, I watched the two television interviews with the President. But unlike many, I also watched as a professional interviewer. I do that with many interviews. It is instinctive.
So while many concentrated on the President’s answers, I found myself focusing on the framing of the questions and the comportment of the interviewers. I found myself looking at the setting and analysing the mood of the participants. I found myself assessing the preparedness of the interviewers, the synergy among them, and the quality of their follow up questions.
A good interview depends on all these little things. It also depends as much on the person being interviewed as the people doing the interview. So if Nigerians were not too happy with the content of the interviews, they should not blame the President alone.
You can guess by now that I know one or two things about interviews. I once had a weekly interview column that ran for years at the Punch during which I interviewed all manners of people. From the taciturn to the voluble; from the low to the high; from villains to laurates; from technocrats to politicians; I met them all in hundreds of interviews which spanned almost a decade. So, some of what I am going to say here are what I learnt as a professional interviewer over the years and for which in an ideal world, I should be paid as a consultant.
No two interviews are the same because personalities differ. So it is incumbent on the interviewer to know something about the personality or idiosyncrasy of their subject. Interviews can be likened to chess where mental sparring plays a major role; poker where confidence or composure has a role; and golf where the landscape or ambience plays its part.
Not all interviews are successful. Not all turn out the way you planned – in fact, many don’t. But a successful interviewer must learn to take charge of the moment irrespective of who is in front of them. Pretty much the same way a successful photographer must take charge of the moment. If you lose the initiative either because of indecisiveness or lack of preparation, then you risk compromising the outcome of the interview. Many interviews look spontaneous. In reality, very few are.
Most are products of preparations on both sides with laid down ground rules. Advanced questions are usually requested for and sometimes vetted. This is where the professionalism of the interviewers and the news medium come into play. I once had an interview with a top brass who had insisted on advanced questions. My first question was the third from the bottom of the list. He looked at me surprised. But it was an innocuous question so he answered it. But unknown to him, I had gained control. I was going to work within the confines of the agreed questions; but in a way that gave me latitude and allowed follow-up questions.
The key; the game changer in any interview are the follow-up questions because they not only show the preparedness of the interviewer and the knowledge of the person being interviewed, they clarify issues. It is not too bad if you are working for print because you could cover some of the gaps which lack of follow-up questions brings with words. It is more obvious when you are on air because the gaps are gaping. The President’s interview was on air. Our President went off target on a few occasions and no follow-up questions to bring him back on track.
There was an interview I had with a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria who insisted that a certain controversial Supreme Court judgment should not be on the cards. I pleaded with him that it was neither in his interest nor mine nor that of the readers that a rare interview with him would be silent on such a contentious issue.
I made him aware that the ultimate judge of a good interview are the people. Somehow, the handlers of the President and the team that conducted the interviews missed this point. At the end of the day, every interview is meant to satisfy some curiosity. The more satisfied the audience is with what is revealed, the more it is deemed a good interview. Both the interviewer and the subject owe it to themselves to get a good interview out.
Otherwise there is no point having the interview. I don’t know how many people were satisfied with the interviews on the two networks. It was such a rare occasion to have the President speak to us. An occasion made more momentous by the situation in the country. Five professional colleagues interviewed him yet, he managed to slip pass them without revealing much except for those who read his lips and watched his body language. Actually, the least said about the NTA interview, the better. I understand the constraints of working for a government media but he didn’t have to make it so obvious. As an interviewer, I felt a bit embarrassed by what NTA put out. And I don’t think the Arise crew will believe they had a good outing. My colleagues were deferential and disjointed as a unit.
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They failed to command the moment. They allowed such a unique occasion slip out of their professional hands. I hope the handlers who pushed for the interviews got what they wanted because many Nigerians did not. Too many things that mattered to them were either superficially touched or were not touched at all.
My take-away. One, the President finally talked to us from Nigeria even if he did not address issues to our satisfaction. We should thank God for small mercies. And because of that, we know he is not a Jibrin from Sudan as some mischievous people had suggested. Two, Nigerians find the President has a sense of humour. It’s a good thing to have.
Three, he is aware of what is going on and talks of dementia are widely exaggerated. Four, his comments on issues confronting the country are unfortunately superficial and steeped in the past. Many of the problems confronting the country were not created by him. But there is a lack of profundity, a lack of depth, let alone progressiveness in his proffered solutions. It was not only his age that showed in the course of the interview, but the age of his ideas to quote Bill Clinton. Almost every problem he inherited has become worse in his six years in office.
And yet the blame game continues. We look up to him for solutions to our security situation and he passes the buck to State Governors while withholding the tools to perform from them. Five, and this is the most concerning of all to me. There is a visible lack of empathy to the yearnings of the disaffected groups in the country and the sufferings of an average Nigerian. Could this be due to his age, his background as a military man, or his character? That comment of ‘a dot in a circle’ for example, was condescending and unnecessary.