In most times this would be seen as a bit of a silly question or perhaps the feed line to a particularly pedantic joke. With the recent controversy over Johann Hari’s interviewing technique not to mention the intense scrutiny of journalistic practices by the News of the World and the simmering fight between Louise Mensch MP and Piers Morgan over whether he knew of voicemail hacking while editing the Daily Mirror, it is worth a second look.
In her recent libel case, Dr Sarah Thornton claimed against the Telegraph for libel in a review of a book she had written (“Seven Days in the Art World” http://amzn.to/ruUt5a). The High Court judgment can be found at this link and is surprisingly readable http://bit.ly/qYe3MG . The review, by Lynn Barber (whose teenage years formed the basis of the wonderful film, An Education http://amzn.to/oNyfEI) claimed that Dr Thornton had falsely said in the book that she had interviewed her. The normal and natural meaning of “interview” was explained by Tugendhat J as being where “one person asks questions of another so as to elicit an answer”. This sounds like a potential entry in the Encyclopaedia of Things We Already Know.
However, Ms Barber claimed that whether something is an interview or not depends upon how helpful and informative the responses given are. On that basis the allegations against Johann Hari might be even more grave – if the responses given by so many of his interviewees were so vague or unclearly expressed as to require cleaning up and replacement with quotes from other interviews and published works, perhaps he was wrong to have claimed to have conducted the interviews at all. Or, when I’ve done badly in a job application I could claim that I hadn’t in fact had an interview at all. Fortunately for us and the English language, the High Court Judge was rather more sensible. And it isn’t every day you can say that either.