ID: I read that you were tutored by Vince Cable at university.

AN: Only briefly, in my final year when I was doing political economy and political science at the University of Glasgow. Vince arrived from Oxford to do his PhD at the department of political economy and he did handle some of the tutorials that I had to go to.

Does that explain your aggressive nature when interviewing him? You're the only interviewer that's ever actually properly questioned him. Everyone else regards him as a God.

He wasn't the most exciting of tutors, I have to admit. He was very Labour in those days. He went on to become a Labour councillor in Glasgow. I thought it was time, since the Liberals were playing for the big time, to treat them seriously and treat them the way we do everybody else. And none more so than Vince Cable who so often had been treated by the media not as a politician seeking power but as a pundit. No one ever asked Vince: "Why are you arguing that?" They always said: "What do you think of that?" We treated him like a journalist and that helped his stature to grow. So I decided it was time to treat him as a politician seeking power like any other. All of the media has been culpable in treating him too much like an impartial pundit. When he's treated in the same way as we would treat Alistair Darling or George Osborne, I do think you see a different Vince Cable.

How would you characterise your interview style?

Some have said it's aggressive. I don't think it's aggressive so much as desperately trying to get them to answer the question. The questions I ask are quite straightforward. They're not long-winded and most of them can be answered with a yes or no. Sometimes people criticise me for being rude or interrupting too much.

When you have a particular politician on the programme and you've interviewed them before, do you change your interview style because you know what you're going to get?

Yes. You try to cut them off at the pass. By now you know what the stock answers are going to be to difficult questions so you try to frame the question in a way that allows for that. I have to say it still doesn't result in getting very clear answers. It's really frustrating to try and get clear answers from politicians. I came close to losing it with Douglas Alexander. The idea that Peter Hain and Ed Balls were not sending a massive neon sign saying: "Look, if you can beat a Tory by voting Lib Dem, do that." For him to come on to the programme and deny they were saying that was, for me, a low point of honesty in the campaign.

Particularly in an interview like that, are there any points where you feel you have to slightly pull your punches because you're on the BBC?

You cannot, unless it is demonstrably true, say: "Why are you lying to me?" That's probably unacceptable for the BBC. In the Alexander case, by the technical letter of the law of what they had said, in a sense he was right. But we all knew, in a grown-up world, what they were really saying. To accuse someone of lying is a pretty big step. But I have no doubt that Mr Alexander knew that day he was being less than honest with me, which is not the important thing. But he was being less than honest with the viewers. Viewers were as angry as I was with him.

Yours is about the only programme now on television where somebody is questioned for more than ten minutes. Is it because TV people think viewers have the attention span of a flea?

Correct. It baffles me why Straight Talk isn't run on BBC2 rather than just on the news channel. We think we're now dealing with the MTV generation, the generation that's been brought up on the two-and-a-half minute pop video. Everything on TV has to have pace and constant movement and constant changes. And of course that's true if you're talking about something where you want to get a mega audience. But if you want something that gets a decent audience and a serious discourse, I still think there's an audience for that. There are so many platforms that the BBC has now. And it's cheap television too.

Even with your fee.

[Laughs] Even with my fee it's still pretty cheap television.

Which of the three programmes do you get most out of?

This Week is fun. It has to be different because we come off the back of the network news and then an hour of Question Time, which means we've had an hour-and-a-half of traditional mainstream current affairs. John Lloyd from the Financial Times complains that This Week is too cheeky and irreverent and gets politicians to do silly things. But after 90 minutes of current affairs, you can't then give people another hour of mainstream current affairs. You have to think of a different way of doing it and that's what we've tried to do. The Daily Politics is the one that I enjoy most because it's straightforward politics. We've imported some of the irreverence and humour from This Week into the Daily Politics and that's just happened over time.

Tags: Andrew Neill, In conversation, Issue 24