Talking to Krishnan Guru-Murthy About His Controversial TV Interviews
We spoke to the Channel 4 News host about the ins and outs of a TV Q&A.
At 7PM every weeknight, Krishnan Guru-Murthy appears on your TV. Beamed into homes across the UK, he and his Channel 4 News accomplices, Jon Snow and Cathy Newman, update you on the day's events, and you turn to your flatmates and go, "Oh, isn't that awful?" or, "Not being stupid, but what does TTIP actually mean?" or, "It really is astounding how much of David Cameron's face is forehead. Seriously, it's got to be at least 70 percent blank canvas."
Then you wait to see if Guru-Murthy is at the helm for the interview segment. If he is, you dig in until the end, rather than scrolling aimlessly through everything your Freeview box has to offer (a baffling amount of programmes about storage containers) and settling on a Blue Planet repeat.
This is because the anchor has generated quite a reputation for his grillings. That isn't to say he approaches every Q&A like he's putting his guest on the stand, of course. In fact, the majority of his interviews – while still providing valuable insight into the subject – don't provoke too much post-chat commotion. However, Guru-Murthy's interview style – provocative, cheeky, personal and, most importantly, direct – has, in the past, caused certain interviewees to storm out or, a little embarrassingly, utter the actual words: "I'm shutting your butt down."
These are the interactions that send Twitter and the tabloids into a frenzy, because there are few things more shareable than a Hollywood superstar losing their shit in front of a camera.
On my way to meet Guru-Murthy in a coffee shop opposite ITN's London headquarters, I wondered how he'd act on the other end of the firing line. Shaking hands outside, I realised that it may take a while to find out. "What's the plan here?" he asked as we found our seats. "Is this a Q&A format? What's this for?"
Dressed in jeans, trainers and a dark blue collarless shirt, it took me a minute to square this home-clothes Guru-Murthy with the powdered and pressed version I'm used to seeing on the news. His voice, however, was unmistakeable: I half-expected "wholegrain breakfast flapjack" to be followed by "and joining us now from Baghdad..."
In person, he's confident, assertive and a touch pompous. It's this combination that has rubbed a few of his guests up the wrong way; last month, for example, when the Labour leader contender Jeremy Corbyn accused his host of interrupting him and acting like a tabloid journalist. Or the time Robert Downey Jr buckled under Guru-Murthy's personal line of questioning, with the Iron Man star abruptly terminating the interview with the words: "I'm sorry – what are we doing? Bye."
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It's because of these interviews that the Oxford old-boy has developed a reputation for being a probing host, but he says there are no tactics at play – that he's not intentionally trying to rile anyone up. "I am basically the person I've always been. I don't play a character on television; I am my myself," he insisted. "My desire to get straight to it, and ask straight questions, and confront and challenge people when I think they need it, I'm sure you could trace that personality trait right back to when I was at school in Blackburn."
Pre-empting my next question, he continued: "I guess you want to talk about that interview. It was never my intention to confront Robert Downey Jr about anything. I was simply asking him to talk about stuff that he'd talked about before."
Had he cleared the questions with Downey Jr's publicist before, as is standard procedure when you're interviewing anyone whose name comes top of the credits for a multi-million dollar movie franchise.
"I told them what I was going to ask, and it was up to them if they wanted to pull out," answered Guru-Murthy. "I was very explicit about the fact that he didn't need to talk about it if he didn't want to. I said, 'If you don't want to talk about this, it's fine, we can just move on.' There was never any need to walk out; he could have just said, 'I don't want to talk about it.'"
Chin up and scanning the café, he continued: "If you worry too much about how you're going to look in an interview, you're going to do a bad interview. That's not important. What's important is what they say. If you can reveal something about that interviewee that people didn't know – whether it's funny, gentle, insightful, angry, aggressive – then that's a success."
Of course, it's in doing this that Guru-Murthy has found some of his interviews making the news. In 2013, director Quentin Tarantino famously shut his butt down, telling him: "I am not your slave and you're not my master." So how does he gauge when to keep pushing and when to stop?
"If it's somebody who's in a position of power, then it's your job to get them to answer the question. I think it's all about horses for courses. If you feel that they ought to answer this question and it's right for them to answer it, then have another go."
In October of 2014, in an interview with MP David Tredinnick regarding MPs' 10 percent pay rise, he had another go – four more times.
"I presume you're not going to take the MPs' pay rise of 10 percent?" he started. "So you are going to take it? Are you going to take it? Answer this: we're here to talk about public money; are you taking the MPs' pay rise? This is our money, that we pay you. Are you going to take the pay rise or not?"
Witnessing Tredinnick writhing to issue a useful answer is both uncomfortable and weirdly satisfying.
"Look, I'm not going to treat someone with kid gloves because of their job title or their status," Guru-Murthy told me. "They are there, just like any other interviewee, to answer my questions – and I'm going to ask you the questions I want to ask you."
This style of interview has attracted criticism from a number of Guru-Murthy's peers. During a London School of Economics speech, BBC presenter Andrew Marr knocked Jeremy Paxman's confrontational style, saying: "We don't have to be this kind of really, really aggressive opposition all of the time." Newsnight presenter Evan Davis also waded in, saying: "I, and others, have worried that this approach has come to dominate the political conversations we have... we might have trained our politicians to be a bit too defensive."
It's an issue Guru-Murthy is passionate about, and stopping mid-sip he was quick to offer an explanation: "That's not down to Paxman, for a start. People have been doing that for years and years before Paxman. John Humphrys, Brian Walden, Robin Day. Robin Day was the first confrontational broadcaster. He was doing it decades before Paxman. The idea that Paxman is this sort of lone influence who has single-handedly killed the television interview is just rubbish. Politicians are drilled by press officers and special advisors – that is what has killed the short political interview, not Jeremy Paxman."
He then switched tact, defending the station and his approach: "But it's not always about confrontation. Last week I interviewed Will Young about mindfulness. We had a really nice, gentle, interesting conversation about feelings and about being depressed and how you deal with it. A couple of days ago I interviewed Jamaican reggae legend Lee Perry, and we had a completely bonkers interview about music. Musicians can talk about their music until the cows come home."
By this point in our chat, Guru-Murthy had been spotted by Channel 4 news editor Ben de Pear. Getting restless, he picked up his two iPhone 5s, pushed a now cold cup of lemon tea to the centre of the table and swivelled his knees into the aisle. Sensing this might be a good time to wrap things up, I asked what usually happens after a particularly eventful interview.
"When any interview is over, we shake hands and smile and say, 'See you soon.' I might bump into them in a restaurant, or a bar, or Westminster, or wherever it might be – and that's fine," he said. "You don't hold grudges because you've given someone a bad time in an interview... on the whole."
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