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‘Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Absurdity of the Modern News Interview’

Now, more than ever, we need people willing to verbally tear down the set and bring reality into the play of broadcasting, writes Reverend Joe Haward

Boris Johnson being interviewed by Andrew Marr on the BBC. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Breaking the Fourth WallThe Absurdity of the Modern News Interview

Now, more than ever, we need people willing to verbally tear down the set and bring reality into the play of broadcasting, writes Reverend Joe Haward

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“All the world’s a stage” Shakespeare’s comedy play, As You Like It, begins. “And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances.” Switch on the news cycle on any given morning, and Shakespeare’s words strike a prophetic cry, as we are witnesses to a finely-tuned production that bears no resemblance to the reality most of us inhabit.

Politicians and presenters parry one another in highly choreographed set pieces, each of them fully aware of their role within the scene; none of them willing to stray from the boundaries set in place. 

One of the stage players is the aggressive questioner, talking tough to a government minister; another might fill the role of the clueless MP, avoiding every question with a salad of words. Perhaps another is the ideologue, committed to their latest political move, regardless of the criticism levelled against it.

Whatever the role, all that matters is the script and stagings, with each person fulfilling their part in the spoken and unspoken rules of the game. 

It is remarkable, then, when a rogue player steps upon the stage and refuses to stay within the clearly defined parameters. These people are willing to break through the ‘fourth wall’ and change the rules – however briefly.

The Fourth Wall

The fourth wall was an idea developed in the 18th Century by Denis Diderot, who believed that if you ignored the audience, the performers could more closely imitate reality. As such, the audience became a kind of voyeur – watching the play and interpreting it, yet the story itself was unable to comprehend the existence of the audience. 

While once reserved for stage, television and film, the political landscape has transformed to such a degree that it quite often now operates in the same way – like a story unfolding before our eyes, oblivious to the existence of the people watching.

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There is a disconnect between voters and the political establishment whereby the common person feels unable to engage, not only through disenfranchisement, but also a suspicion of the democratic process and feelings that the political class do not represent the communities which they supposedly serve. 

What’s more, as we watch the politicians and media personalities engage in this seemingly choreographed charade, we despair at the lies and disinformation that is uttered, with such regular abandon, without any sustained challenge. There are times when a lie is allowed to be said, alongside the truth, as though the lie is simply a matter of opinion that must be equally considered. 

How refreshing, then, when the fourth wall is broken, and someone calls out the absurdity of it all. 

Breaking Through

In 2016, during a live EU Referendum debate, a woman named Yasmin said to then Prime Minister David Cameron: “I’m voting Remain but nothing to do with you guys – I hate the Tories. I just want to say you’ve f**ked every f**king thing up in this country. You’ve screwed students, you’ve screwed the disabled, the vulnerable, I mean, seriously.” It was a moment where someone broke the rules of what was deemed acceptable and pushed reality into the existence of all who were watching. 

More recently, on BBC’s Newsnight Alastair Campbell and Alex Phillips, the former MEP for the Brexit Party, were discussing Brexit. Campbell lost his temper as Phillips continued to verbalise several lies about Brexit and then pointed his finger at presenter Victoria Derbyshire, saying: “You bring these people on, you never challenge them. You let them talk utter rubbish about Brexit. And it’s happened on the BBC for year after year.” 

Again, on Newsnight, there was the time Mick Lynch repeatedly called Policing Minister Chris Philp a liar, refusing to allow his narrative to be heard as an equal version of events to Lynch’s. 

These moments somehow break into the viewer’s reality and find a way to make us feel involved – reassuring us that this play is not happening without us. It pulls down the staging and reveals what is really happening, hijacking the play with a moment of authenticity. 

We Must Resist this Exercise inHypernormalisation

During an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy in 2014, comedian Richard Ayoade expertly highlighted the absurdity of the celebrity interview, refusing to engage in the usual ways. Near the end, referencing Guru-Murthy’s volatile interview of the Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino, Ayoade said: “The interesting bit [about that interview] was when [Tarantino] said ‘this interview is an advert for my movie’… He was outraged that he couldn’t advertise his film.” 

Essentially, Ayoade was breaking the fourth wall of the interview, reminding everyone of the unspoken rules that exist and how, whether you’re a politician or a movie director, the goal of the interview is simply to sell your product. It is all designed as a drama in which we, the audience, should have no part to play.

But now, more than ever, we need to be involved.

What is required are people willing to verbally tear down the set and bring reality into the play; people who have the courage to usher authenticity onto the stage – to change the scripted dynamics that endlessly beam out day after day. 

Are there people out there, invited onto these shows, who can wake us up from the conventions and falsehoods of modern debate and news programmes? Are there pioneers who can refuse their cues, step through the fourth wall, and bring us all into the truth we so desperately need? 

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