Broadcasting the burn book: Emma Barnett and the ugly art of the gotcha interview

Rhetorically roughing up the first woman to lead the Muslim Council said more about Barnett than her guest...

Since Jeremy Paxman retired his licking-piss-from-a-nettle face of disapproval from Newsnight in 2014, after 25 years roughing up politicians, there have been many who have tried to take his crown as the most ‘not angry but disappointed’ interviewer in British journalism.

Emma Barnett, in her progression from The Daily Telegraph to LBC onto BBC Radio 5Live and finally into the presenter’s chair at Woman’s Hour has been one of the most committed to the style. Her interviews feature levels of hectoring not seen since The Iliad and more gotchas than a Noel’s House Party compilation.

Presenters often say they are simply trying to ask the questions that their listeners/viewers would ask if they could; if Barnett believes that then she must picture her listeners as a batallion of the sort of people who leave ‘polite’ notes on car windscreens and exist in an almost permanent state of anger about bin collections and the Christmas decorations that still haven’t come down at No. 33.

Last week, Barnett interviewed Zara Mohammed, a 29-year-old charities consultant and law graduate, who is the first woman to be elected Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. It proved to be a bruising experience for Mohammed as Barnett put her in a verbal headlock over the number of ‘female imams’ in Britain:

Barnett: How many female imams are there in the UK at the moment? Just because I presume we’ll get to this more, of course, but representing, of course, women as you will do as part of this, how many do we have in Britain?

Mohammed: I mean, I think, again, I’m not… I wouldn’t have a clue on these numbers, because my role is making sure that we include our affiliates, particularly women, in the work that we are doing and in making sure that where our structures as well as the work we do are truly representative. So I think that, you know…

Barnett: Sorry, you don’t know, that’s fine if you don’t know, but do we have female imams in this country?

Mohammed: I mean, again, it’s not… Are you referring to chaplains? Are you referring to women that lead prayer? What are you referring to? I think…

Barnett: You tell me. I’m genuinely intrigued to know. Of course, female priests have been around for some time. We’ve also seen the advent of female rabbis in this country. What is the picture for women leading prayer in Britain, in Muslim communities?

Mohammed: Well, I think my role isn’t really to adjudicate or examine that part of spirituality. I think where women want to make those choices… these are all religious discussions/ as the Muslim Council of Britain…

Barnett: Of course, it was just, I thought as the Muslim Council of Britain has played such an important role in getting the number of Muslims, for instance, added to the census. I mean that was done at the start of the century so we actually knew how many Muslims there were. Do we have female imams?

Mohammed: I think what’s really important for the Muslim Council of Britain, the work that we do is actually that it’s not about defining or going into these types of questions regarding spirituality but actually looking at how we can benefit our communities, especially given the pandemic and given the role that everybody needs to be playing, you know…

Barnett: And we will get to the pandemic, it’s just quite striking that you can’t, sort of, answer that question. I recognise it’s not a religious or spiritual role.

Mohammed: I don’t think that’s within the parameters and responsibilities of my role, particularly as, you know, the first elected female representative…

Barnett: I would have asked a man! But I’m asking you because you’re here…

Flattened down to text, the exchange loses Barnett’s tendencious tone and Mohammed’s increasing discomfort with the line of questioning.

Before I even get into analysing the content of the interview, it’s worth noting that the exchange was the one that Woman’s Hour chose to clip and share to social media. It’s a segment in which Barnett dominates the conversation and her interviewee, who could’ve have been questioned more kindly about becoming a pioneer in her community, was forced onto the ropes. Woman’s Hour clearly thought that Barnett’s gotcha trap worked and wanted to show off the results.

Having asked the question and received an answer from Mohammed, regardless of whether she found it unsatisfactory, Barnett should have moved on after the follow-up. It was clear that Mohammed didn’t want to discuss that particular topic any further and she’s not a politician accountable to the public or a criminal trying to evade responsibility for her crimes; she’s the democratically-elected leader of a representative body that speaks for a broad range of Muslim organisations. There was plenty of heat in the exchange but very little light.

It was clear that Barnett had decided to focus on the question of female imams during her interview preparation and was not going to be easily diverted from that. The phrasing of her aside about the Muslim Council of Britain and the 2000 Census was also instructive — “I mean that was done at the start of the century so we actually knew how many Muslims there were…” — there is ‘we’ (Barnett and her listeners) and ‘you’ (Mohammed and the Muslims she represents).

What you also miss when you simply read the transcript is how often Barnett talked over and interrupted her guest, as well as the unctuous and patronising tone she switches into when eh says, “It’s just quite striking that you can’t, sort of, answer that question.” That’s editorialising of the kind that Barnett specialises in, an aside for the listener to give them a steer as to how they should respond to the spectable. It’s aided by the various masks of incredulity Barnett pulls when an interviewee displeases her.

The Gotcha Interview is designed to trip up the interviewee rather than reveal what they believe. Barnett’s questioning was in the heritage of those moments where a presenter asks a politician how much a pint of milk is then guffaws when they answer incorrectly, but it was far worse in this case. It was as though she were presenting BBC One’s hit new quiz show How Misogynist Is Your Religion? with the answer on every card reading: “Yes, we know the others are quite bad, but Islam’s the worst, right?”

How female Popes have there been1 How many female Chief Rabbis of orthodox Judaism? These questions wouldn’t get asked of a woman leading a Catholic organisation or an orthodox Jewish woman, despite Barnett’s claim that she was asking what she would have asked anyone man or woman. The “It’s fine if you don’t know” was the cherry on top of the whole tasteless cake. It meant, of course, the very opposite: It’s revealing that you don’t know and I will keep on with this line of questioning in the hope that you crack.

I’m sure that this newsletter will bring out the same ‘cute hoor’ contrarians I’ve encountered on Twitter, who will ignore the context of the interview and the racism and discrimination experienced by Muslims, especially Muslim women, in the UK to say, “Well, Emma was just asking questions, what’s wrong with that?”

There’s nothing wrong with asking questions when those questions come from a position of good faith. There is nothing wrong with asking questions when you are willing to listen and genuinely want to engage with the answers given. But this interview was done in bad faith, just as the clip was shared in bad faith, putting the focus on a tense exchange rather than presenting an interview in which Mohammed’s positions were heard with even a modicum of respect.

I can think of a hundred more interesting, challenging, and aposite questions to put to the first female head of the Muslim Council of Britain. But then I’m not the presenter of Woman’s Hour, hired because of my history of hard-hitting questioning such as, “Would you nationalise sausages?” (And let’s not forget the hot mic scandal from Barnett’s first week in the job)

In fact, when I interview people I have the wild idea that finding out what they think is more important than defeating them with my superior opinions.

It’ll never catch on.

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Yes, yes, I know about the (probably fictional) Pope Joan.