Jenni Murray and the art of the interview

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Thursday 16th June 2011

Interviewing is an awful lot harder than it looks. When I hear someone doing it brilliantly – like John Humphrys or Olivia O’Leary – I’m so gripped by what the interviewee is saying that I barely even notice how skilful the interviewer is. When I hear someone doing it badly – sorry to say this, Christine Bleakley, when you’ve just announced your engagement – it is excruciating.

But the newly ennobled Dame Jenni Murray is definitely an interviewer at the top of her game. And last night (June 15) the Woman’s Hour presenter gave a studio audience at Broadcasting House an insight into how she does it.

Interviewed by BBC news correspondent Nick Higham (no slouch in the interviewing stakes himself) she revealed that Margaret Thatcher and Catherine Deneuve were two of her most terrifying interviewees, that solid research beforehand is vital and that one of her strengths as an interviewer is, to put it bluntly, that she’s “nosey.” Along the way she said the first thing her husband David asked when he heard she was being made a Dame was “what does that make me?” and that she’d love to interview George Clooney. A night owl, she’s such a fan of ER that on Saturday nights she often watches three episodes back-to-back.

The Art of the Interview is a series of master-classes the BBC College of Journalism is running this year. Names like Libby Purves, Mark Lawson, Jane Garvey and Lyse Doucet have already taken part so watch out for their interviews (and Jenni Murray’s) on the BBC College of Journalism website –

One of the wisest people I’ve talked to about interviewing is award-winning journalist Emma Brockes, a former staff writer for The Guardian who is now based in New York. A highly skilled writer who has interviewed everyone from Liza Minnelli to Madeleine Albright over the years, she spoke to me for a book called “Interviewing for Journalists.”

Rather than preparing a long list of questions, for instance, Emma concentrates on plotting a route through an interview. She works out “key turning points” in advance – moments in the interview where she aims to move “from the publicity guff that celebrities want me to talk to them about… to the juicy stuff.”

But what stuck in my mind long after the interview was her passion for the job. As she explained: “It is the most extraordinary privilege to parachute in, go straight to what you think is the most interesting part of someone’s life and be able to ask the most impertinent questions they may ever have been asked.” I reckon Jenni Murray would agree.

PS: Now the exams are over my son’s back on his bike (see above) – and I’m terrified!

2 comments so far

  • As a non-journalist, I found the interview to be highly entertaining and to demystify some of the skill that is needed to make it work! The bad interviewer stands out in the interview; the great one almost goes under the radar due to the fluidity of the conversation.


  • I completely agree, Linsey. When an interviewer knows what they are doing the audience gets swept along by the conversation and you don’t notice how skilled the questioning is.

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