Friday, 6 February 2009

Where's John Humphrys when you need him?

In the UK I was a great fan of John Humphrys, the - how can I put this? - somewhat 'robust' presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Although I'm not a morning person, his uncompromising ten-past-eight interviews with wriggling politicians somehow got through to me even when I was dreaming away in another universe. These days, it's Marc-Olivier Fogiel and the morning programme on Europe 1 that has my allegiance - Nicolas Canteloup's satirical impressionist spot in particular is unmissable, especially now I've been here long enough to get the in jokes - but there are times when I'd dearly love to see a Humphrys-type character on my screen or airwaves.

Last night was one of those times. As a response to last week's demonstrations and strikes, President Sarkozy decided to Appear Before The Nation. This isn't entirely unusual here: sometimes it's a formal state of the nation type address; on other occasions, like last night, it's a staged interview with the news editors of the main TV channels, shown live and simultaneously on TF1, France2 and M6 plus broadcast on several radio stations.

I'm not the type to be generally impressed by politicians or statesmen, but I have to concede that Sarkozy was impressive; mesmerising, even. He spoke for 90 minutes, with great presence, logic, fluency, coherence - and no notes. Okay, not quite an Obama, but very - well, presidential. (And I gather from the French papers that he rather upset Gordon Brown too when he criticised the UK's anti-crise VAT reduction ... hey ho). Amongst other things, he defended his refusal to fight la crise by increasing consumption, put a few new social measures on the table, and made overtures towards the unions. 

His interviewers - four in all - were sadly less impressive. A host of rather predictable questions, one or two half-hearted attempts to challenge something he said or get him to be more precise, and that was that. There was only one person in control, and that was Sarkozy. He played the interviewers off one by one, focusing his attention and eye contact quite deliberately on the weakest, Laurence Ferrari of TF1 (the only woman), whom he addressed throughout as 'Laurence Ferrari' as opposed to the three male interviewers, who were each honoured with a 'Monsieur'. Laurence, unfortunately, seemed stunned into silence and smiled inanely for most of the 90 minutes, occasionally attempting a question which was usually ignored. I was, for a while, embarrassed to be a woman ... All in all it was a masterpiece of psychological manipulation by our president. Fascinating though it was, by the end of it I was longing for a John Humphrys type character to come along and weigh in to the proceedings with his characteristic steel capped boots ... 

We don't have a tradition here of rough and tumble interviewing, especially of the president. Laurence Ferrari's predecessor, Patrick Poivre d'Arvor, known as PPDA, had a gentle way of getting under politicians' skins, but he was summarily 'removed' from his role last summer after 20-odd years (some say at the request of the president ...). It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that as Sarkozy takes an ever more Berlusconi-type interest in the media, the ability and/or willingness of broadcasters to ask more searching questions diminishes ...

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