Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The perfect bisexual interview

To a Women in Journalism [professional networking, rather than feminist-activist]meeting last night, to hear some of Britain's best interviewers - including Lynn Barber and Mary Riddell - talk about what makes a good interview. I always enjoy WiJ meetings, and this was wildly funny. As well as giving us their master-class expertise (always record the interview, and it's a good idea if your interviewee does too) they regaled us with some hilarious anecdotes about nightmare interviewees: the drunk, the missing, the weird, the hysterical, the scary, the monosyllabic and, in one case, the dead. Japes!

In my working life, I do very little interviewing. I spend most of my time chained to my desk hacking at other people's copy, or begging reluctant writers to please go to somewhere in another time zone tomorrow, flying out at 6am, staying there for 12 hours before flying back, and delivering their features the instant they get return or preferably sooner. (Not much of an exaggeration, actually.)

Whaddya wanna know?
But sometimes, when I've been especially good, I am allowed out and in the course of these jaunts do interview people to at least get some quotes. This is either pure fluff (how did you become a chef/ is that lion really heading for us/ what is that you're doing with your fingers) or about sexual health (how many clients do you have a day/ so, Monsignor, if condoms are forbidden, how exactly should people avoid HIV?). What I don't do at work, and have never done, is the intrusive kind of interview (how angry do you get when people ask you about your estranged sister? I'm not going away until you tell me.)

Many (non-journo) people are hugely critical about the press, particularly the tabloids (who weren't included on the panel). And a lot of the discussion at the meeting was about how to winkle information out of somewhat reluctant interviewees.

But, although it might be in the public interest to conduct a probing interview with politicians or other people with power over us, quite why a writer / actor / footballer's wife should be reduced to tears by someone's questions is beyond me.
I agree with the critics - I too am very distrustful of many journalists. Not only do they have an agenda that may not be your or my own (get "the story" at all costs), they are often either wilfully ignorant, or so short of time that they know nothing about you or the subject.

I was once pretty stitched up myself: I was interviewed about bisexuality for a major publication, and asked the writer specifically not to mention my son's name as he was only six. But it was. She also misquoted and warped the information from everyone else she interviewed: I know, because we all discussed it afterwards. This is kind of different from the other kind of interviewing I have experienced as a subject: on TV or radio, where you state your case and a rabid religious representative expresses the contrary. We would both go out of our way to avoid each other in ordinary life, of course.

On the other hand, many journalists do try to be ethical; I know that they have gone out of their way to be helpful and caring to the people they come into contact with. Personally, I always make sure people know what they are letting themselves in for. But then I don't generally meet the sort of people about whom Jeremy Paxman said "Why are those lying liars lying to me?"

Let's talk about (bi)sex
So while Vladmimir Putin or Liz Hurley might be safe from my caring/sharing questions, I have interviewed - in droves, shedloads, or whatever large-sized collective noun you can think of - bisexuals. All sorts of bisexuals - old/young; black/white; good /bad/indifferent; from the UK to Australia, via Germany, India, Mexico and, of course, North America; male/female/trans; of every combination of sexual/emotional attraction and behaviour; in person, on the phone, via the internet and instant messaging. And I have always enjoyed it. Their interviews/information has appeared in articles in newspapers and magazines, on my blog, in journal articles and, in books.

I hope - I think - that I have always been respectful, never uncomfortably probing, careful of the interviewee as well as the eventual reader. Lots of people are just bursting to talk about themselves. Often they have never done so before. And of course, I do think it is very important for bi people - indeed all people - to know about how bisexual people actually think, do and feel.

I have also been an interview subject for many MA and PhD students researching sexual identity development or somesuch - which has always been an interesting experience. This is in stark contrast to journalistic interviews. Academic interviewers have to abide by an incredibly strict code of ethics and their interviewees have to sign a paper saying they agree to be interviewed; that the tapes of their interview will be destroyed; and that they will be strictly anonymous. I think that they also have to submit their questions to an ethics committee first.

Two-way learning
Like one of these top-line interviewers at the meeting said, "I only want to interview people I can learn from". And if you are talking about your sexuality, usually something that is very precious to you and often something that people still don't talk about in public, and I am interviewing you, I will be learning from you. Whoever reads about your life will be learning as well.

Hopefully, you'll get something out of it too, even if it isn't a perfect bisexual interview.

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