The use of strategic silence

The use of strategic silence

By M.J. Akbar | 24 October, 2015
It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this.

The relationship between government and media is surely the most tempestuous fact of any democracy. The two represent parallel poles of power, but they are never really poles apart. Their moods vary, depending on circumstance, stretching from mutual admiration to suspicion, scepticism, cynicism and, in the worst case, hostility. Sometimes, their interests are in conflict. At other times, personality takes over, and the irrational ego interferes with judgement. There is always a sub-text of need hidden in the dynamics, and this need can be personal or institutional. It should, therefore, be a relationship that is handled with care. Too often, it becomes a victim of carelessness.

It is important to lay down a marker before we proceed. A democratic government does not have censorship as an option. There are no ifs and buts. Freedom of expression is a non-negotiable right. There are occasions on which journalism may become as yellow as the tongue of a hypocrite, and governments may have a list of grievances stretching from Kashmir to Kochi, but the only recourse is redress as permitted by law. The law does not, and will not, allow the brutal knife of a censor. Censorship is unethical, illegal and unworkable. What next?

There are structures in a democracy that have found a way around this, most notably self-censorship by individual journalists as the quid pro quo of inducement. This, for obvious reasons, is hard to catch. The risk for media is that if this is once proven, then credibility is lost forever. Credibility cannot be restored by surgeons. If the audience loses its faith in a media product, then the life-cycle of that publication or channel is over.

The normal equation between a journalist and a politician is filtered through that most basic of all media tools, the conversation. It may come as a surprise, but sometimes the most productive chat can be off-the-record. This is the ultimate bond between politician and journalist, that of trust. Any journalist who breaks this trust is not worth a day’s further salary. Similarly, anyone in public life who misleads in an off-the-record discussion is shallow: no one in power tells all, but you do not mislead or distort either. There are cases where journalists misuse such confidence, but they end up hurting themselves more than the person whose trust they have abused.

Aggression is not the answer. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle.

 

The more delicate problem is on-the-record interviews. The rules are straight-forward, but interviewing is still a subtle art. A journalist should have the knowledge that helps fashion a question, and then catch contradictions in any evasive answer. It is a very dead interviewer who goes with a static list of queries, and does not possess the agility to ask the right follow-up. It is only reasonable to expect that the person being interviewed will only give that much of information which suits his or her interests, but there are ways of inducing out what has not been said.

Aggression is not the answer. Accusatory questions are meant to provoke an unguarded response, but any seasoned politician will deflect such bouncers with practised ease. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle. They almost inevitably try to fill the silence vacuum with something, and that something turns out to be the observation or story that brings an interview to life.

But this was far easier in an age when print media was dominant. A print interview has time on its side. Television has enormous strengths, flawed by a fatal weakness. Television does not have space or time for silence. It is the journalist who inevitably ends up saying something, thereby letting his or her target off the hook. At its worst, of course, television encourages a screaming match on the assumption that an audience is more interested in a brawl than dialogue.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this, as would anyone being interviewed by a heckler. But, equally, politicians should probably understand that their problems lie less in what a journalist has asked and more in their irresistible eagerness to say what they might later regret.

I enjoy the word “piquant”. It has the succulent resonance of onomatopoeia. It is sharp, tangy, pleasant to the taste and yet can sting. There is no pique, or irritability, or ire, in piquant. The best question in an interview is piquant. And the best answer? Cool. Anyone who loses his or her cool has lost the interview.

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