Kirsty Wark is no stranger to interviews. Best known for presenting Newsnight and The Review Show, she’s grilled everyone from popstars to politicians, Madonna to Miliband, in a career spanning thirty seven years. So I was understandably nervous as I sat down at my kitchen table, with nothing more than some notes scrawled on a piece of paper for reference and my dodgy laptop microphone to record our conversation.
I was in need of some coaching. How does she get the best out of the people she interviews? By doing her homework. “Nothing would horrify me more than to go into an interview unprepared. At Newsnight, we do plan the interviews quite heavily, and we give a great deal of thought to their construction.” For Kirsty, this means a balance of questions, “both light and shade”. And if she doesn’t get what she wants, she’s not afraid to be persistent. She has come under fire in the past for her direct interview style.
When I ask Kirsty if she thinks the media has become more tough on politicians since she began her career, she agrees: “I think journalists tended to be much more deferential in the post-war years. But I worked with Robin Day on The World at One, and he was a great person to learn things from – like how to ask a deadly question with a smile on your face.” But that doesn’t mean journalists can’t be friends with politicians. “People are complex characters and the assumption that because you’re friendly with someone you hold the same political views as them is complete nonsense. I think politicians realise that once they’re in the studio, they get the same treatment as anyone else. People are quite realistic about these things.”
“They’re ephemeral,” Kirsty says, as she tries to pinpoint the best interview of her career. “You might do part of an interview well but not the other part. They come and go very quickly. And obviously the perception changes after a couple of weeks, months, years. My interview with Mrs. Thatcher seems like it was a hundred years ago, but it’s still talked about.” Yet recently she’s been branching out from the “instant gratification” of journalism. Her first novel is being published in 2014, and she’s already secured the publisher for her second. Did she find it a challenge to adapt to writing fiction? “It’s an unbelievably long process, which is really strange when you’re used to getting some kind of instantaneous hit. I’m usually work in teams, so to pore over something and be solitary was very different.”
When I touch upon her experience as a woman in broadcasting, she tells me she was lucky. “At the time I graduated there was a drive to get more women in the BBC. I don’t think I was held back because I was a woman.” She is quick to clarify her position: “I’m not belittling it. I certainly think it might be the case for other people.”
I move on to the inevitable question: what advice would she give to young people aspiring to be journalists? “Everyone can make films these days, even if it’s just on people’s phones. It’s not only the ability, but the ingenuity that people are looking for now. The thing I would advise is to have a passion for something and to have written about it, whether for your own benefit, or for a blog, or in Cherwell or anywhere. What you’re doing is combining an interest in communication with an absolute passion, and the ability to research it quite thoroughly.” And media studies? “It’s fine,” she says, “But it’s not the be all and end all. A lively mind is what Newsnight wants.” She tells me that her daughter has decided to do a journalism degree. “She doesn’t expect to have a lifelong career; she expects the struggle of the freelance,” Kirsty explains. “I’m saying to her: stay at university, do a postgrad, drink up as much education as you can.”
She has raced through all my questions with barely a moment’s hesitation. I clearly have a lot to learn. Kirsty says a cheerful goodbye and returns to her schedule. I breathe a sigh of relief and go and get a biscuit.