Interview: Mehdi Hasan, author, Win Every Argument
The British-American journalist talks about how it’s become tougher to get serving politicians and officials to talk on camera, the preparation required to appear effortless on TV, connecting with audiences, fighting Islamophobia, and how to be a better listener and speaker
You’ve made a career out of arguing, interviewing, and debating on television. How difficult is it to elicit responses from serving government officials and ministers?
The serving minister or official in recent years has become much cagier and much more cautious in on-the-record and, especially, on-camera interviews. These figures tend to be advised and surrounded by an army of professional spin doctors and media managers, who prep them and brief them, and send them into a TV studio armed with prescripted and super-safe talking points. So it has indeed become a challenge for those of us who conduct political interviews for a living to find a way around those talking points: to put the ministers and officials on the spot, to corner them with a forensic question, to push them into a concession or admission.
But with the right combination of preparation and persistence, it can be done: in December 2015, my interview with BJP official Ram Madhav grabbed the headlines after I pushed him into admitting that he personally supported the reunification of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Madhav had to later walk back those remarks. In March 2019, my interview with ex-Blackwater CEO Erik Prince went viral after I pushed him into admitting he had met with members of the Trump campaign at Trump Tower during the 2016 election campaign – something he had failed to mention under oath in front of Congress.
How important is practice, preparation, and research before the interview and debates are conducted? How does it help in improving the quality of the interviews and the information that can be extracted from tough, unyielding subjects?
These days, there is a widely held assumption that public speaking is a skill you either have or don’t have. Many people watch those of us who regularly appear onstage or on TV and assume that we’re winging it, delivering zingers and mic drops off the cuff. It all comes so naturally to us, the thinking goes; no need for practice, training, or preparation. How I wish that were true! But it just isn’t. When I deliver a 10 or 15 minute address at an event, that’s all the audience sees or thinks about. But what they won’t see is how much time went into that speech in the days, weeks, or months prior. The same with my interviews: my team and I often spend days researching a future guest’s views and opinions, their past statements and actions, and even try and watch and read as many of their previous interviews as possible. We role-play beforehand; we “steelman” the opposing arguments; we dig for “receipts.”
So I cannot overstate the importance of practice and preparation. To quote the CEO and communications consultant Somers White, “90 percent of how well the talk will go is determined before the speaker steps on the platform.”
Any interesting examples or anecdotes you can share from some tough interviews and debates you’ve conducted in the UK or US media?
In March 2016, I interviewed the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, inside the Saudis’ permanent mission at the UN, for my Al Jazeera English show Up Front. We discussed the horrific civil war in Syria and Saudi Arabia’s support for anti-Assad rebels. Did the Saudis want to see an elected government in Syria if President Assad was toppled from power? “Well, yes,” replied the ambassador, “that’s the process that we hope will take place in Syria.” I then asked Al-Mouallimi why he was “okay with an elected government in Syria but not an elected government in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi officials are rarely pressed by interviewers on the lack of democracy inside the kingdom and the ambassador wasn’t pleased with my question, claiming without evidence that the Saudi people were “happy” and “content” with their autocratic system of government. Here is the rest of that particular exchange (quoted in the book):
Al-Mouallimi: “I am saying is that if there was a way by which you could ask the common people in the street, anonymously, privately ...”
Me: “There is. It’s called voting.”
Al-Mouallimi: “Well, [pause] voting along the lines of Western democracy is not necessarily...
Me: “No, along the lines of whatever you want in Syria.”
Al-Mouallimi: “Okay, well. [Pause] Even that is not the solution for [pause] a system of government.”
I was able to put the ambassador on the defensive by citing his own (earlier) words against him – but also by gently leading him in a direction that he would instantly regret! And, in the process, I produced a very unique, very watchable, very viral interview.
Oh, and I also made it out of the Saudi mission alive.
While arguing or debating, how important is it to know more about the nature of the audience you’re trying to win over or convince with your arguments?
Anytime an audience is present, you cannot afford to ignore them or take them for granted. The audience is the key. Even if you’re in a one-on-one debate, they are the people who have been rightly described as “judge and jury.” They are who you’re trying to convince, persuade, and bring on board with your arguments.
In fact, it is difficult to overstate the power and impact of having an audience on your side, knowing they agree with you, seeing them nodding along to your statements. It gives you an edge over your opponent. In my view, the audience is the equivalent of what military strategists like to call a “force multiplier” — it is an added element that boosts the effect of the power you can deploy, while at the same time also curbing your opponent’s.
So you need to know who will be in front of you – their age, race, gender, professional backgrounds, and more. You have to research the people you’re trying to win over, and also think long and hard about how you plan to connect with them. Because, too often, we put all our time and energy into defeating our opponent in an argument. But in doing so we ignore the audience — when the members of the audience are the true judge of who has won and who has lost.
“An audience is never wrong,” remarked the movie director Billy Wilder. “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark — that is critical genius.”
You write in the book that in order to win arguments, you need to appeal to people’s hearts and not just their heads. How difficult is that especially when the audience is reluctant to agree with your arguments?
When you’re looking to win an argument, you’re trying to guide your listeners to make a decision. You want them to choose you over your opponent. And that choice requires an appeal to feelings and emotions. The heart tends to steer the head. And if it’s heart versus head, pure logic is probably losing at least nine times out of 10.
But here is what’s so interesting: as Aristotle pointed out over 2000 years ago, making an emotional appeal is actually one of the best ways to win over a reluctant audience. By telling a story, or sharing a personal anecdote, by revealing your “human” side, you can connect with sceptics in the crowd. Remember: audiences tend to bond with you, not with your argument! So don’t just fire off a blizzard of statistics or studies; don’t treat your audience as a bunch of Spocks from Star Trek. Help them feel their way towards your desired conclusion.
How important are facts when it comes to debates, and are facts alone sufficient in a post-truth world where facts are sought to be twisted, and misinformation and fake news are rampant on social media?
I understand why so many people like to claim or assume that factual evidence doesn’t matter anymore — that it’s impossible to build a well-founded argument that has the power to persuade people. Social media has made the spread of misinformation much easier – and much faster! But I haven’t yet given up on the importance of facts — or fact-checking.
In 2017, a study of more than 10,000 people published in the journal Political Behavior found that “by and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments.” The study’s authors noted how, presented in the right way, the facts can still “prevail.”
Being confident, or telling stories, or engaging in emotional appeals only goes so far. Pathos often can trump logos but emotions on their own aren’t enough. You need to have a solid factual base for what you’re arguing — or you’re going to get outwitted and outmanoeuvred by someone who can connect emotions and evidence. To win the argument, you’ll need both: feelings and facts.
How do you deal with tough subjects like serving officials, past and present ministers, intelligence officials, etc. when it comes to eliciting desired information from them during interviews, especially when they tend to dodge and evade specific questions and instead question the premises of your arguments?
My advice to fellow interviewers is: don’t budge! When my guests try and dodge and evade my questions, I make sure I have follow-ups. I make sure I don’t “move on.”
You’ve often challenged Islamophobia and stereotypical representation of Muslims and the Muslim world in several debates on television over the years. How important is it to rationally challenge Islamophobia especially when it comes from serving government officials, ministers and those holding responsible positions?
Islamophobia has been on the rise across the world in recent years and it seems to be a common thread linking far-right and authoritarian movements in different corners of the globe. In many ways, Muslim minority communities have been the canaries in the neo-fascist coalmine. So it is incumbent upon those of us who have mainstream media platforms, who are able to interview people in power, to challenge the ongoing and dangerous normalization of anti-Muslim bigotry. What has fascinated me as an interviewer is that many prominent ideologues on the right who have pushed an anti-Muslim agenda – whether it was the late Israeli academic Robert Wistrich or the former Trump official General Michael Flynn – try and distance themselves from it when they appear on my show and are subjected to sustained and critical questioning.
Arguments and political debates and interviews on news channels, especially in countries like India often get reduced to shouting matches, which don’t make any sense. The anchors also do most of the shouting. How does that damage people’s trust in the media and its credibility?
I am a big believer in the power of argument and debate. I even wrote a book about it! I happen to agree with the nineteenth-century French essayist Joseph Joubert, who is said to have remarked: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” Nonetheless, there is a huge difference between good faith and bad faith disagreements. Much of our media and our politics – in the United States, the UK, and, yes, India – has been hijacked by bad faith actors engaging in “shouting matches” that masquerade as “debates.”
One of the reasons I wrote Win Every Argument is to remind people what good faith argument and debate should look like. Those of us who care about our public spaces and public squares need to learn to speak out against those who have been corroding and degrading those spaces and squares. We need to adopt rhetorical strategies and countermeasures that are tried and tested.
Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.